Tourism officials on Wednesday continued to combat the image of a devastated Jersey Shore, urging vacationers from all points to stay at hotels, dine at restaurants and shop at stores along the Garden State's famous shoreline.
"This message we send today is unmistakable - New Jersey is recovering, New Jersey is rebuilding," said Grace Hanlon, executive director of the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism. "Every day that passes, more businesses are reopening. Together the people of the Jersey Shore are showing the nation that our once-devastated communities will not only come back, but they will come back stronger this summer."
The message is being delivered in conjunction with a state campaign announced this week called "Show Your Love for the Jersey Shore." The marketing initiative promotes the region by encouraging people to visit the beaches with their loved ones, starting with Valentine's Day.
Travel and tourism is a key part of the state's economy, creating $38 billion in business in 2011, and supporting 312,000 jobs and more than $9.5 billion in wages.
But ever since the first images of superstorm Sandy's impact along the coastline were splashed across the Internet, television screens and newspapers, tourism officials have been fighting to dispel public perceptions that most businesses were significantly damaged and remain shuttered.
Larry Sieg, vice president of marketing for the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, said Atlantic City was fortunate it wasn't hit hard by Sandy. However, in the days after the storm, media reports incorrectly stated that the boardwalk was wiped out and the city was underwater, he said.
"This was completely and totally false," he said. "This could take years to get these erroneous reports corrected. We're still feeling them today."
The marketing team has since worked to dispel the misconceptions, showing images on the authority's website, for example, of an intact boardwalk.
"It was such a big story so we are all working very hard to overcome that myth," said Lori Pepenella, destination marketing director for the Long Beach Island region.
Pepenella also said many shops that traditionally reopen in spring are opting to do so earlier this year "because they want to make sure they have a presence."
Tom Stewart, owner of Uncle Will's Pancake House in Beach Haven, said people are nervous about whether visitors will return because so many residences were damaged and it is unknown if they will be in use by summer.
Still, he and his wife are planning to reopen the popular breakfast spot on March 7 or 8, he said. Their Bay Avenue restaurant, which was inundated with 42 inches of water, required replacement of kitchen equipment, bathrooms, carpets and walls.
In Monmouth County and northern Ocean County - the areas hit hardest along the Shore - progress is also being made, reported Bob Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Boardwalks are being rebuilt and will look different. Long Branch is building a wider boardwalk, and new attractions will be installed at Jenkinson's Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach, he said.
Sandy Hook in Monmouth County is expected to reopen this spring, he said.
None of the hotels in Monmouth County is closed. Some hotels in Ocean County suffered damage, but sections of those properties are open.
"For the most part, unless it's the boardwalks or the first couple of blocks, most of the businesses are open and have rebuilt," Hilton said. "What you're going to see this spring and summer is a better Jersey Shore."
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