CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — As the spent skyrocket shells were still being collected after a packed Independence Day weekend, a county report released Tuesday indicates Cape May County’s tourism economy is no longer just a summertime proposition.
Relying on data from the occupancy taxes collected each year, the county’s Department of Tourism says more visitors are coming earlier in the spring and staying later into the fall.
The numbers don’t show the county has exactly become a year-round resort, but do make the case that it is now a destination seven months a year, rather than just three months in the summer.
June, July and August remain the main attraction, by far, but county officials say there are steady visits from April through October.
“Data from the pre- and post-summer season months over the past decade shows the steady growth and expansion of the tourism season from three to seven months,” said Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s director of tourism.
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Numbers from the New Jersey Treasury on occupancy taxes also show increases in the dead of winter.
Summer travel is underway across the globe, but a full recovery from two years of coronavirus could last as long as the pandemic itself. Interviews by The Associated Press in 11 countries this month show that the most passionate travelers are flocking to locales like the French Riviera, Amsterdam and the American Midwest. But even as safety restrictions fall, places like Israel, India and Rome are reporting only fractions of the record-setting tourism of 2019. For them, a full recovery isn’t forecast until at least 2024. China, once the world’s biggest source of tourists, remains closed per its “zero-COVID” policy. That’s holding down the rebound in many countries.
“Growth during the winter months of January, February, and March has grown steadily compared to previous years,” Wieland said. “The five winter months, November through March can’t compare to the revenue generated during the summer but does indicate a healthy and a promising expansion that can lean towards a nine-month to year-round tourism economy.”
Visitors pay a tax, averaging 5%, on hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast inns. The amount raised from that tax offers an insight into the county’s economy, broken down by month and year.
Overnight visitors to the county spend an average of $374 a day. In 2021, the occupancy tax was well above previous years, and 2022 seems on track to beat that total according to recent numbers.
Wieland cited year-round attractions, such as ecotourism and the county’s breweries and wineries, as well as the efforts by resort towns to offer activities throughout the year.
“Cape May has moved closer to a year-round destination with the other resorts expanding the season through year-round special events. The Wildwoods Convention Center continues to generate shoulder season events that greatly impact winter visitors, and Ocean City has a high number of second homeowners who return year-round and support local businesses and events,” Wieland said.
Last year, the occupancy tax in Cape May County brought in more than $16 million, well up from $13 million in 2019, and this year, the numbers are also up for each month reported so far. The most recent report was from April, which also saw an increase over last year, at $641,567 compared with $430,513 in 2021.
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These numbers come against the backdrop of 2020, when COVID-19 and the associated restrictions meant a terrible year for the tourist economy. The same occupancy tax numbers show the county brought in about one one-hundredth the money in April 2020 as it did the same month in 2019.
The county reported a steep recovery. After a decline of tourism expenditures of more than 21% over the course of 2020, the county economy mostly returned in 2021, officials reported.
Over the course of one year, the countywide tourism industry regained $1.2 billion, nearly all of the $1.5 billion lost from the shutdowns and restrictions imposed during the pandemic, according to data from county officials. The county also saw an increase in visitors of more than 100,000 over 2019, and more than 2 million more visitors over 2020, with a record 10.3 million.
“The recovery was not solely a result of the substantial growth during July and August, but also included the fall and early winter as well as early spring growth, per the latest occupancy tax data reported,” said Wieland. “Cape May County saw considerable shoulder season growth which played a part in the overall recovery.”
Data from the pre- and post-summer season months over the past decade shows a steady growth and expansion of the tourism season, she said.
“Continued expansion of the tourism season is possible; but dependent on the ability of local businesses to open longer, open earlier or stay open year-round, and we can’t control with marketing” Wieland said.
New Jersey lawmakers have passed a record $50.6 billion budget, sending the plan with billions in more spending compared to last year to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk. The budget is 9% bigger than last year’s and comes courtesy of flush state coffers and rosier-than-expected tax returns. It also comes as Democrats who control the Legislature and governorship aim at making the state more affordable. The state treasury’s tax receipts might be bountiful now but economic unease is on legislators’ minds as they socked away $6 billion in surplus. The budget committee chairman called it a record amount that shows the state’s preparation to “protect taxpayers from potential downturns.”
There are other factors. Expanding the year will require businesses to stay open year-round. Wieland pointed to labor concerns, when finding enough workers is already a problem in the summer, and some existing businesses are not equipped to operate in the winter.
According to county officials, the post-COVID traveler is looking for experiences that include ecotourism and agritourism that are part of the cultural tourism trend they say is changing the vacation needs and wants of travelers globally. Sustainable and nature-based attractions such as birding, hiking and trails bring visitors back to the county every year.
Gerald Thornton, who leads the Cape May County Board of Commissioners, said the occupancy tax collection rates show record numbers of county visits so far in 2022.
“Tracking this data clearly demonstrates the fact that the tourism season is expanding on both sides of the summer months,” Thornton said. “This is also an indication of the success of the Tourism Department’s expanded marketing efforts to extend and accelerate the traditional summer season beyond the growth experienced during the pre-COVID years.”
Thornton cited small business owners. Although Cape May County tourism is a multibillion-dollar concern, most of the county’s jobs are in small businesses rather than large chains.
“Year after year they defy the odds, work hard, and reinvent themselves to meet the challenges of the fragile tourism industry,” Thornton said. “Our county’s economy rests on their shoulders and our success is due to their tenacity and business acumen.”
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