By Donald Wittkowski
Although not many people in Sea Isle City may know how to speak French, they certainly know how to play friendly hosts to French-Canadian tourists.
Sea Isle and other Cape May County shore towns enjoyed strong visitation from Canada this summer in what proved to be a boost for local restaurants, retail shops and other businesses, a tourism official reported.
“It was a good summer overall for the Canadians,” said Christine Ostrander, tourism representative for the Cape May County Department of Tourism.
Overall, Canadians represent about 10 percent of the total number of visitors to Cape May County, generating an estimated $139 million in economic output, Ostrander noted. More than 100,000 Canadians spend their vacations in the beach communities spread across Cape May County. Most come from Quebec Province.
“They love it. They love Cape May County,” Ostrander said. “They love the fact they can get here in one day.”
Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant, said this summer was the best in memory for French-Canadian customers at his Sea Isle eatery.
“I’ve never had this many French-Canadians in one summer,” he said.
Speaking during a board meeting Tuesday of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, Monichetti said on one night alone over the summer he had about 150 French-Canadians dine in his Park Road restaurant.
He praised Cape May County for its marketing programs and travel shows that help to draw Canadian tourists to the Jersey Shore year after year.
“We are fortunate to have Cape May County participate in all these events, not only to help Sea Isle, but other towns,” Monichetti said.
With household staples such as food, gasoline and clothing being more expensive in Canada, the Canadian tourists look for bargains when they vacation in Cape May County, Ostrander pointed out.
“When they come across the border with empty suitcases, they’re filling them up and bringing them back,” she told the Sea Isle Chamber of Commerce members.
Cape May County’s allure for Canadian tourists dates back to 1968. It was then that the county began marketing itself to Canadians as a vacation destination. Those efforts continue at full steam today, including a Canadian travel consultant who represents Cape May County in Montreal.
Canada’s infatuation with Cape May County as a vacation hotspot is showcased in five shows of a 13-episode Quebec Travel Channel “Directions to the Sea” series that began airing in June.
Although the series will be shown only in Canada, depriving Americans of the chance to see it, local tourism officials are ecstatic over the free publicity Cape May County will receive in a major international market. Millions of Canadians are expected to watch the series, Ostrander said.
“It can go into reruns for up to five years, so when it’s all said and done, there will be millions of viewers,” she said. “It’s a lot of viewers.
The series features five episodes on Cape May, Wildwood, North Wildwood, Avalon, Stone Harbor, Sea Isle and Ocean City. Cape May, Wildwood and North Wildwood each have their own episode. Avalon and Stone Harbor are grouped together in one episode, as are Sea Isle and Ocean City.
During filming last year for the episode in Sea Isle, a Quebec Travel Channel crew was chaperoned on the Promenade in a surrey cart driven by Mayor Leonard Desiderio.
One tourist-friendly spot featured in the Sea Isle episode is Fish Alley, the historic enclave of family-owned restaurants and fishing boats lining the bayfront along Park Road.
Monichetti, who was interviewed by the Quebec Travel Channel, had a red-and-white Canadian flag flying in front of his restaurant during the filming as a greeting for French-Canadian visitors.
More publicity for the Cape May County shore towns in the Canadian market will come this spring in the form of an 11-page feature story in the publication “Ricardo,” Canada’s glossy cooking magazine.
“They’re a pretty large publication in Canada. They compare themselves to Rachael Ray,” Ostrander said of the American celebrity chef and Food Network personality.