New Jersey’s Rich Tourism History, Since 1680

The tourism industry in New Jersey has thrived for more than three centuries, expanding and attracting visitors to an endless array of attractions and destinations. Now, the industry has grown into a powerful sector that plays a vital role in the state's economy.
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For more than three centuries, tourism in New Jersey has been ever expanding and drawing visitors to the near endless array of attractions and destinations that will please almost any interest. From humble beginnings, the New Jersey tourism industry has grown into a powerful business sector that's vital to the state's economy.

In 2010, tourism in New Jersey was the state's third largest industry that produced $35.5 billion in revenue and employed more than 300,000 workers. The history of the state's tourism industry has deep and interesting roots that continue to grow with new attractions being added on a regular basis. Perhaps the first "tourists" to visit the Jersey Shore were the Lenni Lenape Indians who trekked from their inland villages to the Monmouth County area in 1680, more than 300 years ago. The tribes would move to the coastal areas for the summer season.

Monmouth County is home to the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, three historic lighthouses, Sandy Hook, Twin Lights and Sea Girt. There's also a comprehensive county park system and great entertainment venues in Red Bank and Holmdel, plus miles of white ocean beaches.

Another early example of a tourism related enterprise was found on Tuckers Island in Ocean County. Reuben Tucker purchased the island in 1725. Located just off the southern tip of Long Beach Island, Tucker lived on the island and built what is believed to be the first boarding house at the Jersey Shore. Visitors came to swim and fish for clams, crabs and to enjoy all that the Shore has come to be for millions of visitors. Over the years Tuckers Island succumbed to the relentless Atlantic Ocean currents and storms. The mighty Atlantic even claimed the Tuckers Island Lighthouse, which toppled into the water around 1868.

Today, tourists can see a faithful recreation of the lighthouse at Tuckerton Seaport, a 40-acre working maritime village with 16 restored and replicated buildings that are packed with maritime history displays and artifacts. The Seaport has continued to grow, and in May of 2010 the new NJ Surf Museum opened giving visitors a glimpse into the unique bond between surfing and New Jersey. The museum features more than 300 surfboards and other surfing-related items. Each board on display - from the 10-foot-long, hollow wooden surfboard to the high-tech boards of today - has a story that makes it unique to New Jersey.

While Tuckers Island was an attractive destination, both Cape May and Atlantic City were also budding towns with great appeal to visitors. Created in 1642, Cape May began as an agricultural and fishing town. Long before the Civil War, this surfside community had become a popular summer destination for visitors from the Philadelphia area and points south, including Richmond, Baltimore and other southern cities. A huge fire in 1878 destroyed most of the city but the town was quickly rebuilt with dozens of cottages, mansions, businesses and homes all in the Victorian architectural style of the day. Today Cape May is one of New Jersey's premier destinations.

A few miles north of Cape May are the Wildwoods, which prospered as a tourism destination, especially after World War II. With the advent of the family car, motels and a two-week vacation, the Wildwoods became a highly desirable summer locale for both residents and visitors alike. During the late 1950s, Wildwood hosted some of the biggest names in the entertainment business in clubs around the island, including Bill Haley and Chubby Checker during the early years of Doo Wop and Rock 'n Roll. Doo Wop lives on today at the Doo Wop Experience Museum in Wildwood and the era architecture that has been preserved. And the Wildwoods boast a 2.5-mile boardwalk that's packed with rides, amusements, water parks and much more. In fact, the boardwalk has more attractions than Disneyland. The vast Wildwood beaches have been voted some of the best in the country and are host to a number of events throughout the season, including championship volleyball tournaments, monster truck rallies, motocross races, Hobie Cat races, concerts and the Wildwoods International Kite Festival.

Further up the coast is Atlantic City, which received its charter on March 3, 1854. By the late 1850s a number of properties sprang up and by 1860 there was room to accommodate an estimated 4,000 tourists. The world's first Boardwalk was built in 1870 to keep sand out of hotel lobbies and the trains. Now, the boardwalk and beach attract millions of visitors who enjoy the numerous boardwalk attractions, the white sandy beach and the hotel casino resorts. Over the years Atlantic City became a magnet for tourism but in the late 1970s, a dramatic shift occurred when the first hotel casino resort opened its doors.

Today the city has 11 world-class casino resorts that make it the gaming capital of the eastern United States. In 1869, President Grant named Long Branch the "summer capital." And the tradition of summer Presidential visits continued for Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, McKinley and Wilson. Long Branch was very popular after the Civil War and a number of large hotels were built and it rivaled Saratoga, NY, and Newport, RI, as a vacation destination for the rich and famous. Long Branch today is still a popular spot for surf, sun and Shore fun but has added cutting-edge residential beachside condos, premier shops and restaurants at Pier Village that has created a buzz all along the northern shore, drawing people from New York City and Philadelphia.

Nearby Ocean Grove became a popular destination during the growth of the Camp Meeting movement in the post-Civil War era with trainloads of visitors arriving beginning in 1875. In 1877, 710,000 railroad tickets were purchased for Ocean Grove. Now, Ocean Grove offers visitors gracious bed and breakfast inns to relax at while enjoying the cultural and special events that are held year 'round, including major concerts at the famous Great Auditorium.

A short distance from Ocean Grove is Asbury Park that's been drawing visitors since the late 1800s. In addition to its mile-long boardwalk, great restaurants and shopping, the city puts a different twist on its destination identity: Its history as a music Mecca. Legendary performers from Frank Sinatra to Bruce Springsteen have played this seaside town.

While northern New Jersey is known for its industrial roots it also has amazing destinations. In Newark, there's the Newark Museum. Opened in 1909, it's the state's largest and most prestigious museum. Newark is also home to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center that features world-class entertainers from around the world and the highest quality plays, shows and dance performances anywhere. The recently opened Prudential Center is home to the National Hockey League's New Jersey Devils who play in this state-of-the-art arena, which also hosts concerts and other entertainment events.

Not far from Newark is the New Jersey Meadowlands Sports Complex, which started with the construction of Giant Stadium in 1976 and now includes the all new, $1.6 billion MetLife Stadium - the new home to the New York Giants and Jets and the site of Super Bowl XLVIII (48) in 2014. In addition to the an NFL football field, the complex includes the Meadowlands Racetrack with thoroughbred racing and IZOD Center, which hosts major concerts and other family entertainment events.

From hundreds of years ago to today, tourism in New Jersey continues to grow and reward the millions who visit each year with enjoyable attractions in every part of the state.