According to conventional wisdom, only bad weather can scuttle the Jersey Shore's $23 billion tourism economy.

But in an unconventional year, with the economy flagging and fuel prices inching toward $4 a gallon, even the old hands are wondering if clear skies and high temperatures can guarantee a boom summer at the beach.

"When I was a kid, they always used to say that the Shore's economy is depression-proof or inflation-proof," said Henry Glaser Jr., who co-owns Shriver's Salt Water Taffy in Ocean City and is in his 50s. His family has operated candy businesses on the Atlantic City and Ocean City boardwalks for more than 100 years.

"Every season, we wonder if that saying will pan out," Glaser said. And this year may be the ultimate test.

With a quarter of the U.S. population just a tank of gas away from the Jersey Shore, many in the local tourism industry believe hard times will work in their favor.

"I have a really good feeling about this summer," Jeanette Pipitone said last week in Wildwood Crest as she prepared the Aztec and American Safari motels for guests. She and her husband, Adamo, have owned the properties for nine years.

"Our booking numbers are equal to previous years," Pipitone said. "People are not giving up their summer vacations."

There is anxiety, however, that economic uncertainty could discourage day-trippers and may lead Shore loyalists to economize once they arrive.

"There is always some concern when you have a situation like record gas prices. Sometimes that works to our advantage," said Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism.

"But we are seeing a trend that people are staying for shorter stays," she acknowledged. With luck, Wieland said, those who forgo weeklong vacations will make a few daylong excursions instead.

Though AAA has predicted that slightly fewer people than last year will travel over Memorial Day weekend nationally - which would be the first decline in six years - "there is still an opportunity for a robust tourism season at the Shore," said David Weinstein, New Jersey spokesman for the group's Mid-Atlantic chapter.

"People may ultimately be looking for tourism options close to where they live," he said.

Already there is evidence of that sort of pragmatism.

"We came down here last year right before the season started, and we loved it," said Mark Green, 53, of Philadelphia, who spent last week in Ocean City with his wife, Susan.

"This year, we thought we might try Ocean City, Md., or maybe Myrtle Beach for a change," he said, "but we decided we could cut our costs significantly by just coming back down here."

Wieland said her office was directing more advertising and promotions toward such residents of the region.

Shore home rentals, motel and hotel bookings, and restaurant reservations have been encouraging, say real estate agents and business owners.

This year, AAA's annual Vacation Costs Survey ranked New Jersey as the 10th most expensive vacation spot in the country, with an average daily cost of $281 for two adults; the national average was $244. The good news, at least for tourists, is that while the price of just about everything has gone up for business owners, proprietors are loath to pass on the increases and jeopardize business.

"We really haven't had to offer anything special like gas cards or special deals to get people to book, but we really haven't raised our prices, either," said Marilyn Miller, who for 24 years has operated the Victoria Bed & Breakfast in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island.

Capt. Jeff Stewart, who has owned the Cape May Whale Watcher with his wife, Mary, for 31 years, has hiked the price of ecotours on his 110-foot vessel by $3, to $28, because of fuel costs.

"I didn't want to raise it, but I had no choice. The cost of operating the boat for a cruise has doubled," he said.

"We just had the best April we've ever had, so we think that people will still come back this summer and still spend money on a unique experience like ours," said Stewart, who invested tens of thousands of dollars this year in a new boat, the Spirit of Cape May, for dinner cruises and private parties.

Lisa Burke, who sells T-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains and other souvenirs on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, is taking no chances. She anticipates that her customers will have thinner wallets this summer.

"We've just been looking for cheaper and cheaper items," Burke said. People "don't want to put out the money. . . . They want to spend under $10 or $20 for something to take home."

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, which promotes year-round cultural and heritage tourism in Cape May, is taking a similarly proactive approach.

The nonprofit group has revamped its theme tours and added attractions, spokeswoman Margo Harvey said. About 240,000 people a year attend MAC events and visit the group's Emlen Physick Estate, billed as the resort's only Victorian house museum.

"We change the exhibits and the theme on the estate, and we try to create new tours like our Pirates and Shipwrecks trolley tour that is geared to children to bring in more visitors," Harvey said.

"Our new designer showhouse, which was really something different for us, was so successful last summer that we extended it into the holiday season, and we've brought it back again this year."

The key, Harvey said, is to keep things fresh.

"Even though gas prices are high, Cape May is unlike other locales in New Jersey which are all marketing to the same people we are."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.