• Economists indicate Q3 slowdown

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation World Tourism Barometer has reported a 7% increase in international tourist arrivals in August to reach 421 million, with growth driven by the Asian markets.

Asia saw arrivals particularly spike in Sri Lanka, with a 49% increase, while Europe saw a slower 2% increase, which the UNWTO said had not extended to Northern Europe, being limited to "reasonable growth" in Western and Southern Mediterranean Europe.

"Although we are witnessing a clear recovery in international tourism, we must remain cautious," said UNWTO secretary-general, Taleb Rifai. "In many advanced economies, namely in the US and in some major European markets, economic recovery has still to consolidate."

Northern Europe, which was down by 3%, suffered in part due to disruption caused by the volcanic ash cloud in April, with Rifai adding: "To this we must add the recent introduction and increase in taxation, most specifically those which directly impact the tourism sector, such as air transport taxes."

He commented that, while the UNWTO understood the need to balance public accounts, "one-sided decisions on taxation risk adversely impacting a sector with a proven track record for job creation and economic growth".

For the full year, the UNWTO has maintained its initial forecast of international tourist arrivals growing by 3% to 4%, leaning towards the upper end for the globe, with no specific region trends.

Meanwhile, the UK government is pinning its growth plans on an export-led recovery, aided by a weak currency.

In the UK hotel general managers continue to remain confident, with 72% telling the TRI Hospitality HotStats Confidence Monitor that they were either optimistic or very optimistic about their hotel's trading performance for the next quarter.

Forty eight per cent of respondents were more optimistic this quarter compared to last, although fears of a double dip recession lead concerns, followed by public sector cutbacks and increasing hotel supply. 

"There may well be a negative impact of public sector cutbacks on hotel industry demand but let's not overstate this, clearly confidence levels and performance expectations remain decidedly positive." said Mark Dickens, managing director, HotStats.  

The study found that that 57% of respondents predicted growth in average room rate during Q3, up 16 percentage points since Q1 2010.  Seventy per cent of respondents predicted growth in revpar on the quarter, with 86% of respondents either expecting to maintain or increase their gross operating profit.

Recent data from TRI saw a boost from the Farnborough Air Show for London in July, but also rate growth in the provinces, driven by the leisure market and the ongoing popularity of staycations, aided by optimistic weather forecasts. However, the growth in staycations is an indication of caution from consumers, in an industry which needs strength from the corporate market for sustained growth.

Looking more recently, the Markit/CIPS services Purchasing Managers' Index reported that the UK service sector – which accounts for three quarters of the economy's output – grew at its slowest pace since April 2009 in August.

The PMI dropped to 51.3 in August from July's 53.1. Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, said: "The service sector is struggling to sustain momentum after a buoyant second quarter.

"Confidence about the year ahead has failed to recover from June's record drop, with public sector spending cuts and the looming VAT hike in January creating uncertainty over the future direction of the economy. While a double-dip recession remains unlikely, the survey suggests that the risk has increased and that growth looks set to be slow and choppy."

The fall sparked concerns over a slip back into recession, following similar drops in both the manufacturing and the construction indices in the same week. The index is now close to contraction, shown when it falls beneath 50. While talk of a double dip may be hasty, consensus opinion is now pointing to a slowdown in the third quarter and ongoing caution.

In contrast, in Europe Markit said its final August euro-zone PMI for the services sector had risen to a three-month high of 55.9 from 55.8 in July, topping a preliminary estimate of 55.6.

Despite this, International Monetary Fund chief economist Olivier Blanchard told Le Figaro this week that economic growth was likely to remain weak both in Europe and the US.

The IMF warned that the world economy was recovering moderately, but still needed medium-term fiscal consolidation, the kind of comment that causes consumers to be cautious over spending while they wait to see what public spending cuts this will entail.

Blanchard also warned that a slowdown in the US would spark drop in fortunes in Asia, the UNWTO's favoured region.

The US hotels sector has also shown signs of flattening recently, with the US Hotel Industry Leading Indicator of business activity increasing by 0.2% during July after going down 0.5% during June, according to research firm e-forecasting.com in conjunction with Smith Travel Research.

The six-month growth rate went up by an annual rate of 6.2% during July after going up 7.2% during June. Maria Simos, CEO of e-forecasting.com, said: "Even with this monthly increase, we are still seeing a deterioration in the six-month growth rate, which is now near its long-term trend. This means that growth in the US hotel industry is headed back to its long-term average and may stop seeing some of the strong months we have had this summer."

After the rollercoasters and false dawns, economists are indicating that the new reality facing the economy is set to be more muted than that of recent years, with the race to recovery at this stage favouring the tortoise.



HA Perspective: Martin Wolf, the respected economics commentator on the Financial Times, regularly points out that talk of a double dip is largely irrelevant.

A technical double dip requires that we have two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. This remains an outside bet.

But there is consensus that the next few years will see growth rates below trend. And Wolf points out that it will feel no different whether we have two quarters of growth at 0.1% each or two quarters at negative 0.1% and thus a double-dip.

Optimists would point out that economic models proved hugely flawed on the way into this recession and thus should be treated with caution on the way out.

And the hotel industry is currently rebounding particularly strongly, even while GDP growth remains subdued.

 The only certainty seems more uncertainty.

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