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Sunday, July 21, 2024

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NJ Tourism Director: CMCo Visitor Spending Down 21% in ’20

Jeff Vasser

By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – The Cape May County Chamber of Commerce held a virtual presentation May 20 to look back at what the pandemic did to tourism in 2020 and forward to how state and county officials are planning to respond in 2021.
The bottom line was that Cape May County did better than expected in 2020, but the hit to the county’s economy was significant. Projections from the presentations were that it might be 2023 before New Jersey tourism spending returns to the record levels it achieved in 2019.
State Context
Jeff Vasser, executive director, state Division of Travel and Tourism, gave the chamber’s audience a sense of how bad the 2020 experience was across the state. 
Vasser said tourism jobs were down 31%, visitors’ trips to the Garden State fell 27%, and tourism spending dropped from $46.4 billion, in 2019, to $29.4 billion, in 2020. He credited Cape May County with the state’s best performance, a loss of $1.4 billion, or 21%, in visitor spending.
He shared the state economic projections calling for an uptick in 2021, but with a total return to 2019 levels not expected until 2023. All projections assumed the pandemic in 2021 remains under relative control.
Vasser said the state budget for travel and tourism increased, with new funding helping to fuel what he termed a “recovery campaign.” The new funding is going to increase participation in conferences and trade shows, website improvements and sponsorships. The largest chunk – $5.3 million – will be allocated to bolster advertising.
The pandemic disproportionately hit travel and tourism in 2020, especially in leisure and hospitality. According to Vasser, tourism declined from a position where it was the state’s fifth-highest employer, in 2019, to 11th, in 2020.
Cape May County
Diane Wieland, director of tourism, Cape May County, followed Vasser with a focus on the county. As Wieland noted, the 2020 tourist season started poorly and could’ve been worse.
According to Wieland, a strong July and August and record-setting September and October kept the county’s loss in tourism dollars to 21%. Yet, Wieland was quick to point to the significant damage done to the county economy.
She noted that in 2020, one in five people who visited in 2019 did not return. The pandemic wiped out gains in tourism spending over a multi-year period. 
“It took us back to 2013 levels,” Wieland said. 
While all parts of the economy felt the loss, Wieland said retail took the biggest hit.
Using occupancy tax numbers as an indicator, Wieland showed how 2020 began on a strong note, with January and February experiencing increases over 2019. 
July and August were stronger than the preceding months, but were also still down when compared to 2019. It was the record numbers in September and October that allowed those months to exceed the tax revenue from pre-pandemic 2019.
Wieland pointed to an unexpected silver lining in the pandemic – a strong uptick in the real estate market, with significant increases in property transfers. 
A robust market in single-family homes fit with survey results, showing the number one reason visitors came to the county in 2020 was “safety and security.” 
The data suggests the county and its resorts became a place to ride out the pandemic, and thatalso made it an attractive place to purchase homes.
Wieland also pointed to a 30% increase in the rental bookings coming through online sources, like Airbnb. That increase is providing added momentum to county municipalities that are busy looking at how they should respond to this transient space marketplace.
Before the pandemic, 7% of county visitors came from Canada. With the border closed for most of 2020 and now into 2021, the county lost a reliable flow of tourists. 
Wieland said county campgrounds helped reduce the impact of that loss. The campgrounds did well in 2020, Wieland said, since they offered a way for visitors to enjoy travel in an environment in which they had significant control over their exposure to the virus.
Wieland said it was important for county tourism officials to remain flexible in dealing with the continued uncertainties of Covid. She spoke of a focus on “outdoor activities, as our hook to generate interest.” Wieland said social media was still a key component of the county campaign.
The chamber’s YouTube channel has a recording of the presentation, which is available at https://bit.ly/3vmaZrf.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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