The Rise and Fall of an American Tourist Mecca
Atlantic City is run down today because of decades of declining tourism, failing investments, and loss of its core industries. But it was not always this way. Atlantic City was once America‘s premier seaside resort and the East Coast‘s Las Vegas. So what happened?
Back in 1854, Atlantic City became easily accessible thanks to new train routes connecting it to major cities like Philadelphia and New York. Hotels, amusement piers, boardwalks, and other entertainment venues popped up to serve the influx of tourists. Atlantic City saw its heyday from the 1920s to 1950s as the leading resort town on the Jersey Shore.
However, its fortunes started changing after World War II. Americans suddenly had more expendable income and vacation time to travel further distances. Cheap air travel took East Coast tourists to new hot spots like Florida, California, and the Caribbean. Atlantic City was no longer their only option.
The final blow came in 1976 when New Jersey voters approved gambling for Atlantic City in hopes of revitalizing the struggling city. Casinos did provide a temporary boost, but competition from newly built casinos in neighboring states would eventually drain Atlantic City‘s gaming revenues. In 2020, Atlantic City casinos generated just $2.88 billion in gaming revenue, down over 40% from 2006 levels.
3 Key Reasons Atlantic City Became So Rundown
There are three major factors that led to Atlantic City‘s precipitous decline over the past decades:
1. Loss of Its Tourism Monopoly
In the 1950s, Atlantic City held an effective monopoly on East Coast gambling and tourism. Air travel opened up new vacation destinations, decentralizing where Americans spent their tourism dollars. Legalization of casinos and lotteries across the Northeast gave visitors convenient gaming options much closer to home. From 1991 to 2006, Atlantic City‘s share of Northeastern US casino gaming revenue dropped from 100% to 34%.
2. Failure to Diversify Beyond Gaming
Atlantic City relied too heavily on gaming revenues and did not do enough to attract visitors with concerts, conventions, retail, and other non-gambling entertainment. Las Vegas diversified successfully while Atlantic City remained dependent on its dwindling share of regional gaming income. Atlantic City has over 11,700 hotel rooms but less than 400,000 feet of meeting/exhibit space compared to over 10 million feet available in Las Vegas.
3. Decline in Business and Leisure Travel
As Atlantic City declined, so did demand for business and events travel there. The Atlantic City Convention Center has lost major conferences and meetings over the past two decades. From a peak of 744,000 business visitors in 1997, Atlantic City saw only 139,000 in 2021. National retailers also shuttered many of their Atlantic City outlets over the years as shoppers preferred other areas.
Atlantic City‘s Current Challenges: High Vacancy Rates and Poverty
These three factors left Atlantic City in its current dilapidated state with blocks of empty buildings and casinos. The city has a residential vacancy rate near 15%, almost triple the national average. Poverty also remains painfully high at over 35%.
The below tables show how poor Atlantic City‘s tourism metrics are relative to its prime years in the late 1900s and other major US casino hubs today:
|Casino Revenue||$5.2 billion||$2.9 billion||– 44%|
|Business Visitors||744,000||139,000||– 81%|
|Hotel Occupancy||85%||63%||– 22 pts|
|City||Casino Revenue 2021||Hotel Occupancy 2021|
|Las Vegas||$10.5 billion||77%|
|Atlantic City||$2.9 billion||63%|
These statistics make it evident how far Atlantic City‘s tourism economy has fallen since its glory days. Areas of the city literally look frozen in the late 20th century with crumbling hotels and aging casinos in need of demolition or major rehabilitation.
Reason for Hope: Recent Investments in New Casinos
However, there are some promising signs with over $2.5 billion invested in new hotels and casinos since 2014. The Ocean Casino Resort and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino opened sleek new properties with modern amenities. Investors seem willing to bet on Atlantic City again if it can diversify its offerings to visitors beyond just slot machines.
While challenges remain, Atlantic City is undergoing some revitalization. The key factors that led to its decline are now pushing leaders to attract new industries and reimagine the city for the 21st century global tourism market.
Is Atlantic City Worth Visiting Today? Our Advice for Tourists
Atlantic City still attracts over 19 million visitors a year. Many come for the casinos and beaches. So is it still worth visiting this old seaside resort?
