Ocean City’s beaches are a major part of Cape May County’s popularity among tourists.

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI and MADDY VITALE

Cape May County’s tourism industry remains a multibillion-dollar colossus attracting millions of visitors, but there are concerns about a slowdown in business that could represent the “new normal” in years to come.

Tourism spending in Cape May County rose by 4.1 percent in 2023 to $7.7 billion, compared to $7.4 billion in 2022. In another major sign of growth, the number of tourists increased by 1.8 percent to nearly 11.6 million visitors in 2023 compared to 11.4 million in 2022, according to a newly released report.

“When you take into consideration that the population of New Jersey is 9.2 million, that is a very impressive number,” Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland said of the 11.6 million visitors.

Overall, Cape May County ranked second in visitor spending among New Jersey’s 21 counties in 2023. Atlantic County, fueled by Atlantic City’s casinos, retained its traditional place as the top tourism draw in the state.

For 2023, Cape May County saw increases across all sectors and outpaced all other counties in the categories of food and beverage, retail and recreation, the county’s Department of Tourism revealed in a new report unveiled during a Cape May County Chamber of Commerce conference on Thursday.

Despite the increases in tourism overall, the report pointed to a slowdown in business in 2023 compared to the 11.9 percent level of growth in 2022. Heading into the summer of 2024, the report questioned whether slower growth represents a “new normal” for the tourism industry in years to come.

“Normal is the watchword for 2024 and, unfortunately, will include a continued slowdown like 2023. The ‘new normal’ will be a mix of recovery, innovation, and adaptation. The same old, same old will not bring visitors back or attract new ones,” the report concluded.

“Tourism has proven to be resilient, and the slowdown is not a sign of a weakened industry but an indicator of its strength as things begin to correct itself. Getting back to ‘normal’ will end up being something very different from the (pre-2020) pandemic ‘normal,’ and we are not there yet,” it added.

Wieland noted in an email Friday that the tourism industry was faced with a few challenges in 2023, including one being the end of “revenge travel.”

“That is the reference to the high number of travelers that took vacations after the COVID lockdowns. After 2021 and 2022 the pent-up demand seemed to be satisfied and travelers were not as anxious to get away. New travel trends have emerged and while travelers are still planning to take vacations, they are exchanging ‘stuff’ for experiences and are conscious of their footprint when planning their vacation,” Wieland explained.

One concerning trend for tourism in Cape May County are reports of vacation reservations being behind previous years, the report said.

In another trend, technology and demographics are major factors reshaping the tourism industry.

“Technology is shortening the lead time for booking a vacation with the average time for reservations is 2-3 weeks out. While baby boomers tend to reserve farther, 2-3 months out and prefer human contact, online bookings continue to grow among younger vacation planners. Apps are the preferred tour guide for those seeking new experiences,” according to the report.

Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland points out a number of emerging trends in the travel industry. (Photo courtesy of Cape May County)

Wieland said the economy has also affected discretionary spending in the tourism industry. Overall, 47 percent of the visitors to Cape May County indicated in a survey that the uncertain economy has forced them to change vacation plans.

In addition, 60 percent of the survey’s respondents said they reduced their vacation spending in 2023. This will likely be the same for 2024, with 48 percent indicating that the economy will impact their 2024 vacations, Wieland pointed out.

However, Cape May County officials remain optimistic overall for tourism in the future based on the county’s strengths and attractions.

Wieland, for instance, noted that road trips are on the rise and Cape May County fits well within that trend as a “drive to” destination. There are 30 million people with a 300-mile radius or a tank of gas away, she said.

Cape May County offers pristine beaches, lush natural areas, diverse landscapes and a rich cultural heritage. The tourism report points to many opportunities for new adventures and a return to favorites, from beach escapes, nature-based activities, local culture and camping retreats.

The county fits into the emerging travel trends and can offer the 2024 traveler much of what they are looking for in a destination, the report says. Local culture or “local love” can be found throughout the Jersey Cape as visitors are looking for a welcoming and cozy feel with authentic experiences, local culture, charm and the warmth offered by family-owned businesses.

Among the top attractions in Cape May County that draw visitors year after year are the beaches, the boardwalks, shopping and restaurants. Other attractions include the Cape May County Park & Zoo, birding, cultural and historic attractions, eco-friendly activities such as nature walks and hikes, water sports, camping, wineries, breweries and distilleries and farm markets.

While overall trends continue toward the growing popularity of the road trip to the shore, there is also a desire among tourists to bring the family pets along. Cape May County has thought of that and there are pet-friendly accommodations in shore destinations to include dogs or cats to come along for the vacation, the report says.

The entire Cape May County Tourism Impact Report follows at https://ocnjdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/2024-Tourism-Economic-Impact-Report.pdf

The Ocean City Boardwalk and other boardwalks in Cape May County continue to be a major draw for tourism.
Categories: Downbeach

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.