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Northern New Jersey Aims to Be Travel Mecca

But tourism council finds promotion a tough sell on a tight budget

By Randy DiamondSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor, Randy DiamondSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1993


WHEN travelers think of their vacation plans, northern New Jersey isn't usually on the top of the list.

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But if Tom DeSousa has his way, visiting northern New Jersey will be a travel must for tourists, no different from, say, visiting the Empire State Building or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in nearby New York City.

Mr. DeSousa's Gateway Tourism Council wants to change the misconceptions of out-of-towners who envision giant, polluting chemical plants and towering petroleum tanks when they think of northern New Jersey.

``Those chemical plants don't even give tours,'' says a frustrated DeSousa, who admits attracting tourists to northern New Jersey is no easy task. ``We're not known for tourism,'' he says.

His state-chartered Gateway Tourism Council, which represents hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions in Bergen, Passaic, Union, Hudson, Middlesex, and Essex Counties, says a little positive publicity could change the tide. To develop this, the council has launched a visitor's guide.

The 24-page photo-filled guide features such northern New Jersey attractions as the Trash Museum in Secaucus, the Joyce Kilmer House in New Brunswick, the American Labor Museum in Haledon, the Great Falls in Paterson, the Aviation Hall of Fame at Teterboro Airport, and the New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack.

And if those attractions don't grab prospective visitors, then perhaps the stars will.

``Gateway has long been the home or home-away-from home of entertainment celebrities,'' the guide notes. ``It's not unusual to find yourself sitting next to your favorite star at a flea market, restaurant, show, or sports event.''

But don't expect to see television commercials with an 800 number to call to get your copy of the guide. At least not yet. There are only 5,000 copies of the guide, DeSousa says. ``We didn't have the money to print more.''

The Gateway Tourism Council, one of six regional tourism councils chartered by the state, operates on a $10,000 annual budget. The State Tourism Division cut matching grants, and getting money from tourist businesses affected by the recession is not easy, DeSousa says. He says until more money can be raised, the guide will be distributed only at travel trade shows.

Those able to get a copy of the guide may be in for a big disappointment, however. Mention of some of the area's top attractions are missing. For example, not a word can be found in the guide about the shopping mall capital of the world, Paramus, with its five shopping malls.

DeSousa says only paying members of the council and those who took out advertisements in the guide got mentioned. ``We tried to get the malls to join,'' he says. ``They weren't interested.''

In actuality, there is no shortage of tourists in the Gateway region. Visitors spent $4.7 million there last year, second only to the Atlantic City region, according to state figures. But DeSousa says most of those tourists came because hotel rooms are cheaper than in nearby New York City, their real destination.

While the council doesn't discourage that, it would certainly like to entice tourists to also see New Jersey. But promotion is not an easy task, says DeSousa. Take the growing Asian travel market, tourists with spending power, that the Gateway Council would especially like to attract to northern New Jersey.

``It's a hard sell,'' he says. ``Asian tourists want to be pampered. They want flowers in their room, very personal service, massages. They stay in hotels like the Waldorf Astoria in New York. New Jersey doesn't have a Waldorf Astoria.''

New Jersey, however, does have plenty of other hotels, a fact DeSousa, the sales director of the Holiday Inn in Edison, N.J., is well aware of.

DeSousa does see a golden opportunity ahead. Seven semifinal soccer games of the World Cup will be played at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J., next summer.

``There will be 250,000 fans from all over the world,'' says DeSousa. ``It will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote our region.''

But he says tourist operators must also start planning now to avoid a disaster.

``Restaurants could run out of food,'' he says. ``Hotels could be destroyed. Brazilians trashed the hotels in Italy they were staying in last year after their team lost.''

And there also could be mass confusion, he fears. Gateway Tourism Council members, he said, are receiving requests from soccer fans that can't be met.

One group in Denmark is looking for space to put up 2,000 tents near the Meadowlands, apparently unaware of the dense, highway-filled urban landscape by the sports complex, he says.

But DeSousa thinks he can fill the request of the tour group from New Zealand that has asked for information about another unpromoted New Jersey asset: bowling alleys.

``We have bowling alleys,'' he says.