What a difference a year makes
The region's tourism sector continues to improve—nowhere more so than along the Alabama Gulf Coast, especially when we consider where we were last year on Independence Day:
The Mobile Press-Register's report from the Alabama coast on July 4, 2010, contained this passage:
"The sun shone, the sand glistened and the water was pleasant Sunday at Dauphin Island's public beach. There was only one thing missing from this otherwise perfect 4th of July: People.
"On the 76th day of the ongoing oil spill disaster, only a couple dozen visitors were at the beach at 1:30 p.m. on what is usually one of the busiest days of the summer."
The Associated Press coverage from the Alabama coast on July 4, 2011, contained this report:
"State officials are expecting a big week for tourism along Alabama's coast. … Promoters say almost all of the 17,000 condominiums and hotels in southern Baldwin County are full through the Fourth of July.
"The area's 2,500 camp sites also are occupied, and many guests are staying through next weekend."
More broadly, our contacts in the leisure and hospitality sector throughout the region continue to convey positive reports. From Miami Beach to Dollywood, tourist activity is up. As noted above, beachgoers are visiting the coasts. Attendance at festivals in Tennessee and New Orleans is well up from year-ago levels. The Federal Reserve's last Beige Book report from the Atlanta District noted that:
"Tourism activity improved further throughout the District. Occupancy and room rates were boosted by increases in both business and leisure travel. Convention and cruise bookings have increased as well. Overall, contacts in the travel industry remained optimistic."
The bottom line? People are taking vacations and spending at healthy levels.
By Mike Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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Is the worst over for Gulf Coast tourism?
There has been a clear shift among our contacts in the Gulf Coast leisure and hospitality sector since the oil stopped flowing in mid-July. Cautious optimism has replaced outright pessimism. That said, most realize that the damage done by cancellations and fewer visitors may not be undone in 2010. However, fears that long-term damage to the Gulf Coast "brand" of clear water and white sandy beaches beyond the current year have subsided somewhat.
Assessing the economic impact on tourism-related businesses is a challenge. We have received anecdotal accounts of reduced hiring of seasonal workers by hotels and property managers, but this reduction is unlikely to be reflected in data through June. Reports of cancellations from our contacts in the region did not begin in earnest until after Memorial Day. In addition, hotels appear to be faring better than rental properties such as beach houses and condos, so the overall impact on accommodation-related employment may not be as great as feared. Clean-up workers, oil company employees, media, and National Guardsmen appear to have stepped in to fill some of the vacancies created by potential Gulf Coast vacationers changing their plans because of the spill. Of course, it is fair to assume that vacationing families spend more on hotel amenities and pump more into the local economy through retail purchases, recreational outings, and dining out than do workers employed to deal with the spill. For that reason we expect to see the greatest impact on recreation jobs as well as food services because of the decline in recreational fishing excursions and fewer visitors patronizing eating and drinking establishments.
On July 20, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released state and local employment data for June and revised data for May. Based on the total number of people employed in arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services in Gulf Coast metro areas (excluding New Orleans) we estimate there were roughly 105,000 tourism-related workers along the affected areas (see the chart). This number is up slightly compared with June of last year and is in line with the average for June over the past decade. We do not see any large swings in the monthly data, but as we noted above, most cancellations came in after Memorial Day and accommodation jobs appear to be the least vulnerable.
Perhaps vacationers who put off travelling to the Gulf Coast may choose to take a fall vacation this year once they are assured that the coast is clear—figuratively and literally—but a recent survey suggests challenges lie ahead for the Gulf Coast's leisure and hospitality businesses. The State of the American Traveler survey conducted by Destination Analysts Inc. showed 26 percent of respondents said they were less likely to travel to the region over the next 12 months.By Amy Ellingson, a research analyst at the Atlanta Fed
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The Gulf oil spill: Measuring the impact on tourism
In the weeks following the Gulf oil spill, we counted the number of people employed in sectors most vulnerable to a decline in vacationers. In a macroblog posting back in May, we looked at Bureau of Economic Analysis data and developed a conservative estimate of roughly 123,000 workers, based on the total number of individuals employed in arts, entertainment, and recreation as well as accommodation and food services for Gulf Coast metro areas from western Louisiana to Panama City. Since then, we have been patiently waiting for official employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on state and local employment. On July 20, we will see revised data for May and the first release of data for June.
To further help us understand the impact on tourism, we have also been talking to our contacts in the region as well as tuning into what travel industry experts have been reporting. Last week, Hotel News Now reported on how late-spring and early-summer bookings held up better than expected in most places, but advance reservations were declining significantly for Gulf Coast hotels. Our business contacts in the area also report similar experiences. Part of the decline in vacationers is being offset by an increase in bookings by officials and crews that are migrating to the Gulf to plan and assist in the cleanup. Those reports lead us to believe that the employment impact in the tourism-related sectors of the economy may not be readily seen for some time.
We will continue to watch this important industry as well as the entire region as the oil spill continues.
By Michael Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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Let's focus on what we do know
The Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics blog quotes recent analysis from J.P. Morgan Chase in its post, Oil Spill May End Up Lifting GDP Slightly.
" 'The spill clearly implies a lot of economic hardship in some locations, but given what we know today, the magnitude of these setbacks looks dwarfed by the scale of the US macroeconomy,’ said chief U.S. economist Michael Feroli. If anything, he added, U.S. GDP could gain slightly from it….
"Commercial fishing in the Gulf is also likely to suffer, but that's only about 0.005% of U.S. GDP. The impact on tourism is the hardest to measure, although it's fair to expect that many hotel workers who lose their jobs will find it hard to get new ones. Still, cleaning up the spill will likely be enough to slightly offset the negative impact of all this on GDP, J.P. Morgan said. The bank cites estimates of 4,000 unemployed people hired for the cleanup efforts, which some reports have said could be worth between $3 and $6 billion."
Another point brought up by several analysts is that the size of the U.S. economy requires that a disaster would have to be massive to have an impact on national economic performance. Earthquakes, hurricanes (including Katrina), and other disasters simply did not have a significant impact on short-term national economic growth.
Smartly, the Real Time Economics post also notes that the J.P. Morgan commentary points out that:
"[G]ross domestic product measures are often not a good guide to an economy's well being."
It is also important to note that this story continues to unfold. We simply do not know what the long-term implications of the oil spill will be or what potential changes in the regulatory environment could have on future energy extraction—not only in the Gulf but also nationally.
Analysts will continue to strive to put a number tag on the oil spill, both in terms of the impact on the macroeconomy and in terms of the regional economic impact. The truth of the matter is that what we do know is still far less than what we don't know.
By Michael Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
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