Travel stocks ready to set sail

The sector has been hit hard in the economic downturn, and stocks are now too cheap to ignore.

By Jonathan Berr Dec 1, 2011 3:05PM
Image: Cruise ship (© Keith Wood/Corbis)Earlier this year, Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL) hit investors with a double whammy of disappointment, announcing an accounting error and slashing earnings guidance for the year because of higher fuel prices.  

Shares of the Miami cruise operator, not surprisingly, got crushed and are down more than 40% for the year. Things, though, are looking better for the company.

As the U.S. economy slowly recovers, people are going to feel more confident about their economic futures and will take more vacations. Cruise ship operators, including Royal Caribbean and rival Carnival (CCL), are in a good position to win business from budget-conscious travelers because they market themselves as providing the most value for the vacation dollar. 

Rising bookings also is benefiting Club Mediterranee (CLMDY), the French parent company of the Club Med resorts, which appeals to the same type of consumer along with well-to-do vacationers eager for the amenities of an all-inclusive resort. Walt Disney (DIS) saw a 33% rise in operating income in its parks and resorts business in the last quarter, helped by the strong performance at its theme parks analysts expect to continue into 2012.

Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain noted the fourth quarter was on target with the company's expectations, though "volatility around the political and economic headlines is creating a great deal of uncertainty and angst for us and for everybody else." Carnival chief operating officer Howard Frank recently noted that bookings "have held up quite well" and are fetching higher prices for next year. Shares of the world's largest cruise operator have slumped more than 27% this year.

The cruise ship operators, and to a lesser extent Disney, were hurt this year because of worries about oil prices. Should tensions with Iran heat up, oil prices may get even more volatile. These companies, though, can absorb these costs through fuel surcharges that some newly confident consumers will be willing to shoulder.

Shares of Royal Caribbean and Carnival are dirt cheap, trading at a price-to-earnings multiple of 8.94 and 13.09, well under the 19.79 multiple of the S&P 500. By that measure, Disney is a compelling value as well with a p/e value of 13.5. Its shares are down about 9% this year.

Wall Street analysts have an average price target of $37.33 on Royal Caribbean (trading Thursday at $27.52), a $42.64 target on Carnival (trading Thursday at $33.18) and a $42 target on Disney (trading Thursday at $36.09). Online travel companies such as Priceline (PCLN) and Expedia (EXPE) are less compelling values because they have already have had double-digit gains this year.



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