Writer: Joey Garrand
4 min read June 2021 — As life returns to a new normal, leaders in Cape May County are expecting 2021 to be a banner year for tourism. Cape May County’s recovery has been more robust than found elsewhere in the northeast, with the county’s renowned beaches, boardwalks, amusements, and memorable atmospheres paving the way for success. Diane Wieland, tourism director of Cape May County, and Gerald Thornton, commissioner director of Cape May County, discussed with Invest: this rebound, the demographics driving activity and other important components of the county’s economy.
What is the current state of Cape May County’s tourism economy?
Diane Wieland: Using the occupancy tax data provided by the New Jersey Treasury, we are up 12.7% for the first quarter of 2021 verus 2019. In September and October of 2020, we began exceeding 2019 numbers. Things are filling up as people feel more ready and comfortable to get out. Historically, when the occupancy rates go up, so does the rest of the economy as local businesses benefit from that activity. We are expecting 2021 to be a banner year.
We are normally second in the state to Atlantic County in terms of tourism activity, which is very hard to beat because of their strong gaming industry. This is the first year that we are outpacing Atlantic County because of the challenges in reopening the gaming industry.
Gerald Thornton: We’re going to be promoting our tourism businesses, and we are glad to be able to get them fully open. We average about 10.3 million visitors a year in Cape May County, so it’s important that we have all of our buildings, facilities and services open. That said, we will follow the medical protocols that are required. We’ve been working with the Chamber of Commerce and businesses have supported us by following the medical protocols so that everyone feels safe.
Still, we can’t afford to have another closed season. Overall, however, we had anticipated that about 30% of our businesses would be reduced or go out of business but, fortunately, it hasn’t been too bad. We recovered somewhat toward the end of last summer. In total, the sector was down about 23%, which was better than our anticipated 30%.
What is another important industry driving Cape May County’s economy?
Wieland: Eco-tourism in 2019 generated about $700 million. About 11% of total revenue generated comes from nature-based tourism, and a lot of that is birding. Cape May County is one of the Top 3 birding hotspots in North America because we are part of the Atlantic Flyway, situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, and there’s a lot of lush wooded forested areas and freshwater for the birds. This brings international visitors to our area. The New Jersey Audubon registers visitors from over 150 different countries.
We also have a great deal of agritourism, where you can be sitting in a vineyard in West Cape May and in five minutes be on the beach. Because of our farming communities, many of our restaurants and breweries use locally sourced ingredients and produce.
Thornton: Our second major industry, which many people don’t realize, is fishing. We are the second-busiest fishing port on the East Coast. We even have a fishing loan program. I think we’re the only county in the state that still has that program and it’s very viable. We don’t have anybody defaulting; they pay us back.
We also are making major investments in economic development. We’re investing in the airport’s industrial park, refurbishing the roads in that park. Through another program, we bought the old shopping center in Rio Grande and we are investing about $25 million to refurbish that and bring it up to date. That should generate about 100 full-time jobs and about 50 part-time jobs. We’ll have a major movie theater and entertainment complex there. We’ve also relocated our social services to that area. We’ve done some really significant things to promote economic development in the county.
What are the current demographics of Cape May County visitors?
Wieland: Our biggest visitor flip-flops between New Jersey and Pennsylvania; they’re very close. About 28 to 30% of our visitors come from those two areas. We’re seeing an increase in New York visitors, as well as from the northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland area. Thirty-nine percent of our visitors are staying a week longer, which also bucks the trend of that three- to four-day vacation. We also have more baby boomers who have more disposable income and free time.
Between 7% and 9% of our visitors in the summer come from the Canadian province of Quebec. Because of COVID, we didn’t see them last year, and we hope that the border will open soon.
Thornton: It’s interesting. One thing people should understand is that 48% of the homes in Cape May County are second homes. People love that we have a strong open-space program to maintain the environment and atmosphere of the county. We’re very supportive of our famers and the farming community, which makes it a rural county with a lot of the amenities of a tourism economy.
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