Lawmakers are proposing to spend $25 million in federal relief funds to help the state’s battered travel and tourism industries recover from the pandemic.
Assembly Bill 5689 would earmark $5 million for use by state-recognized Destination Marketing Organizations to work with New Jersey’s overall marketing campaign and $20 million to promote travel and tourism in unspecified ways.
The measure was approved during a Nov. 15 hearing by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee; the full state Assembly approved the bill in June.
Business owners and others connected to the tourism and travel sectors said they felt that while this past summer’s season would be better than 2020, they did not expect it to exceed 2019 levels, widely regarded as a record-breaking season.
In fact, travel numbers compiled by the American Automobile Association, as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – which owns Newark Liberty International Airport – show that those expectations were realized. Travel levels for major summer events such as the Independence Day and Memorial Day extended weekends, while better than in 2020, still failed to surpass 2019 levels.
“Travel and tourism is one of the largest employment sectors and highest revenue-generating industries in New Jersey,” said one of the key sponsors, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-6th District, in a statement. “It is paramount that we promote businesses and destinations in our state that have been so negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Jeffery Vasser, the executive director of the state’s Travel and Tourism Division, said the Jersey Shore was able to recoup some losses because many businesses can operate outdoors. “Like last year, people are looking to get out and being outside is what people feel is safe,” he said in an April interview as the state and its businesses were trying to gauge what a post-pandemic travel season could look like.
In 2020, during the worst of the COVID-19 business closures and travel restrictions, the state’s travel sector saw 29 million fewer visitors than the 116 million visitors who showed up in 2019, a 27% decrease, according to a report released in May by Vasser’s office. Tourists spent $17 billion less than the $46.4 billion spent in 2019, or a 37% decline, the report found.
“We all know how critical the tourism industry is to the state,” Chrissy Buteas, who heads government affairs at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, told lawmakers on Nov. 15. “Not just the shore, the entire New Jersey tourism industry, restaurants and also not leaving out our hotels and others. We have a vast tourism industry in the state.”
The promotion campaign would likely mirror the 2013 “Stronger than the Storm” campaign meant to convince travelers and tourists that the Jersey Shore was open for business following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
That effort was also $25 million, paid for by federal relief funds. But then-Gov. Chris Christie’s appearance in the ads – especially given that it was an election year for him – drew criticism, as did the nature and cost of the contract with public relations firm MWW.
“In New Jersey, $25 million was spent on ads that included somebody running for political office,” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, said during a congressional hearing that year, according to CBS News. “Do you think there might be a conflict of interest of there?”