PARIS — Asian tourism, devastated by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, might not rebound until 2004.

That’s the outlook from several luxury goods analysts, who consider the perceived safety of travel a key driver for a sector already hit by terrorism fears, economic recession and currency impacts.

At its annual shareholders’ meeting here Tuesday, Hermès International acknowledged the impact of SARS and other factors in explaining that sales in the first four months of the year inched up 3 percent, excluding currency fluctuations, shy of the 5.5 percent gain reported in the first quarter. Analysts estimated the decline in April to be about 4.5 percent.

Antoine Belge, luxury analyst at HSBC in Paris, said Japanese overseas travel was down 42 percent in April, making the impact of SARS worse than the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. While the situation has improved in many regions with the lifting of World Health Organization travel warnings, Belge noted that Taiwan has worsened, and yen weakness against the euro has made Europe an expensive destination for Japanese travelers.

“If worldwide travel does not materially improve before the key September-to-December period, which represents 40 to 45 percent of annual earnings, the sector is likely to record its third consecutive year of negative earnings growth,” he wrote in a research note published Tuesday.

Claire Kent, luxury analyst at Morgan Stanley, is forecasting that luxury sales in Asia are down 25 to 30 percent in the second quarter. In her weekly report on the sector, Kent notes that tourism in the Asia Pacific region was down by 53 percent in April, “with May likely to be worse. The region is on a recovery path, but the pace of recovery may be disappointing.”

Andy Xie, Morgan Stanley’s Asia-Pacific economist, notes that international inbound tourism might fully recover only in 2004. One of the most dramatic figures shows that Japanese visitors to Hong Kong plummeted 85.5 percent in April.

At the meeting, a question-and-answer period, Fabrice Boe, managing director, noted that sales in May improved over April, although he didn’t provide figures. During his address, he described 2003 as a “difficult year,” listing weak tourist flows, SARS and adverse exchange rates among the negative factors it faces. “Hermès does not exist in a bubble,’ he said.Still, Hermès chairman Jean-Louis Dumas told shareholders the effects of SARS appear to be abating. “I’m under the impression it’s already forgotten,” he said, citing as evidence a 2 percent sales gain in April in the firm’s Hong Kong store.

Merrill Lynch analyst Antoine Colonna recently downgraded Hermès’ stock to neutral from buy. While the investment firm still considers Hermès “the most profitable company in the sector,” it warns that the company should finish 2003 with virtually no growth in earnings for the first time in more than a decade.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Dumas noted that Jean Paul Gaultier, in which Hermès owns a 35 percent stake, had sales growth of 28 percent last year, driven by new stores in London, New York and Paris. As reported, Hermès recently signed Gaultier to design Hermès’ women’s ready-to-wear, showing his first collection next March.

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