OCEAN CITY, N.J. - On a scale of 1 to 10, Diane Wieland is rating Memorial Day weekend 2013 along the southern stretch of the Jersey Shore a solid 8.
And that's a pretty good number for a tourist region that seven months ago was reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy - and that a mere seven days ago was still holding its collective breath wondering whether visitors would return.
"I think a lot of people in Cape May County were waiting to exhale. . . . We just didn't know what was going to happen," said Wieland, who, as director of the county's Tourism Department, is in charge of tracking the region's lucrative vacation industry. "Now we're breathing a sigh of relief."
Tourism in New Jersey is a $40 billion-a-year business - the third-largest industry behind pharmaceuticals and chemicals - that employs about 500,000 people, or 10 percent of the state's workforce. The four Shore counties - Atlantic, Cape May, Ocean, and Monmouth - garner about 60 million visitors a year and account for nearly half of the total tourism revenue, according to state officials.
So this unofficial start to summer - the traditional salute-to-veterans holiday that has evolved here into a chance for visitors to dip their toes in the still-chilly water before launching their vacation-season siege - is a litmus test, of sorts, for businesses and municipalities counting on the next three months to make their bottom line.
"Memorial Day weekend kind of sets the tone for the summer," said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce. "And from what we saw this past weekend, we think it's going to be a good one."
Gillian said the three-day holiday weekend is nearly always "sweatshirt weather" rather than ideal for bathing suits. This year was no different. Rain prevailed for much of Friday, followed by gale-force winds on Saturday that forced the Cape May Lewes Ferry to suspend service between New Jersey and Lewes, Del. Much-improved conditions finally moved in Sunday and Monday.
There was an upside to the clouds and chill that dominated the first half of the weekend: They helped boost retail and restaurant business throughout the region, creating heavy foot traffic along boardwalks in Ocean City and Wildwood, Wieland said. Downtown shopping districts, such as those in Ocean City, Avalon, and Stone Harbor, reported brisk sales.
"We had a very good weekend. . . . They came back," said Bill Baumler, owner of the Potomac Bead Co. in Ocean City. He was among the downtown merchants keeping fingers crossed after Sandy pushed three feet of floodwater onto Asbury Avenue on Oct. 29. Most businesses there quickly rebuilt - then waited for business to return.
Baumler and others worried that televised images of Sandy's mass devastation - which has some areas in New Jersey's northern beach regions still rebuilding - would keep tourists from coming back to such places as Ocean City, which suffered comparatively less damage.
But Wieland said "commerce is holding strong" in the region, with about 80 percent of Cape May County's 19,000 hotel and motel units booked this past weekend. The county is also home to about 15,000 campsites.
Much of the county's economy also depends heavily on summer home rentals and repeat business from its second-home-owner market. Of the county's 120,000 dwellings, 45,350 are second homes, meaning that property owners have declared their permanent residency elsewhere, Wieland said.
Of those second homes, about 20,000 are offered as rentals by their owners. The greatest concentration of summer rentals is in Ocean City, with about 3,330 units, officials said.
Wieland said her office has noticed a trend that has occurred over the last several years: Visitors book their visits only three to four weeks in advance rather than three to four months beforehand, as they once did.
"I think it has to do with several factors, with the economy being one. But it's also that people are so over-scheduled these days, and families are tending to wait to figure out a date when everyone can be all together before they go ahead and book," Wieland said.
So her office and other tourism officials in the state have begun to rely heavily on other factors in forecasting projections for the year, including online surveys and visitor questionnaires. She said she and others were buoyed by a recent survey conducted by her office that indicated as many as 87 percent of previous visitors said they would be back this summer.
Joyce Santos, 46, of Bellmawr, said she is among that legion.
"We wouldn't have missed this . . . we waited all winter to be in Ocean City for Memorial Day weekend," Santos said as she strolled on Ocean City's newest recreation venue along the Route 52 causeway. A passive recreation area for walking, biking, fishing, and boating was created along the route as part of a $396 million state Transportation Department road and bridge replacement project. It affords stunning views of the wetlands and Great Bay.
"This is great and an example of why we keep coming back here summer after summer," Santos said.