Comment: Travel sector resilience revealed in latest market data

Comment: Travel sector resilience revealed in latest market data

The ‘grand bargain’ brokered by Angela and Nicolas Merkozy may bolster the markets’ view of the euro or we may quickly find it has not.

While we wait to discover which, something we do know is that the UK outbound market endured a challenging summer and winter won’t be easy.

All eyes will be on Thomas Cook on Wednesday when the company needs to turn in not just a decent set of figures but a convincing turnaround plan to ward off fresh alarm in the City. There isn’t a long way further for the group’s stock to fall.

In the circumstances, it was a surprise to find German tourism research firm IPK International had reported UK outbound departures rose 2% year on year in the first eight months of 2011. The figure is for all trips, not just holidays, but the increase was still a surprise.

Even more surprising, IPK put outbound tourism growth in Germany in the first eight months of the year at 1%.

Now, until the summer the German economy was keeping the rest of Europe out of recession so for the country’s outbound travel market to show a rate of growth half that of the UK, with its stagnating economy, makes little sense.

IPK produces serious data, but its figure does not fit the view of the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS). The latter’s latest travel and tourism numbers, for the nine months to September, show UK departures flat year on year both for holidays and all trips.

No doubt the IPK figure would be preferable and the ONS statistics could be out, although they feel nearer the mark, but zero growth still suggests remarkable resilience in the current climate.

The ONS figures show substantial variations in growth rates through the course of 2011, which point to the squeeze on households hitting the holiday spending of a proportion of consumers, but not doing so universally. The shortfall appears to be in the mass market and at the busiest times.

This does not necessarily mean the package holiday market. ONS figures encompass all departures - lowcost carriers and charter, trade and independent.

The number taking outbound holidays in the month of September was down 1% on a year ago. However, this was a considerable improvement on July and August: holiday departures were down 6% year on year in July and down 8% in August.

That left the peak July-to-September period 5% short of 2010, and 2010 was no record year. It made this summer the fourth in succession that the UK has seen a third-quarter decline.

Yet departures in June were up (by 3%) and in April and May they were up substantially (by 13% in April and 11% in May), although the same months in 2010 were affected by volcanic ash.

For the year to date, as already noted, holiday departures were in line with 2010, while for the 12 months to September they were 1% down. Things could be much worse.

The ONS breakdown by destination region likewise fits what we already know, although these figures are for all trips - including corporate travel. For the year to September, departures were up year on year to Europe and the eurozone (both +2%), slightly down to North America (-1%) and more seriously down elsewhere (-6%).

A large slice of this decline to the rest of the world will be to North Africa, but it could also be due to APD.

However, the ‘rest of the world’ category has suffered less than Europe or North America in comparison with 2008, with numbers this year down 13% on three years ago. This compares with a 20% shortfall overall on 2008, 21% to the Eurozone and 26% to North America.

The country’s biggest tour operator, Tui Travel UK, did rather better in the year to September than the market as a whole (at least in the eyes of the ONS), reporting a 1% rise in UK passengers for the 12 months and record UK profits.

Where sales have gone down, the company noted, was in “lower-margin commodity products [which] have declined by 5%”.

The holiday market is in nowhere near as bad shape as it might be. Let’s hope Thomas Cook has claimed enough of a share to allow some breathing space.

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