The 2012 figure was up from $38 billion in 2011 and was the highest since the state began keeping records 20 years ago. The previous record - $39.5 billion, set in 2007 - was in the last season before the recession sent the economy tumbling.
The number of visitors to New Jersey increased 4.8 percent during 2011. With the Shore as its main component, tourism directly and indirectly employs more than 500,000 people, or 10 percent of the state's workforce, Christie said.
The governor's announcement seemed to suggest that if tourism can overcome a variety of hurdles - including misperceptions about the Shore's readiness for tourists this summer - it can continue on a roll as the state's third largest industry, behind pharmaceuticals and chemicals.
But many said they remain nervous about the summer season.
While towns from Long Beach Island south through Atlantic and Cape May Counties appear mostly ready to receive summer visitors, many communities north of Barnegat Light that were hit hardest by Sandy are still recovering from the devastation. The storm created more than $30 billion in damages and left 40,000 people homeless. Boardwalks in Belmar, Seaside Heights, and other areas are still being rebuilt.
Earlier Wednesday, Christie visited a school in Stone Harbor. Of eight schools in New Jersey that were severely damaged by the Oct. 29 storm, it is the first to reopen. In his remarks at the tourism conference he cited it as an example of how recovery continues.
Christie said New Jersey will receive $1.83 billion in federal recovery aid and that $900 million of it will be earmarked to help homeowners and renters get back into their properties. Another $900 million in grants will help small businesses get back up and running before summer.
But the most welcome news to the tourism conference crowd was Christie's announcement that $30 million would be spent on a national advertising campaign, beginning in late April, to draw tourists back to the Shore. That was met with applause and cheers.
"I'm happy to say today that we are going to let the nation and key international markets know that New Jersey is ready," Christie said. "We've got to continue to look to the future. . . . Progress has to be steady and visible [showing] that our comeback is sure and certain."
Christie said New Jersey needs to "show the rest of the country that we are responsible stewards" in using federal aid.
He said he wanted to see the Shore rebuilt "smartly, but with heart," and added, "There's no avoiding that some places will look different, will feel different."
But Christie said he did not want to loose the everyone's-beach feeling that characterizes the Shore.
Another speaker, Pam Breaux, Louisiana's secretary of culture, recreation, and tourism, made much the same point in describing her state's recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"In ... New Orleans in particular," she said, "it was undeniably important that tourism and culture be positioned together in our efforts."
Christie had the last words:
"If we do this well, we will leave an enormous legacy . . . and set a great example for the rest of the country about how you recover from a disaster of this magnitude."
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at philly.com/downashore.