This year has been a great one for many travel companies as Americans, free from the confines of Covid-19 restrictions, splurged on vacations. The question now is whether that momentum will continue or get derailed by a possible recession next year. Throughout 2022, consumers prioritized travel even if it meant cutting back in other areas. But if a downturn causes people to cut back even more on spending, travel could be on the chopping block. The U.S. Travel Association anticipates domestic leisure travel demand will hold up, although growth may be a bit slower in 2023. Volumes have returned to 2019 levels, and inflation-adjusted spending should reach 98% of 2019 spending in 2023, the association’s data show. “Despite inflationary pressures, consumers are well positioned to weather a possible downturn,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, the association’s vice president for public affairs and policy. Lower-income households may take fewer trips, but there is still pent-up demand, especially in the higher-income households that tend to travel more frequently, she added. The number of international travelers coming to the U.S., on the other hand, won’t recover as quickly thanks to delays in visa processing and the strong dollar, she said. As for domestic business travel, volume isn’t expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024, and spending won’t hit the mark until 2026, since it is adjusted for inflation. During this time of instability, people are reconciling what’s important to them — and travel remains high on their agendas, said Booking Holdings President and CEO Glenn Fogel in an email to CNBC. Some 57% of U.S. travelers said investing in a vacation remains a top priority, although 70% said they will look for ways to get the most for their money, a Booking.com survey found. The survey polled 24,179 respondents across 32 countries and territories who plan to travel for business or leisure in the next 12-24 months. The online survey was conducted in August and included 1,009 respondents from the U.S. “When we take an early look at demand into 2023 at Booking.com, we see strong growth in gross bookings on the books for travel that will take place in the first quarter of next year,” Fogel said. Delta Air Lines is also bullish. A week ago, the airline said it expects its adjusted earnings to nearly double to as much as $6 per share next year. The forecast, which was above Wall Street’s estimates at the time, reflects robust demand, the airline said. It anticipates a 15% to 20% jump in revenue in 2023 from this year. In fact, the global airline industry should return to profitability next year, the International Air Transport Association said. The group estimates airlines will earn $4.7 billion — the industry’s first profits since 2019, when it earned $26.4 billion. However, Wolfe Research isn’t banking on the travel resurgence continuing. The firm recently downgraded the online travel sector to market underweight from market weight. “Our downgrade thesis on travel is certainly not predicated only on macro trends. However, we struggle to see travel demand exhibiting high levels of resiliency and growth during a slowing economy in 2023,” analyst Deepak Mathivanan wrote in a note earlier this month. In fact, consumer prices for travel fell in November from October, according to the latest consumer price index report. The price tag for hotels, motels and lodging dropped nearly 5% month over month, while airfares fell by 0.6%. However, the price index for hotels, motels and lodging was still 3% higher than a year ago and airfares were 36% higher. ‘Lean and mean’ online travel companies While some brace for a slowdown in travel demand, Evercore ISI analyst Mark Mahaney said the online travel companies have already cut costs and have “lean and mean cost structures” going into 2023. One of his top picks is Booking Holdings, which has a battle-tested management team that has already navigated through 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and Covid, he recently told CNBC’s ” Closing Bell .” Most of the softening demand is probably mostly priced into the stock, but it may still drag shares down, depending on the severity of the recession, Mahaney said in a follow up interview. “They do have these newer growth initiatives, things like flights, payments, and what’s called merchandising. So that should help them on the other side,” he said. Booking also is a global travel company, with 20% exposure to Asia Pacific, and should benefit from pent-up demand once China reopens, he added. Delta seeing higher demand While Delta’s forecast was upbeat, other airlines have had a more cautious tone. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby recently told CNBC that there is still strong travel demand but that lucrative business travel has plateaued, and JetBlue warned that December demand is weaker than previously expected. Sylvia Jablonski, CEO and chief investment officer of Defiance ETFs, likes Delta, calling it the best-run airline in the business. Defiance has a travel ETF ( CRUZ ) that invests in hotel, airline and cruise stocks. Delta shares make up 7% of the ETF. Although the fund is down more than 21% year to date, it is up 18% since the fourth quarter began. “They raised their profit outlook for travel spend for next year,” Jablonski pointed out. “They’re increasing the capacity of actual planes that they have to meet the demand that they have. They’ve been able to … push out inflation and rising input costs.” The stock has an average analyst rating of buy and 47% upside to the average price target, according to FactSet. Hotel revenue growth to slow A key hotel industry metric, revenue per available room, or RevPAR, will end 2022 at record highs, but the industry also faces economic headwinds next year, according to PwC . The firm slightly revised its outlook from where it stood in May. It now anticipates hotel occupancy rates to hit 63.6% next year, a bit higher than this year’s anticipated 62.8%. RevPAR will moderate but still grow 5.8% in 2023 year over year, PwC said. In this environment, Jablonski likes Marriott , which makes up about 8% of CRUZ’s holdings. “They have a strong balance sheet. They’re structured well. They’re a profitable company,” she said. “They’re continuing to invest and they’re getting back to capacity as people start to go for work and leisure travel.” Marriott has an average analyst rating of overweight and 13.5% upside to the average analyst price target, per FactSet. Cruise lines still in recovery mode The cruise lines are still recovering from being out of commission during the Covid-19 pandemic. Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean are both largely liked by analysts. Norwegian has an average analyst rating of overweight and nearly 27% upside to the average analyst price target, while Royal Caribbean has an average analyst rating of overweight and about 24% upside to its average price target. However, Carnival has an average analyst rating of hold and 24% upside to the average price target. Jablonski prefers Norwegian because it has a smaller fleet and therefore is easier to fill. It also has a new Prima line that touts lots of outdoor deck space and larger cabins. Norwegian makes up about 4% of CRUZ. “They focus on a premium market, so they’re less likely to feel the pinch of the recession,” Jablonski said, adding that with all her picks, she has a two-year outlook because she anticipates consumer psychology will be hit by the economic slowdown. — CNBC’s Michael Bloom contributed reporting.
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