By KRIS HUDSON
The long-battered hotel industry is turning the corner as occupancy and revenue in the U.S. finally start to rebound. But hotel owners can’t start partying just yet. Hotel properties remain deeply indebted, with billions of dollars of mortgages coming due in the coming years amid forecasts the industry won’t regain its full strength until 2013.

For now, however, hotel owners and operators are focusing on the first good news they have had in two years, which in some cases is coming earlier than industry analysts expected. Data from Smith Travel Research released earlier this week shows U.S. hotel occupancy rose more than two percentage points in the first five months of this year from the same period last year, to 54.7%. During the first five months of 2008, before the industry’s decline started in earnest, occupancy averaged 59.4%. Average full-year occupancy peaked at 63.2% in 2006.

Revenue per available room, or revpar, in this year’s first five months rose 1% to $52.99, according to Smith Travel. In comparison, it averaged $64.57 in the first five months of 2008. Earlier forecasts had the recovery starting in 2011. “I did not expect it to get this positive this fast,” said Monty Bennett, chief executive of Ashford Hospitality Trust Inc., which owns 102 U.S. hotels.

Returning to the industry’s boom-time highs could take several years. PKF Consulting Inc., a hotel-industry analysis company, predicts U.S. average rates and revpar will return to their recent peaks by 2013, but occupancy won’t do so until after 2014. As for property values, HVS, the hotel and leisure research company, forecasts U.S. hotels will regain their 2006 values by 2013.

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