After a strong rebound in visitor volume and spending in 2022, New Jersey officials say the state’s tourism industry has nearly recovered from the effects of the COVID crisis and expect to surpass pre-pandemic levels this year.
According to a new study from the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, the state welcomed 114.6 million visitors in 2022, up from 96.63 million a year prior and almost a 99% return to the 116.15 million travelers in 2019. Visitor spending across all sectors grew to $45.4 billion last year, up $8.2 billion in 2021 and a 98% rebound to the $46.4 billion in expenditures reported in 2019, the study found.
In 2023, officials anticipate visitor volume and spending to inch above 2019 levels for the first time, signaling tourism’s full recovery to previous growth tracks.
Despite an anticipated slowdown in the U.S. economy in the second half of the year, tourism officials believe pent-up demand will continue to support both overnight stays and day visits, while inflation is forecast to boost spending in the short- to medium-term as demand surpasses pre-pandemic levels.
This year, the state projects 119.7 million visitors and spending of $49.8 billion, while total state and local taxes generated from visitor supported activity is projected to rise to $5.4 million.
Beyond 2023, visitor volume is expected to reach 124.1 million in 2024 and 127.4 million in 2025 and spending will grow to $52.8 billion in 2024 and $55.2 billion in 2025.
“We weren’t expecting full recovery until 2024, so we are a year ahead,” said New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism Executive Director Jeff Vasser, who credited the quicker-than-anticipated rebound to “the fact that we’re more regional and because our key assets are outdoors oriented.”
“During the pandemic and as we were coming out of it, people still wanted to be outside. And for us, at the beach, at the boardwalk and our festivals, that’s where people feel comfortable and that’s our strength,” he said. “Then, in the fall, it’s a focus on farm to table restaurants and being outside doing your pumpkin and apple picking. And of course, one of our biggest growth segments is the wineries and the breweries. And again, that’s all outside.”
Travelers continue to embrace spending time outdoors with close friends and family, prefer experience-driven trips and are interested in value—all of which New Jersey can offer, Vasser said.
Another factor in the state’s bounce back was more dollars to spend on marketing efforts, according to Vasser. “A couple years ago, the governor and the Legislature passed legislation that increased our budget from $9 million to almost $18 million,” he explained.
In January 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill allocating $25 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to help New Jersey’s tourism industry recover from losses caused by the pandemic and bring back visitors whose spending supports businesses, jobs and the economy.
All of those additional resources have enabled the division to “make an impact in areas that we really hadn’t touched before,” Vasser said. “Our primary markets were New York, New Jersey, of course, and Pennsylvania. And then we dabbled a little bit into southern New England and Maryland and Delaware. But now we’re going south into the Carolinas, we’re going west into Ohio and we’re covering all of New England.”
“Additionally, we put a lot into international markets and our international growth was higher than any other segment,” Vasser explained. “We always dabbled in Quebec and they were always big supporters of the Jersey shore. But now, we’re all into Canada … Also, the U.K., Ireland and Germany are our focus.”
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, in 2021, New Jersey was ranked as the 5th most visited state in the country by overseas visitors, with 490,000 international travelers. Florida ranked first, followed by New York, California and Texas.
New Jersey also came in third for volume growth in 2021, just behind Florida and New York.
“The impact of our international marketing is paying dividends. Years ago, you’ve got 15 million international visitors coming into Newark [airport] every year and we never spoke to them. A majority of them thought they were flying into New York City,” Vasser said. “Now, when they arrive at Newark Liberty International Airport, it is hard to mistake it for anywhere but New Jersey,” he said.
He went on to highlight the sparkling, new $2.7 billion Terminal A, saying that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey worked hard to incorporate the spirit of the state in the redesign.
“I can’t be more grateful to the Port Authority. They approached us and wanted to be good partners, they asked us for images, they asked us for fun quirky things that they can do. And on their own, they reached out to local artists and they did a great job,” he said.
“So, now we’ve got the New Jersey brand and we’re not afraid of New York,” Vasser said. “We recognize that New York is the big hook. It’s the number one gateway in the country. So, we’d be foolish to try to discount that.
“But, after a couple days in New York City, we want visitors to come over here and experience the wineries, the breweries, the beach and Americana,” he said. “Go to the small towns … and then, of course, it’s the tax-free shopping. That’s our competitive advantage over New York. We’ve got the same stores, but you can get it while saving yourself 8% New York City tax.”
