The (basic) problem with measuring tourism…

This week I’m in Kuwait…despite this being the time of year most people here are travelling the other way, to escape the 50 degree heat.  However, from my air conditioned office, the only real heat is that coming out of my computer as it crunches through thousands of figures trying to help me work out just how many tourists visit this small country on the Arabian Peninsular.

The problem faced here in Kuwait is one of the most fundamental faced when measuring tourism. The organisation tasked with looking after the country’s borders, the Ministry of Interior (immigration) is only really interested in security, and the swift movement of travellers across its various borders, either in or out.  On arrival in the country, they make a note of your nationality, a few passport details, and that’s the lot.

However, from a tourism perspective, we want to know what the purpose of visit of all these arrivals is, and what their country of residence is.  Only then can we determine whether the traveller is a tourist (leisure or business), and gather some useful information for marketing the country.

So for the meantime, we have to work with the data we have, and accept that it really is a rough approximation of tourist arrivals.  Getting the procedures changed at the border posts will be a long and bureaucratic process, and may not ever reach fruition.  Sadly, Kuwait is not alone.  Increasingly, as countries try to speed up border procedures, tourism statistics suffer.  The best example I remember in recent years is in South Africa.  They had a perfect Entry/Departure card that recorded all the key attributes you need to understand inbound tourism.  Then one day they got rid of it.  Enter South Africa today and you’ll find no one asks you your purpose of visit.  So despite the statistics they publish they don’t really know how many tourists visit for leisure, VFR, business…

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

2013 is the International Year of Statistics.  How many of you knew that?  I wonder how many organisations will celebrate this with some fine examples of data collection and presentation during the year.  I’d like to highlight these in this blog.

One of the main reasons we set up T-Stats was to provide a system that would encourage DMOs to collect more data, and enable them to understand what was going on in their destinations rather than being led by gut feelings and pure guesswork.  Statistics get a bad name through their misuse and poor definitions.  All too often it’s not clear exactly what the “15% growth in visitors” or the “10% decline in spend” exactly refers to, which makes the figures meaningless.

So what a pleasure it was to read Ken Robinson’s article in the latest edition of Destination UK (http://www.destination.uk.com – subscription only) “Titled Chinese Puzzle – the Southsea bubble of tourism?”.  The article looks at the value of the Chinese tourist and the Government’s investment in this market.

Much hype has been made about these visitors, and the need for the UK to invest precious resources to attract them to these shores.  The article points out that the Government will be “investing £8 million to expand the GREAT marketing campaign from 2013 – with a strong focus on China, aiming to triple the number of visitors from this key growth market”.

You may have read that visitors from China spend an average of £1,676 per visit to the UK, nearly three times as much as other visitors.  But here we are mislead by the absence of any further explanation about this expenditure.

In his article, Ken points out that this high expenditure is largely due to the long length of stay of Chinese visitors due to many travelling for study and staying an average of 112 nights.  When you work out how much these visitors spend per day, it amounts to only £75, which is less then the overall average of inbound tourists which stands at £81.  So Chinese visitors are less valuable per day than most other visitors and only make up 0.5% of all inbound tourists.  Hardly a market that appears obvious for considerable investment.

Statistics are critical to understand tourism, but they can equally be misleading if they are not used properly, and the background to individual figures are not properly understood.