After the challenges of the past several years, from vacant storefronts and social distancing requirements to staffing shortages and rising fuel costs, the Garden State is setting the stage for what appears to be a banner year for summer tourism. While New Jersey continues to be renowned for its beach and boardwalk offerings, this summer will also feature a host of exciting outdoor festivals and events on top of everything else the state already has to offer its summer visitors; from the beauty and serenity of its outdoor spaces to the fine dining and top-notch theater productions in its urban centers.
“I think COVID is releasing its grip a little bit on our seasonal businesses. We are seeing lots of grand openings and ribbon cuttings and people taking a shot at opening a shore business again. It’s really great to see,” says Will Morey, president and CEO of Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, noting a new brewery in town as just one example. That’s on top of both new and returning events in the area this summer, including the National Marbles Tournament in Wildwood and the Association of Pickleball Professionals hosting the APP New Jersey Classic in Avalon this September. Additionally, it’s the 75th anniversary of the legendary Wildwood Tram Car, which also promises to be the inspiration for numerous summertime festivities.
“We think this summer is going to be the one that takes us beyond our pre-pandemic numbers,” agrees Jeff Vasser, executive director of the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism (NJTT), noting that advance sales for rentals are already well ahead of pace. He says popular summer entertainment options like outdoor festivals are going to remain a major focus because they help attract both first-time visitors as well as those who tend to come multiple times per year, in addition to serving as a more comfortable option for those who may still be concerned about gathering in large public venues.
For example, this year, the North to Shore Festival – a month-long, three-city celebration of arts and technology – will kick off on June 7. The first-of-its-kind festival is being produced by Gov. Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy, New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) President and CEO John Schreiber and Executive Producer David Rodriguez, and Mayors Ras Baraka of Newark, John Moor of Asbury Park, and Marty Small Sr. of Atlantic City. The event will bring together more than 50 venues for an unprecedented celebration of statewide excellence in music, technology, comedy and film, with headliners including Halsey, Santana, Demi Lovato, Bill Burr, Jay Wheeler, Stephen Colbert with Jim Gaffigan, Natalie Merchant, The Smithereens, Colbie Caillat, Southside Johnny and dozens more.
Vasser notes that this is all in addition to several other major festival offerings, such as Asbury Park’s Sea.Hear.Now Festival on Sept. 16-17, another multi-day festival featuring some 25 music artists, as well as the ever-popular annual New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning in Readington on July 28-30. Atlantic City is also stepping up its concert offerings along with exciting new attractions that will help diversify options for visitors of all ages; not the least of which is a new $100 million, 103,000-square-foot indoor waterpark called the Island Waterpark, which is slated to open next to the former Showboat Casino this summer.
Morey reports that the Wildwoods are also looking forward to reaping the benefits of an initiative for a new Pacific Ave. Redevelopment Plan, which is a collaboration by the County of Cape May, City of Wildwood, Atlantic County Improvement Authority and the South Jersey Economic Development District. “So many of our state’s downtowns have suffered over the years, and revitalization is always a difficult task in a seasonal region as expansive as Wildwood is, but we have high hopes that this initiative will have people enjoying all that our downtown has to offer on both a seasonal and year-round basis,” Morey says.
While the summer months have become synonymous with the Jersey Shore for both residents and visitors alike, the state continues to have so much more to offer its visitors. Favorite family attractions like the Cape May Zoo continue to make expansions and improvements, and Vasser points out that there are lots of lesser-known options all across the state (many of which are perfect for a cloudy day) for visitors of all ages, like the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum as well as new attractions like the RPM Raceway indoor go-kart experience in Jersey City.
“Yes, the Jersey Shore is iconic, but we have so many other offerings that are just as iconic as our beaches,” Vasser says. “From the history of the Revolutionary War sites in Morristown to the arts and culture to be enjoyed at attractions like Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, there are so many things [happening] off the beach too.”
He notes that this summer marks the 90th anniversary of the Morristown National Historical Park, which will offer a series of events to celebrate the milestone. And even traditional beach towns like Cape May are expanding their offerings. “Cape May used to be all about the beach, and now it’s about the architecture, the bed-and-breakfasts, the restaurants and wineries and breweries … and even new historical attractions like the Harriet Tubman Museum or the Cape Square Entertainment Complex for family entertainment like movies and bowling,” Vasser adds.
The state’s beautiful outdoor spaces are also ideal summer destinations for activities such as hiking, canoeing and kayaking. Both residents and visitors can enjoy nature walks and bike trails in addition to wildlife refuges right here in New Jersey. “It’s always easy to think of our boardwalks, but New Jersey is also replete with natural environments to enjoy,” Morey says.
And as the Garden State, New Jersey has always been an optimal destination for enjoying local wines. “However, our wineries and breweries have also been doing more and more each summer in terms of outdoor tastings, live music and other events; they’ve truly become summertime destinations,” Vasser adds.
Of course, that isn’t to say that businesses across the state aren’t still grappling with some of the residual effects of the past few years, not the least of which are staffing challenges. However, it appears that staffing may not be as significant an issue as it has been for the past few summers. “We’re hearing from our partners that the pressures they’ve had over the last few years are easing up; many businesses were cutting back on their hours simply because they were short on staff, and we’re hopeful that won’t be as much of an issue this year,” Vasser notes.
According to Morey, a lack of housing is directly related to staffing issues and could also potentially impact the success of the shore months this summer. He says the county is continuing to focus on ensuring that there’s affordable seasonal housing options for workers as well as for the year-round population. This is all on top of the typical challenges faced by seasonal businesses, as well as ongoing concerns about how the impact of inflation on everything from lodging costs to fuel may also affect tourism in New Jersey this summer. “People assume that seasonal businesses are great because they’re only open for a certain period of time and then they get to close and relax … but they are really tough businesses to run,” Morey says.
The good news is that the governor and Legislature are continuing to play a key role in supporting tourism, which is evidenced by several new NJBIA-backed bills announced earlier this year. The pending legislation will do everything from establishing new tourism regions and sub-regions for Northern, Central and Southern New Jersey to instituting an Agritourism Fund that will appropriate $2.5 million to help attract visitors to attractions such as farms, wineries and breweries and ranches.
“Tourism is a major economic driver in our state, and it truly is New Jersey’s competitive advantage … and while summer tourism often starts at the beaches, we believe we’re making the case that the shore is just the beginning,” Vasser concludes.
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