Vasser went on to say he was happy to see interest in the state beyond the popular beaches and noted his vision to “make everything as iconic as the Jersey shore.”
While the state’s beaches and boardwalks are renowned, New Jersey is also home to numerous state and national parks, historic sites and museums, fine dining, top-notch theater productions, and a strong arts and cultural scene.
This summer, New Jersey is gearing up for several big events, such as the first-ever North to Shore Festival, a month-long, three-city celebration of arts and technology that kicks off June 7 in Atlantic City; the 40th anniversary of the New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning in Readington July 28-30; and the Premier League’s first-ever pre-season tournament, which is scheduled to play games at Red Bulls Arena and MetLife Stadium this summer.
Those types of attractions “are what drives us,” Vasser said. “But I think that making sure people are aware of all of the other things to do here – that’s going to be key for the summer.”
Secretary of State Tahesha Way said of the numbers, “With spending increases across all tourism categories last year, it is critical to emphasize that all traveler activity in the Garden State will continue to re-energize the state’s economy with significant direct, indirect and induced revenues.”
According to Way, visitor spending generated $5 billion in state and local taxes last year, which is equivalent to $1,470 in tax savings for every household in New Jersey.
The state report highlighted a few key growth figures, including a 20% increase in food and beverage spending, allowing the category to meet pre-COVID numbers. Meanwhile, the lodging sector rose 18% over 2021, recovering nearly 99% of its 2019 level.
Additionally, recreation – one of the hardest hit categories during the pandemic – grew fastest in 2022, increasing 30% year over year to 97% of 2019 levels.
In a statement accompanying the report, Murphy said his administration is “very pleased” with “such positive tourism statistics for our state” and the resulting “strong economic impacts.”
“It is gratifying to know that so many friends of New Jersey appreciate its beauty and seek to experience all that we have to offer. We look forward to an even stronger year ahead in 2023,” the governor said.
Unsurprisingly, Atlantic County remains the number one destination, with its casinos, beaches and resorts drawing in 22.83 million visitors last year.
“But as far as growth, areas that you wouldn’t really expect have seen a lot of growth,” Vasser said.
Reduced health risks from the pandemic increased capacity at venues and the gradual resumption in business travel attracted more visitors to urban areas, such as North Jersey. Going forward, the region is predicted to see continued growth in the absence of COVID-related restrictions and fading safety concerns.
Hudson County recorded 7.45 million visitors, a 36.9% year-over-year increase, while Morris County welcomed 5.3 million visitors, up 31%, and Bergen County saw 9.31 million visitors, a 29.4% uptick.
However, visits to shore counties, which led the recovery in 2021, grew at a slower pace in 2022 than the rest of the state but remain above 2019 levels, the state said.
Of the $2.35 billion spent in Hudson County, $803.1 million was on food and beverage, which, Vassar said makes sense since the area boasts a diverse and lively culinary scene. The second highest spending category was retail, coming in with $468 million, and third was recreation at $372.7 million.
“It’s a hot destination,” he said. “We’re marketing the fact that there’s meeting space there and that hotels are being built with some good conference facilities because it’s a good alternative to the high price of Manhattan. And that’s always been their competitive advantage.”
“It’s a great food scene. It’s a great retail scene, and it’s getting a lot of attention. And the people in Hudson County, the tourism folks there do a great job of marketing that,” Vasser said.
The bulk of the $1.9 billion spent in Morris County was on food and beverage ($662.7 million), followed by transportation ($339.3 million) and retail ($334.3 million).
“There, you’re getting a lot of interest about the historic sites and I think that’s a big driver. And Morris County also has a lot of outdoor – they have wineries and breweries – and a growing food scene, too,” Vasser said.
The $2.7 billion spent in Bergen County was primarily on food and beverage ($1 billion), followed by transportation ($575.9 million) and retail ($535.9 million).
Vasser noted that Bergen County is home to American Dream, the state’s “retail, dining and entertainment mecca,” and gets many spillover visitors from neighboring Hudson County.
The tourism economy also sustained 479,588 jobs, including 320,857 direct jobs and 158,702 jobs through indirect and induced impacts, according to the state.
