In this second summer since Hurricane Sandy, which left $38 billion in damage and whacked earnings in the summer of 2013 for enterprises in hard-hit Shore areas by up to 30 percent, business has been good, officials and merchants say.
"I think it's been a great summer," Diane F. Wieland, director of Cape May County's Tourism Department, declared last week. "People who perhaps didn't come to the Shore last summer because they thought we weren't open for business after Sandy came back this year."
Though the official 2014 figures won't be out until early 2015, and despite the casino industry's woes in Atlantic City, Wieland and others predict a decent, if not banner, year along most of the Shore.
Even Atlantic City has been no slouch in some respects, according to one official.
Restaurants and nightclubs have done brisk business all summer, said Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, which promotes the city to visitors.
"Contrary as it appears in the face of the [casino] closings, Atlantic City is actually experiencing a very strong summer," she said.
Tourism spending at the Shore will likely increase 3 percent to 4 percent this year, thanks to great summer weather, decreasing gas prices, and a rebounding economy, Wieland said.
And Shore businesses - on the front line of counting things such as ice cubes, beds made, and flip-flops sold - are agreeing. Beach-tag sales and parking meter fees collected in towns from Barnegat Light to Cape May are up as well.
Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long said her town, pummeled by Sandy, had taken in 50 percent more beach revenue as of Aug. 22 than in all of summer 2013. Belmar had sold 9,000 more beach badges as of Aug. 24 than it did in the same period last summer, and its beach parking revenue has nearly tripled this summer.
Restaurants - old standbys as well as new ones that cropped up in places like Long Beach Island and Stone Harbor - reported lines out the door every weekend. Hotels and motels said they had to put their "No vacancy" signs out a lot more often this summer.
Real estate agents said that not only was the key four-week period between mid-July and mid-August sold out, but so were some "wing weeks" during those two prime vacation months.
"It's been a whirlwind. By the end of the season, we're all very tired. But in that time frame you've got to throw yourself into it 24/7 every single day because you only get so many days to do it," Ranalli said last week as she juggled guests and employees and began a motel wrap-up process that will kick into full swing after Monday, when most tourists will have gone home.
The motel will close for the season in mid-October and reopen in May.
Farther up the coast, Ed Berger, president of the 101-member Margate Business Association in Atlantic County, echoed Ranalli's sentiment. Margate, on the same barrier island as Atlantic City and sandwiched between Ventnor and Longport, has a thriving downtown with upscale boutiques and trendy restaurants.
"Every single member is important, just like every single day of summer," Berger said. "You get what, 99 or 100 days of summer? That's it. It has to happen then or never for a year."
Trying to make that happen are small-business owners such as Mike Wiesen, who has operated the AAAA Bike Shop in neighboring Ventnor for 35 years.
After the prime summer season, "the rest of the year you hope to just break even and be here to serve your customers," Wiesen said.
Mike Lisiewski, whose family has operated the Brighton Beach Surf Shop on Long Beach Island since 1962, agreed.
"We got hit pretty hard by Sandy, and last summer was a lot of rebuilding and repairing," Lisiewski said. "But I think one of the things that Sandy taught a lot of people is that these little places like this shop can go away really quickly - that if they don't support the local people, there aren't going to be these little places anymore."
New Jersey's four Shore counties - Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth, and Ocean - generate about 50 percent of the state's annual $40 billion tourism revenue.
With tourism as New Jersey's third-largest industry, one in every 10 jobs, about 320,000, is directly tied to it, according to the state Division of Travel and Tourism.
Cape May County, with about a dozen small beach towns and the largest tourism-dependent economy in the state outside Atlantic City, generates a significant chunk of the state's tourism revenue, about $5.5 billion, according to Wieland.
To help increase multiday stays in the region, Wieland's office has launched special marketing campaigns in cities such as Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Washington - close enough for a car ride, but too far for a day trip.
Wieland said the county's offerings away from the beaches and boardwalks - birding, boating, fishing, wineries, art exhibits - help increase its share of the tourism pie along with a number of off-season events in the region.
But those key 14 weeks pay the bills, according to Frank Shoemaker, general manager at Berger Realty in Ocean City, where the office holds the keys to more than 3,000 summer rental properties. This summer brought sellout weeks during the usual July-through-August period and beyond, he said.
"I think with Sandy and then the terrible winter we had, people wanted to get down here and have a good beach vacation to create memories that can carry them through into next winter," Shoemaker said. "You know it's been a good summer when they are booking for next year before they leave town."
This article includes information from the Associated Press.