WILDWOOD - Jersey Shore businesses and municipal leaders are heralding the state's plan to restore a national spring-summer tourism marketing campaign they say is critical to a successful season.
The Christie administration last spring eliminated funding for the Garden State's multimillion-dollar radio, television, newspaper, and Internet pitch to potential visitors.
The Division of Travel and Tourism will announce in March the launch of a multimedia campaign, Shawn Crisafulli, a Department of State spokesman, confirmed last week.
Details of the effort, including its cost and theme, will be revealed at the three-day Governor's Conference on Tourism to begin March 23 in Atlantic City, Crisafulli said.
"We're enthusiastic about the campaign," said Crisafulli, adding that the state would also introduce a vacation guide that highlights attractions throughout New Jersey.
That was welcome news to members of the travel and leisure industry in Cape May County, which last year generated $16 billion - or 41 percent - of the state's tourism revenue. The region's revenue ranks second only to Atlantic City among Garden State destinations.
The $38 billion vacation industry is the second- or third-largest economic sector in New Jersey, depending on the year, and accounts for about a half-million jobs. Cape May County, which attracts 50 million visitors annually, employs about 35,000 people a year in tourism.
The lack of a big marketing campaign last year to entice visitors stung John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority.
Every time he saw a TV commercial for Ocean City, Md., or Virginia Beach, Va., "it just drove me nuts," Siciliano said. "When you have a bad economy to begin with, you don't back away from spending money to promote one of your top industries. It made no sense to us."
To help Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest rebound from 2009, when tourism spending bottomed out, Siciliano's agency spent more than $1.5 million on advertising - several hundred thousands of dollars more than it did the previous year.
Its cheeky campaign slogan apparently struck a chord with vacation bargain-hunters. "Are You Free This Summer? The Wildwoods Are" reminded travelers that the Wildwoods, unlike most other resorts in the county, do not charge beach-tag fees and offer a multitude of free summer events.
According to the authority, the Wildwoods' tourism tax revenue from last January to November was $3.7 million, about 6 percent more than in all of 2009.
The three towns levy a 2 percent tax on lodging, meals, and beverages, and keep the revenue. An additional 7 percent sales tax and a 5 percent hotel-motel room occupancy tax go to the state.
Without a state-funded marketing campaign, towns on the southern end of New Jersey's 127-mile coast worked "a little closer" with one another last year, said Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Tourism Department.
"In areas where you saw a redoubled effort, like in the Wildwoods, or Ocean City, or Cape May, you saw improved numbers for the season," Wieland said. "But you can never underestimate what a large role the weather plays, and it was also a perfect summer for us weather-wise."
Her department is gearing up for the season by hosting exhibits at East Coast travel trade shows, handing out brochures, and encouraging visitors to begin making reservations, Wieland said.
The state marketing campaign will "enhance" local efforts and cast a wider net for tourists such as Canadians, who Wieland said tend to stay longer. With regional visitors making shorter jaunts because of the economy, Canadians have helped fill hotel rooms midweek, she said.
Rising gas prices - AAA Mid-Atlantic predicts a gallon will hover around $3.50, but other analysts have speculated it could reach $5 - also tend to help the Shore, Wieland said.
That's when people decide to stay closer to home - good news for vacation destinations near the populous Philadelphia and New York metro areas, she said.
"From what we've seen, people are very interested in planning their summer vacations early. We don't know if it's the snowy, cold winter or what that has people wanting to think summer, but they seem very enthusiastic," Wieland said.
Joseph Simonetta, executive director of the New Jersey Travel Industry Association, is bullish about the summer season.
"We're looking at an uptick in the economy, enhancements to attractions in New Jersey, and an improvement in destination-marketing efforts by the state with the support of the Christie administration," Simonetta said. The season "looks bright to us."