ATLANTIC CITY - The misconception that Hurricane Sandy wiped away the entire Jersey Shore has subsided and the region's economy is rebounding, which indicates that visitors will be spending more, tourism officials of several Shore counties said Friday in predicting a very good summer after a brutal winter.
They reported more rentals and more inquiries than at this time last year, especially in Cape May and Long Beach Island. At travel shows, they said they had seen increases in people visiting their booths and asking about the Shore.
"People are ready to come out," Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Tourism Department, told the audience at the "Jersey Shorecast" panel discussion at the Carnegie Center. The event, in its sixth year, was sponsored by the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Richard Stockton College.
Wieland said that from Ocean City to Cape May, her office was getting reports of increases in rental bookings - up as much as 20 percent from last year, with people booking earlier.
Industry experts predict a 4 percent to 5 percent increase in Shore tourism this year from 2013.
As the economy improves and the unemployment rate goes down - it is now 6.3 percent, according to Friday's U.S. Labor Department report - experts predict more spending per visitor this summer at the Shore, with people trading up on where to stay, eat, and shop.
"Tourism in the United States increased by about 4 percent last year, while New Jersey had an increase of just under 2 percent, although that increase resulted in a record amount of spending in the state," said Michael Busler, a finance professor at Stockton.
"In this area, it appears that, excluding Atlantic City, tourism increased by closer to the national average of 4 percent," he said.
Busler said that as long as a gallon of gas stays under $4, its price should have no impact on travel.
About 50 percent of New Jersey's annual tourism spending of $36 billion is generated in four beach counties: Atlantic with the most, followed by Cape May, Ocean, and Monmouth.
The northernmost two counties - Ocean and Monmouth - were the hardest hit when Sandy struck Oct. 29, 2012.
"Rentals are up 31 percent, we have twice as many inquiries as we did in spring 2013, and events at hand all point in a positive direction," said Lori Pepenella, destination marketing director for the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, which covers Long Beach Island and Forked River, among other places.
"Many of the businesses that were impacted are fully back this year," she said.
Atlantic City, where gambling revenue has decreased the last seven years, is marketing itself as a full-service destination and hosting a number of non-gaming summer events. They include a concert by the country singer Blake Shelton on the beach, other concerts, and Fourth of July fireworks.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said building a stage on one of the piers was being considered. Holding concerts year-round on a beach is problematic, he said, so "maybe we should be in the business of building a permanent stage."
Joseph Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, noted that nearby states also have casinos now - including Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland - making it "a very challenging environment" for the resort city.
Gaming revenue in Atlantic City dipped below $3 billion last year for the first time after peaking at $5.2 billion in 2006.
"We are not likely to see any increase in casino revenue," Busler said, "but the non-casino attractions should show improvement." One indicator is the luxury-tax revenue from liquor and entertainment tickets, which has gone up since 2012.
There are also more options for getting to Atlantic City by air. United Airlines started nonstop service to Atlantic City International Airport from Houston and Chicago on April 1.
"The further away people come from, the longer they'll stay, and spend more money," said Brian Tyrrell, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management studies at Stockton.
Bruce Markowitz, 60, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., arrived in Atlantic City late Thursday so he could participate in a poker tournament at the Showboat, where he planned to stay two nights.
During a break in the action at noon Friday, he walked out to the Boardwalk. "I hope Atlantic City does well," said Markowitz, who was born and raised in Paramus before moving to California in 1980. "You guys really had it rough this winter."
As Ruth Cruz Chavez, 39, stared out at the ocean from the Boardwalk in Ventnor, she, too, was hoping for a big summer.
"My livelihood depends on it," said Chavez, a housekeeper at Resorts Hotel Casino.
Wieland said two-thirds of Cape May County's economy and 25,000 jobs depend on tourism. The county's lodging industry generated $2.2 billion last year and retail hit $1.1 billion.
Her office is expanding its marketing efforts further north in Canada, to Québec City, and to Western Pennsylvania, targeting Pittsburgh.
"They had so much cold weather up there, that boy, are they ready [to come down], especially Québec," Wieland said.