ccording to a study from the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University, 2017 visitation rates to the city have been the lowest since the early 1980s. Officials, however, believe 2018 could turn the tables.
Visit-trips to Atlantic City in 2017 were 24.1 million, a 1.2 percent decrease over the previous year's 24.4 million. Last year's total represents the lowest visit-trip figure since 1982, when there were 22.9 million visit-trips.
And yet, 2018 is expected to see the opening of two casino hotel properties — Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Resort Casino — coupled with the completion of a city campus for Stockton University opening this fall and the corporate headquarters of South Jersey Gas, as well as several additional entertainment, retail and tourist attractions.
"We are seeing and hearing from businesses that everybody is feeling pretty good about the outlook for the coming season," said Greater Atlantic City Chamber President Joseph Kelly. "I think the look is optimistic toward 2018."
Hard Rock is renovating the former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, and AC Ocean Walk is rebranding the former Revel as Ocean Resort, both located at the north end of the Boardwalk. The new Stockton campus will begin classes and have residential dormitories occupied by the end of the summer. South Jersey Gas' corporate building is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The Steel Pier observation wheel recently opened, as did the Bourbon Room in the site of the former House of Blues inside the Showboat Atlantic City, which is tucked between the two new casinos.
"Both (casino and hotel) properties have supersized casino floors and ample space to include celebrity chef restaurants, exciting entertainment venues, conference and business facilities plus other amenities to attract non-gaming business," the Levenson Institute report states. "The new arrivals to the Atlantic City tourism market can certainly be expected to generate considerable publicity and large crowds. ... The result of all this activity should be a significant surge in visit-trips to Atlantic City this summer."
Matt Harkness, property president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, said "people tend to overemphasize the decline" of the city in recent years "without necessarily understanding that this is still an extremely viable market."
"I believe in the renaissance of Atlantic City and I am confident Hard Rock will set a new standard in this city and our region," Harkness said in the report. "It will truly be unlike anything else this town has ever experienced."
Last year was the continuation of a trend toward decreased visit-trips, which have been on the decline since nearly 35 million were reported in 2005. In 1987, the city saw annual visit-trips top 30 million and stay above that mark until 2010.
The figures are based on transportation statistics collected by the South Jersey Transportation Authority and other data points. The Levenson Institute report employed several indicators.
The Atlantic City Expressway Pleasantville Toll Plaza traffic numbers are used as the main indicator of visitation to the resort. According to the report, annual traffic at the toll plaza decreased 1.7 percent in 2017. The report noted that decrease in automobile traffic could be due to major employers closing, such as the Trump Taj Mahal in 2016.
Another major indicator accounting for decreased visit-trips in 2017 is the number of passengers who arrive on casino charter buses. Through September of 2017, compared to the same nine-month period of 2016, SJTA reported a decrease of approximately 103,000 casino charter bus passengers compared to 2016. Fourth-quarter data for bus passenger trips was not available for the report.
A third indicator, passengers who arrive on chartered casino flights, actually increased by nearly 19,000.
The report's author, Anthony Marino, former deputy executive director of the Atlantic City Expressway and Stockton adjunct professor, warned that even if 2018 is a great year for the city, it should not be used as a measuring stick going forward.
"The resort should not assume automatically that if 2018 is indeed a boom year that 2019 and beyond will be the same," he wrote.
Kelly, the chamber of commerce president, said the goal beyond 2018 is making sure Atlantic City and the surrounding area is creating the "best possible environment" for continued investment. He said officials have to keep their eyes out for the "next best project."
"Success begets success," he said. "If you start to have some investors make that investment — and you do have that going on now — that perhaps is the best catalyst (for continued growth.)"