A key annual tourism conference returned to Las Vegas on Tuesday, part of what experts say is a broader resurgence in the travel industry.
As the Governor's Conference on Tourism kicked off at the Rio for its first local appearance since 2007, state officials and national economists talked up renewed consumer spending and improving indicators that indicate improvements in Nevada's leisure and hospitality sector. They also discussed diversifying Nevada's tourism base, using the state's economic engine as a starting point for expanding its economy.
Gov. Brian Sandoval kicked off the meeting's opening session, noting that visitor volumes, hotel-room occupancies and taxable retail sales have all increased in recent months.
"All of you are leading us out of the Great Recession," Sandoval told 250 attendees who work in the state's leisure and hospitality sector.
"This week promises to add to our collective narrative, as we continue to tell Nevada's story, and share with the world its brilliant attractions," Sandoval added. "We can get Nevada working again, and prove its best days are yet to come."
For better times, though, Nevada needs stronger economies elsewhere.
Economist Jeff Thredgold, of Thredgold Economic Associates in Utah, said economies across the country and world are improving, but in small increments. That will mean decent, not great, expansion in tourism in the next year or so.
"The future for tourism is not going to be one of explosive growth, but things are moving in the right direction," Thredgold said. "Things are going to get better and better."
To understand why growth may be marginal, start with consumer confidence. The recession ended nearly 2½ years ago, but unemployment has stayed at around 9 percent, home prices remain weak, commercial markets continue to struggle and consumers still fret about job security and creation. Throw in concern over rising federal debt and the potential for higher taxes, and you have "a recession of confidence" that's pushing consumer spending and business investment to the sidelines, Thredgold said.
So don't expect nationwide economic expansion of more than 2 percent in 2012, a rate similar to 2011's growth.
What could help? For one thing, inflation is unlikely to balloon enough to hurt spending power, Thredgold added.
That's partly because the world has excess capacity in almost every economic sector, which will keep a lid on price hikes in tourism and other industries. Also, consumers are more aggressive today, likelier to bargain for deals rather than pay higher prices. Improving worker productivity and the Internet, which businesses use to streamline operations, will suppress inflation as well.
Globally, Thredgold predicted seven growth industries in coming years: Technology, transportation, telecommunications, financial services, energy, entertainment and biomedicine. The United States is positioned well in all of those sectors, he said. What's more, 78 million baby boomers mean especially strong growth for businesses in leisure and entertainment, health care, financial planning and tattoo removal (he was kidding about that last one, but only sort of).
And there's plenty of pent-up demand for travel and tourism in particular. Chinese citizens fly an average of once every five years, while Indians fly an average of once every 20 years. Those numbers are bound to drop as economic prosperity grows in those countries. Plus, Americans long to indulge their wanderlust once more.
"People are saying, 'I'm tired of this (belt-tightening). Let's go have fun,' " Thredgold said.
But the picture is bleaker for California, Nevada's largest feeder market for both tourists and new residents.
Thredgold called the Golden State "our own Greece," noting it continues to run massive deficits.
"California shoots itself in the foot every 10 years, going through that (deficit) process," though the state has returned to minimal job growth, he added.
He said 3,000 middle-class Californians leave the state every week for greener pastures elsewhere, and economic-development officials from across the West are flocking there to pilfer businesses.
In addtion to Sandoval and Thredgold, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman spoke at Tuesday's opening session. Also addressing the crowd was Claudia Vecchio, director of the newly created Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs.
State officials canceled the Governor's Conference on Tourism in 2008 and 2009 for financial reasons. A smaller event happened in Reno in 2010.
The event runs through today .
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at email@example.com or 702-380-4512.