Ocean City looks ahead to summer -- and tourists up for grabs

Superstorm Sandy's devastation in New Jersey could create opportunity for other beach towns

December 10, 2012|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

In past summers, Rodney, the fictional Ocean City lifeguard in the resort town's advertising campaign, has ventured to rescue New Yorkers and New Jerseyites from summer boredom.

After Hurricane Sandy, Rodney may have less convincing to do.

While Sandy affected a large swath of the East Coast, it made landfall on the Jersey shore and caused nearly $37 billion in damage to that state, according to recent estimates. In the beach town of Seaside Heights, a roller coaster knocked into the Atlantic Ocean has become a symbol of the destruction wrought by the storm.

In contrast, Ocean City has recovered quickly from the storm, with far less damage to infrastructure and tourism draws like the boardwalk. And that has created an economic opportunity, albeit a regrettable one for the neighbors to the north.

"It's one of those things where you don't want to benefit from other peoples' unfortunate situation," said Melanie Pursel, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. "But it seems to me from what I've seen, at least anecdotally, for some of those other beach communities it's going to be quite some time before they're up and running again, and some of them may be changed forever."

While resorts from Atlantic City to Cape May survived the storm mostly unscathed, extensive rebuilding that could take years is needed in northern areas of the Jersey shore like Sea Bright and Long Beach Island. Regular visitors to those areas may end up looking for a new vacation spot — with potential ripple effects for Maryland beaches, including bigger crowds and even higher prices, economists said.

Ocean City and New Jersey beaches pull tourists from many common regions, including Philadelphia, central Pennsylvania and greater New York City. Particularly in northern New Jersey and New York, the "feeder" markets suffered as much or more damage than the resort areas, said Israel Posner, executive director of the Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton College in Galloway, N.J.

Ocean City's advertising campaign reaches those areas, said Donna Abbott, the town's director of tourism and marketing. Town tourism officials will plan the 2013 campaign soon, she said, recognizing the need to be cognizant of the emotions of those who have suffered losses.

"We know that could have been us," Abbott said of the devastated Jersey shore.

The "Rodney" campaign is sure to return, Pursel said, and some element of the campaign might sensitively target those looking for a new destination. Some businesses have suggested incentives or promotions to help capture some of those tourists, though none has been formalized, Pursel said.

There are typically 200,000 to 400,000 tourists in Ocean City at any given point in the summer. More from up north would be welcomed, town spokeswoman Jessica Waters said.

"We'll welcome them with open arms and hope we'll be able to provide a vacation that might give them some joy after what they endured this fall," Waters said.

Travel industry group AAA said it's too early to make projections about summer travel. Vacation planning is likely to occur in the coming weeks, experts said, at family holiday gatherings and afterward in January.

Given the magnitude of damage in some areas of New Jersey, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Averella said a shakeup in tourism is a potential outcome. "It certainly, unfortunately, sounds like that's a possibility," she said.

Ocean City could be a substitute for regulars on the northern Jersey shore, said George R. Parsons, a professor of marine policy and economics at the University of Delaware. Parsons plans to conduct an unrelated survey of tourists to gauge the impact of offshore wind on travel destinations, and he now plans to ask about Sandy's impact as well.

If enough Jersey shore visitors are looking to travel elsewhere, it could have an impact on hotel or property rental prices in places like Ocean City, Parsons said. Joseph Seneca, an economics professor at Rutgers University, said he doesn't expect demand for beach vacations to wane, though the stock of housing could remain down for a couple of years on the northern Jersey shore, driving up rental rates.

"It would depend on the extent to which that substitution is occurring," Parsons said of the price shock. "Certainly those beaches get pretty much at capacity during those peak periods in the summer, so that could bid prices up."

According to the New Jersey tourism office's website, Atlantic City reopened to tourists three days after Sandy passed, while assistance like loan guarantees and grants are available to business owners struggling to reopen in other areas.

Industry observers in the Garden State are watching the cleanup closely. Mark Stevens, who owns Two Rivers Travel near the devastated community of Sea Bright, said it could mean a boost for his business, given that many members of nearby beach clubs will likely be looking to head out of town for vacation.

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