By MADDY VITALE and DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Cape May County came roaring back from the COVID-19 pandemic for a record-high $7.4 billion in direct tourism spending in 2022 and signs are already pointing to another banner summer this year.
The county enjoyed a record number of visitors who were attracted to the beaches, boardwalks, restaurants, shopping, ecotourism, the Cape May County Park & Zoo, historic sites and wineries.
“Visitors are learning we are more than a beach destination,” Cape May County Board of Commissioners Director Leonard Desiderio said at the county’s tourism conference Tuesday. “Fifty-five percent of our visitors last year took two or more trips to Cape May County.”
He said the 2023 tourism season is already seeing strong numbers and appears to be heading for another record year.
“Memorial Day was one of the best, and reservations booked at our hotels, motels and campgrounds are indicating a great summer,” said Desiderio, who is also mayor of Sea Isle City.
Desiderio also noted that despite inflation challenges, “people want and need to travel and the Jersey Cape has what they want in a vacation destination.”
“Never has Cape May County seen such growth in visitor spending as we did in 2022,” he said. “Not only did we recover from the impacts of COVID, we surpassed 2019 in direct tourism spending by $500 million, recouping the losses of 2020 and 2021.”
Figures released at the conference highlighted the strong comeback the county made in 2022 in a broad array of economic and tourism categories.
Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland said visitors came in bigger numbers than ever and they spent on attractions, lodging, dining and more.
“Everything we lost in 2020 and 2021, we were able to recoup in 2022. That’s pretty amazing,” Wieland said.
Overall, Cape May County’s tourism spending increased from $6.6 billion in 2021 to $7.4 billion in 2022. Cape May County outpaced all other counties in food and beverage spending, retail, recreation and second home rentals in 2022, figures show.
Wieland said the sheer number of visitors showcases the love of Cape May County as a vacation destination.
She noted that New Jersey has a total population of 9.2 million residents. Underscoring the success of the tourism industry, there were 11.3 million visitors to Cape May County in 2022.
“We had more people come to Cape May County last year than the entire population of New Jersey,” she said.
In the past, a big chunk of visitors to Cape May County came from Canada. However, the U.S.-Canadian border was essentially closed off because of COVID in 2020 and 2021. Now that the border has reopened, Cape May County is seeing a return of Canadian tourists.
Wieland said Cape May County is “reconnecting” with the Canadian market and is telling Canadians, “Come on back. It’s better than before.”
Another growth area in the tourism market is coming from New York residents, who are learning that the county is not too far to travel for vacation. Wieland noted that another reason for the growth is the greater availability of rental properties in Cape May County compared to other counties closer to New York, such as Monmouth County.
Pennsylvania is the primary feeder market for Cape May County tourism. Thirty percent of the tourists come from Pennsylvania. New Jersey is second at 28 percent and New York third at 21 percent. The county is also seeing more Ohio and Connecticut tourists making Cape May County their vacation spot.
Wieland, who has been a county employee for 49 years, said there is one overwhelming theme to vacations in Cape May County – nostalgia.
“People want the whole nostalgia. Give the kids what I had. So much of it is the same – the boardwalk, the beaches, the nature trails. It is not reconstructed, it is restored. What we have here is authentic,” she said. “We didn’t have to rebuild. You restore and promote it and that’s what people want.”
Tourists also want to visit destinations that are familiar to them, Wieland said. Cape May County will continue with its “Escape to the Jersey Cape” tourism slogan to capitalize on the familiarity aspect.
As part of the rebuilding of the Cape May County tourism market, state Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, who represents the First Legislative District, said, “Protecting our shores, protecting your towns, that is what we should be promoting.”
State Sen. Michael Testa, also of the First Legislative District, spoke of the strength of Cape May County when it comes to working together to attract tourists.
“Obviously Cape May County, the entire economy, hedges on how well the tourism industry does,” Testa said.
He praised the cooperation between state, county and local officials and the business owners to boost the tourism industry.
“Obviously, what an amazing job Cape May County has done. One of the things I call Cape May County is the little county that could,” Testa said.
He noted that “despite everything that was stacked against Cape May County and the tourism industry” due to state COVID restrictions on business owners during the pandemic, Cape May County was able to prosper.
“In spite of all of that, Cape May County has rebounded” and the “Cape May County tourism industry was not only able to survive, but thrive,” Testa said.
Cape May County’s Tourism Economic Impact Report can be found at Post Covid Tourism Recovery (capemaycountynj.gov)