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Hotel owners and management companies are breathing a sigh of relief.

After weathering the worst of the economic downturn that sent their occupancies and room rates plummeting, hotels are starting to see more demand as business travel and, to a lesser extent, leisure travel, pick up.

Analysts consider occupancy a leading indicator — it climbs first, then rate increases follow. This year, they say, hotel rates will begin rising again.

For travelers, that probably means the beginning of the end of the buyer’s market they have enjoyed over the last couple of years.

One caveat to the good news for hotel companies is that the rebound in demand is unevenly distributed. Cities like New York, Washington and San Francisco all finished 2010 with healthy occupancy rates. But analysts said many smaller cities and those located far from the coasts may continue to struggle.

Leisure travelers, too, can still find deals if they are flexible, analysts say. Rates at high-end hotels fell the most. And while prices are recovering quickly, the magnitude of their earlier fall means rates at those high-end properties have further to go before catching up.

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