“Visitors are vital contributors to New Jersey’s overall economic health, and they supported 8.3% of all jobs throughout the state last year or 1-in-12 jobs overall,” said Vasser. “Not only does this provide employment for our residents, it demonstrates the success of changes implemented in recent years in how our industry recruits, develops and retains employees. This ensures a welcoming experience and encourages repeat visitation. We applaud our industry’s efforts for such a successful year.”
One of the ways that the state is trying to address worker shortages is through collaborating “with the Department of Labor in the workforce development area to introduce more people to the hospitality industry and remind people that it’s not just a summer job. This can be a career, too,” Vasser said.
“A lot of people in New Jersey think of hospitality as a summer job, especially if you grow up on the Shore, but it can be year-round. And we want to make sure people know that there are good jobs for folks,” he added.
During a May 10 panel at Stockton University School of Business, Ben Rose, director of marketing and public relations for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement District and the Wildwood Convention Center, said higher labor costs and the lack of J-1 Visa students are “a major concern” that the area is “still trying to overcome.”
“But the industry is resilient, and they’re innovative, and they’ve figured a way to get around some of those issues, and they’ll continue to work harder to provide the services to the visitor. But labor is still an issue,” Rose said.
At Morey’s Piers and Beachfront Park, an 18-acre amusement park on the famous Wildwoods boardwalk with more than 100 rides and attractions, the family-owned and operated business has taken several steps in response to worker shortages in 2020 and 2021.
“We have increased pay – our starting wages are higher than the state minimum wage increases – and we have implemented a bonus. The workplace has become more flexible, and we will work with folks who have limited schedules or don’t want to commit to a full week of work,” said Denise Beckson, Morey’s vice president of human resources and government affairs.
Additionally, Morey’s has run a fully developed recruitment advertising campaign since 2020 to help fill its 1,500 summer jobs, she said. In 2021, the amusement park worked with a staffing agency and it continues to work with Cumberland County Technical Education Center and attends various job fairs around the county and beyond.
Beckson recalled, “2020 and 2021 were difficult years … Both summers saw workforce challenges that made it difficult to service the guests. 2022 was refreshing from a staffing perspective as we returned to a full roster and could offer a complete complement of experiences from rides to games, slides, and food.”
“In relation to labor issues, worker housing in tourism areas is increasingly difficult. With the rising cost of rentals and property, those that come to these areas to work seasonally, and even those that want to relocate here for entry-level management jobs, are struggling to find accommodation they can afford,” she said.
“Regulations are also challenging. The New Jersey Legislature is aggressive in introducing and passing new bills—many of which are for the betterment of our state. That said, small businesses such as Morey’s Piers – where we only have 150 full-time employees – have difficulty keeping up with new rules and regulations. Legislators would serve their constituents well by engaging in more fact-finding and collaborative efforts when these bills are being constructed. Successful legislation and regulation involve all stakeholders,” Beckson stated.
Despite continuing challenges presented by labor shortages and economic uncertainty, the 2023 tourism season looks bright in New Jersey. Dana Lancellotti, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said the state’s restaurants and hotels are upbeat ahead of Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial kick-off to summer.
“Visitor enthusiasm is strong. We anticipate a vibrant summer season throughout the state, with visitors and locals exploring New Jersey’s culinary experiences, downtowns, diverse attractions, outdoor adventures, and of course, the Jersey Shore!” she said.
Morey’s is also optimistic. “Early indicator reporting from campgrounds, hotels, realtors, and Airbnb points to strong reservations for the upcoming season. In our line of business, the biggest concern is the weather,” said Beckson.
During the Stockton University panel, Rose said, “We see a lot of new visitors coming into the market, and I think that’s a reflection on the airline prices and the hassle of flying. People are looking for a destination closer to home, and they’re also looking for experiences. They want experiences and, of course, the Jersey Shore has memorable experiences that people can take with them for a lifetime.”
While inflation is a factor that could influence individual visitor spending, Rose doesn’t believe gas prices will make a dent on South Jersey Shore tourism.
“We’re still a tank of gas away from the majority of our visitor base,” Rose said. “The perception is the southern Jersey Shore is an affordable vacation destination.”
“We always say the difference between a good season and a great season is the weather, and you can never predict that,” he said. “But I think we’ve been through enough that we know how to react to major pressures that come on board. So, I think we’re in a good position. Let’s hope for great weather.”a