After famously telling hurricane-weary tourists in 2011 to “get the hell back on the beach," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is on another, softer, mission to lure visitors back to his state’s sandy shores.
With the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy last fall still on the minds of many vacationers, Christie is spending Memorial Day weekend – the unofficial start of the summer season – traveling up and down the Jersey Shore, visiting boardwalks and beaches to show that the region is open for business.
“Damn, boardwalks are opening all over New Jersey. I’m going to try to be at every one of them,” Christie said this week.
“I want New Jersey and the region and the country to know that New Jersey has come back, that the summer will happen here in New Jersey and you need to bring your families here to enjoy and create new memories this summer.”
Christie heads to Surf City, Ocean City and Wildwood on Saturday. His stops on Sunday include Asbury Park and Keansburg.
Tourism officials are thankful for the high-profile trip by the governor, whose frank comments and colorful personality often get national attention. They believe photos and video of Christie enjoying himself on New Jersey beaches this holiday weekend will go a long way in changing the perception that the region is not ready for visitors.
As part of his media blitz, Christie joined the TODAY show on Friday in Seaside Heights, a community hard-hit by Sandy, and was part of a ribbon-cutting ceremony that simultaneously took place in towns along the New Jersey coast as a way to open the summer season. Those happy visuals are quite a change from the impression many travelers may now have of the region.
Some towns are still rebuilding, but the state is in good shape from a tourism perspective and Christie has been doing a “phenomenal job” of drawing attention to that, said Robert Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“He has been the most supportive, best cheerleader for the Jersey Shore that anybody could ever ask for,” Hilton told NBC News.
“The fact that he is going to be down here and actually intermingling with guests, and our visitors and people who live here is just very critical to our success… it’s important for people to know that he is down here, that he is enjoying his weekend, he chooses the Jersey Shore.”
There’s a lot at stake, with New Jersey’s travel and tourism industry accounting for 10 percent of the state’s jobs, according to the governor’s office. Last year, tourism generated almost $35 billion, or 7 percent of the entire state economy.
Christie told TODAY’s Matt Lauer visitors won’t notice any difference in about 80 percent of the Jersey Shore.
As part of his quest to convince tourists to come back after Hurricane Sandy, the Republican governor, his wife and their four children are set to appear in six television and radio ads as part of the publically-funded $25 million “Stronger Than The Storm” campaign, which aims to attract visitors to the Jersey Shore this summer.
Not everyone is thrilled with the effort. Democrats have said the starring role for Christie -- who is running for re-election this year -- gives him an unfair advantage to boost his political image.
Still, Christie’s role as state tourism cheerleader-in-chief is getting praise in New Jersey communities along the coast.
“We’re truly excited and we’re happy that he’s visiting us again,” said Mary Ann Solinski, municipal clerk for Bradley Beach, a town that welcomed the governor in January and saw him again on Friday as part of his Memorial Day weekend tour.
Like many New Jersey community leaders, Solinski had a simple message to vacationers.
“We’re fully open and operational and we welcome all visitors.”