Restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 reversed a decade’s worth of tourism growth in the Garden State, an analysis released Thursday found.
The number of people visiting New Jersey in 2020 dropped 27% from 2019 to 86.4 million visitors, according to the New Jersey Department of Travel and Tourism.
And fewer visitors meant fewer dollars spent: Spending was $29.4 billion, down 37% from 2019.
Closings, capacity restrictions and travel limitations played a significant role in the declines, according to the department.
“New Jersey’s tourism is vital to our state’s overall economy, and our industry has been devastated by the pandemic,” New Jersey Tourism Industry Association President Adam Perle said in a statement.
“Collectively we urge our elected officials to continue and expand their support of the tourism industry to ensure a full and robust recovery.”
What could reverse the tourism trend?
Some help is on the way, though, from the state government. And a loosening of COVID restrictions is expected to provide a major boost to the state’s tourism.
In recent weeks, Gov. Phil Murphy has signed several bills into law aimed at helping businesses jump-start their recovery, including $35 million for restaurants and $15 million for small businesses and nonprofits.
The industry could also get a boost from the Murphy administration as it looks to divvy up New Jersey’s $6.4 billion share of the federal American Rescue Plan, which is President Joe Biden’s first stimulus package approved in March.
There’s another fallout from the pandemic that could impact the tourism industry, too. Restaurants are struggling to find workers, for example, making a rebound in summer 2021 uncertain.
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About 106,000 jobs supported by tourism were lost in 2020, the state report said. Tourism supported about 236,000 jobs in the state, a decline of 31% from the previous year, but generated $4 billion in state and local tax revenue, the report says.
“While 2020 was a difficult year for New Jersey with constrictions in spending in all major tourism categories, there were bright spots of hope that we witnessed retain a sound footing, despite the pandemic,” tourism department executive director Jeff Vasser said in a statement.
“Specifically, our coastal communities and counties with open spaces mitigated economic losses far better than those where social distancing was not as feasible.”
Cape May NJ among the tourist attractions impacted
While there were decreases across the board, Jersey Shore counties and those along the Delaware River saw smaller losses in the tourism-driven economy than those closer to New York City, the report found.
Cape May and Ocean counties had sales decrease about 20%, where Hudson, Morris and Mercer counties saw sales dip about 50%.
The report connects sales declines in Mercer County to the decrease of state government activity at the Statehouse in Trenton as lawmakers held sessions remotely for a large part of last year.
The flood of people fleeing urban areas helped some businesses, like Drifting Sands hotel in Ship Bottom on Long Beach Island.
The 100-room oceanfront hotel, which typically books blocks of rooms for 70 to 80 weddings each summer and fall season, had a wave of cancellations last year as COVID took hold, according to Mary McGill, director of sales and marketing.
But those canceled reservations were quickly filled in by city residents looking for more space.
“A lot of people were just trying to get out and get a vacation,” McGill said Friday. “They were working from home and there was no school, they didn’t have to go by those schedules. That’s why we saw people during the week and the weekends.”
The tourism report predicts a two-year recovery to pre-pandemic levels, assuming loosening of restrictions, with visitation returning to pre-pandemic levels in 2023.
Being a tank of gas away from New York City and Philadelphia, along with pent-up demand to travel, will work in the state’s favor, according to the state tourism office.
Some businesses are already seeing bumps in bookings as COVID restrictions have eased.
“We are going to be busier than last year,” said McGill, of the Drifting Sands hotel.
“I have weekends in the fall that are already sold out, which is not normal.”
Stacey Barchenger is a reporter at the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s policymakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.