One of South Jersey’s most experienced tourism experts is heading to the Great White North to talk about what Cape May County is doing right to attract visitors.
Diane Wieland, the county’s tourism director, is a panelist at next month’s International Economic Development Council conference in Anchorage, Alaska. Her topic: ecotourism.
“Ecotourism is a $544 million industry annually. It represents 11 percent of our revenue generated,” she said.
Cape May County’s coastal peninsula attracts a lot of visitors who want to spend time looking for birds and wildlife, hiking in undeveloped coastal forests such as Corsons Inlet State Park and the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, or kayaking and paddleboarding its waterways.
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It might surprise out-of-staters that visitors spend more money on tourism in New Jersey than in Alaska.
Tourism is a $2.4 billion industry in Alaska, compared with $5.8 billion in Cape May County and $42 billion in New Jersey. Likewise, tourism in Alaska is responsible for far fewer jobs (38,700) than those found in Atlantic County alone (52,112).
Ecotourism includes activities such as whale-watching excursions and birdwatching, and figures include money visitors spend on things like food and lodging while in the area.
While fewer than 2 million people visited Alaska last year, 93 million tourists visited New Jersey.
The Alaska conference Wieland is attending is expected to draw 1,400 people. Speakers include economic directors at large and midsize towns across North America.
Wieland, 61, of Middle Township, said she has never been to the Frontier State and is looking forward to her first visit.
“They said it will be between 30 and 40 degrees and I should wear gloves,” she said.
Wieland said she probably has some misconceptions about Alaska, like a lot of first-time visitors have about New Jersey.
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She is no stranger to speaking before big groups. She has promoted New Jersey’s tourism at conferences in Pennsylvania and Delaware as well.
Wieland said she solicited the help of New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory to talk about birding’s economic impact.
Director David La Puma said birders provide an important boost to the spring and fall shoulder seasons, which coincide with the twice-annual migration.
“April is a really busy season. We start getting shorebirds on the Delaware Bay. That’s one of those spectacles that birders all across the country want to experience,” he said. “Now we’re getting into fall migration. There’s no place better in the world for fall migration than Cape May.”
La Puma said one reason for the county’s ecotourism success is its efforts to preserve open spaces that support wildlife.
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“If Cape Island were paved over, every one of those birds that needs these resources would go somewhere else,” he said. “Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties have some really well-managed open spaces. That’s critical for eco-tourism.”
Tour operators said most visitors try to fit some outdoor time into their vacations.
“The county is on a hot streak,” said Jeff Martin, of Lower Township.
He owns Aqua Trails, a kayaking excursion in Cape May, where tourists can see marsh birds such as clapper rails and egrets and schools of fish.
“We try to get out on the sandbars and pull seine nets. We’ve even caught some tropical fish like butterfly and burrfish. There are huge numbers of fish in our marshes, but you normally don’t see them because the water is too murky with phytoplankton,” he said.
Martin said New Jersey gets a bad rap for its industrialized core. But the state has idyllic wilderness, he said.
With its marine, Pinelands and mountain habitats, New Jersey is home to more biodiversity — the number of plant and animal species — than Yellowstone National Park.
“We may not have spectacular fjords or glaciers, but we have a higher density of wildlife than many other places,” he said.
Martin said the key to sustaining ecotourism is conserving these natural areas for future generations of people and wildlife.
“We have to be careful to protect it. We don’t want to kill the goose laying the golden egg. We have to be careful with development and traffic on our roads,” he said.