The answer is yes…with the right expectations. Here is our advice for getting the most out of an Atlantic City vacation today:
Where to Stay
Aim to stay near the prime Boardwalk area. This puts you close to the main attractions while avoiding the derelict parts of town. The newer Ocean Casino and Hard Rock Hotel are excellent options. Historic options like Caesars and Tropicana are aged but convenient.
The Boardwalk area is very walkable, especially during daylight hours. But avoid wandering too far off the main drag on foot. Use rideshares at night and consider renting a car to access outlets and casinos in the Marina District.
Top Things To Do
- Stroll the iconic Boardwalk for its mix of casinos, amusements, food, and shopping
- Hit the beach and take a ride on the Steel Pier observation wheel
- Indulge in Atlantic City‘s famous seafood restaurants
- See headline acts at casinos like Bruno Mars at Park MGM
- Shop for major bargains at Atlantic City Outlets (The Walk)
- Pamper yourself atoceanfront spas like Qua Baths & Spa at Caesars
Atlantic City does have higher violent crime rates than national averages. Follow basic safety precautions:
- Don‘t walk alone off the Boardwalk at night
- Avoid poorly lit alleyways and side streets
- Stay in your hotel lobby vs. walking if you feel uncomfortable
- Don‘t display valuables like cameras and jewelry
Atlantic City offers great bang for your buck once you get there. Ways to save include:
- Using hotel-casino packages to get free play credits and dining vouchers
- Never paying full price for show tickets – ask hotel concierge for promos
- Hitting happy hours from 4-6pm for discount drinks and food specials
- Playing low minimum tables to stretch your gambling budget
Atlantic City may never regain the glory of its heyday. But with the right tourist mindset and street smarts, it can still deliver that nostalgic mid-century seaside vacation vibe alongside modern amenities and entertainment. Follow this guide to experience the best of this quintessential American boardwalk town.
Sources: Absecon Lighthouse. "History of Atlantic City: The Rise & Fall: 1850 – Today." https://www.abseconlighthouse.org/history-atlantic-city-rise-fall/
 The Center for Gaming Research. "Gaming Revenue Reports." https://gaming.unlv.edu/reports.html#NJ
 Israel Posner. “The Challenges of Urban Revitalization in Atlantic City.” 2003. Stockton University. https://intraweb.stockton.edu/eyos/hughescenter/content/docs/UR%20Challenges%20for%20AC.pdf
 Atlantic City Convention Center. “Atlantic City Meetings.” https://meetinac.com/facilities/convention-center/
 Angelo, Frank. “Atlantic City tourism district’s business visitors drop by 500K over 25 years.” Press of Atlantic City. May 11, 2022. https://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/news/atlantic_city_news/atlantic-city-tourism-districts-business-visitors-drop-by-500k-over-25-years/article_a3c4a4b2-cf9f-11ec-bc4d-77145b362d3e.html
 US Census Bureau. “QuickFacts Atlantic City, New Jersey.” https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/atlanticcitycitynewjersey
 Schwartz, Brian. “In Atlantic City, one-third of the population lives in poverty.” WHYY. September 29, 2020. https://whyy.org/articles/in-atlantic-city-one-third-of-the-population-lives-in-poverty/
 Lomax, Alyana. “Atlantic City gaming revenue approaching pre-pandemic levels.” KYW Newsradio. June 14, 2022. https://www.audacy.com/kywnewsradio/news/local/atlantic-city-casino-revenue-rebounding-to-pre-pandemic-levels
 D‘Ambrosio, Vincent.“Atlantic City tourism district‘s visitor volume drops in 2021, but future bookings appear strong.” Press of Atlantic City. May 24, 2022. https://pressofatlanticcity.com/news/atlantic_city_news/atlantic-city-tourism-districts-visitor-volume-drops-in-2021-but-future-bookings-appear-strong/article_013f83ae-dc6c-11ec-9c9a-df7393a70174.html
 Neighborhood Scout. “Atlantic City Crime Rates.” https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/nj/atlantic-city/crime