ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -  A panel of industry and academic experts on tourism agreed today that  2017 is shaping up to be an excellent year, and the economic climate and redevelopment already underway here will make 2018 even stronger.  

“Unemployment is down, wages are up and gas prices are moderate,” said Michael Busler, professor of Business Studies at Stockton and a member of the Jersey Shorecast panel.

If the stock market stays up, making visitors feel wealthier, and the weather is good on a majority of weekends, “most of the conditions of the macro-economy are set for tourism dollars to increase,” he said.

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The Jersey Shorecast, an annual event sponsored by the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism (LIGHT) of Stockton University, provides information about the outlook for the region’s tourism and business season. It was held at Stockton’s Carnegie Center here.

Tourism accounts for over $40 billion in business in New Jersey, and $20 billion of that comes from the Jersey shore, said Rummy Pandit, executive director of LIGHT, who served as moderator.

“Reservations are up and Cape May (City) is telling me they have 95 percent occupancy for July and August already,” said Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism.

Cape May County is also seeing tremendous growth in extending the season through eco-agro tourism, including visits to wineries, breweries and farm-to-table restaurants, she said. “Forty-nine percent of our visitors from summer come back in the fall.”

Second-home owners, which make up a growing portion of the area’s potential year-round visitors in Ocean, Cape May and Atlantic counties, are an important market to target - and so are millennials.

Lori Pepenella, CEO, Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, said the group is introducing beverage tourism, such as “brewery trails,” and using social networks and digital platforms to attract the younger demographic group, which values experiences and expects interactive engagement.

“We did a wedding road show” and other marketing tailored to the key demographics, to bring valuable business to southern Ocean County, Pepenella said. “We call it ‘beach culture redefined.’”

Gary Musich, vice president of convention sales at Meet AC, which develops convention, meetings and trade show business, said in 2016, just under 400,000 rooms were used by a million visitors, which was “almost double” the business in 2015.

With new and expanded conference facilities at Harrah’s, the Borgata and Resorts, Atlantic City’s convention capacity is “now as big as a city like Baltimore,” Musich said. That can expand the market to 1.5 million people coming to town for conventions, meetings and events - and that does not include those coming for beach concerts, he said.

The city is diversifying its attractions, with less reliance on gaming and more on events like Comic-Con and video gaming tournaments which draw millennials, and youth sports, such as cheerleading, volleyball and wrestling, which draw parents and student-athletes.

Brian Tyrrell, professor of Hospitality and Tourism Management Studies at Stockton, said the state’s hotel tax receipts are up 2.8 percent. Hotel occupancy is reflected in the taxes, which rose almost 2 percent in Atlantic County despite the closing of the Taj Mahal with its 2,000 rooms. They were up 3.3 percent in Cape May County and 7.3 percent in Ocean County.

The Atlantic City casino industry has now “right-sized” with the closing of five properties, and the remaining properties are holding onto much of the business, Tyrrell said.

Joseph Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, agreed that “right sizing is starting to take hold. I see 2017 as consistent growth and I see 2018 as significant growth.”

The Atlantic City Gateway Project, which will bring 1,000 Stockton University students and faculty and staff to the new campus, plus hundreds of South Jersey Gas employees in an adjacent office tower, “is a game-changer,” Kelly said.

But the city and region’s economic outlook also depends on what the state and private investors do. “Public policy is the issue,” Kelly said. “Business does well when it is stable and predictable.”

Panelists noted that some Investors are interested, including plans to open a Hard Rock casino in the former Taj Mahal, expand the Showboat hotel’s offerings and reopen the former Revel casino as TEN.

Kelly added that the coming development of the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township, near the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center and Atlantic City International Airport, will bring “high-tech, high-paying jobs” to the area. A groundbreaking for the first building is set for Monday.

Jake Buganski, acting executive director of the N.J. Division of Travel & Tourism, said tourism is the sixth largest employer in the state, with 517,000 jobs. He said with a new governor to be elected in the fall, he is focused on making the case to increase the state’s tourism promotion spending, which has been capped at $9 million for the past seven or eight years.