Travel industry job numbers predicted to bounce back

A decline in the size of the UK travel agency workforce appears to have halted, with government data showing staff numbers climbed back above 66,000 last year.

Job numbers in the sector are forecast to remain flat this year, but the combined revenue of agencies and operators is forecast to hit a six-year high.

Thomas Cook announced 2,500 redundancies in March, including 900 shop staff and 1,600 across its retail division. These jobs have been factored into the forecast.

The employment data comes from an analysis of Office for National Statistics (ONS) data for the annual Innovation Report in Travolution, sister publication of Travel Weekly. This looks at IT investment in travel, using employment data to make spending forecasts for the year.

The ONS recorded 66,346 UK travel agents in 2012, up from 64,408 in 2011, a rise of 3%.

Back in 2008 when the current period of financial crisis and recession began, there were 69,471 agents. Numbers declined 7% between then and 2011.

Tour operator employment saw a smaller contraction – falling 3.5% from 18,757 in 2008 to 18,091 in 2010 – and picked up earlier, rising to 19,090 in 2011 and 20,145 last year. That is 7% up on 2008 and 11% up on 2010.

The ONS forecasts tour operator employment will rise again this year by 5% to above 21,250.

Total UK employment numbers fluctuated less, varying by under 2% from 29.4 million in 2008 to 29 million in 2010 and 29.5 million last year. The strength of these figures, given high unemployment elsewhere in Europe, has had some economists scratching their heads.

The figures suggest employment in the travel trade (agents and tour operators combined) has proved resilient overall, with numbers declining just 2% between 2008 and 2012, and forecast to rise this year to leave a decline of less than 1% over the period.

The ONS calculates total numbers in the travel industry at 475,000 in 2012 – including air transport, hotels and water transport – rising to 481,000 this year.

That compares with just below 484,000 in 2008, meaning employment trends in the trade are broadly in line with the industry as a whole where numbers were down 2% last year on 2008 and are forecast to be 0.5% down on 2008 this year.

Hotels account for the lion’s share of travel industry employment with more than 300,000 staff – 65% of the total.

However, UK hotel staff numbers have been broadly flat over the five-year period to 2012, though with a 2% dip in 2010. They are forecast to grow just 1% this year.

By contrast, numbers working in aviation fell 9% between 2008 and last year – more than the decline in water transport (-6%).

The ONS estimates the combined turnover of UK travel agents and tour operators last year at £25.8 billion – the highest since the period of financial crisis and recession began.

That beat the 2009 high of £24.7 billion and showed a marked recovery (+21%) on the 2010 figure of £21.3 billion, even allowing for inflation.

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