Tracking tourism in Oman


This week I’m back in Oman at the Ministry of Tourism in Muscat.

We’re doing lots of exciting stuff, including the development of a quarterly statistics monitor to provide some indicators about how tourism is performing in Oman.  It needs to be up-to-date and current, showing changes compared to the same period the previous year.

When you search about, there is a surprising range of useful indicators that can paint a picture of tourism in a destination.

Firstly, there are the obvious ones that most destinations focus on: tourist arrivals by purpose of visit for (at least) the top five source markets. Better still, it’s good to concentrate on leisure tourist arrivals, as these are the ones a national tourism administration will primarily be responsible for attracting. Timeliness of this data can sometimes be a challenge, but working closely with immigration departments can help.

Then there are accommodation data, ideally room occupancy and average room rates. These are usually available from monthly accommodation surveys. Not all hotels and guesthouses need to respond to these – a sample is enough.

Visits to attractions can usually be collected fairly quickly and without too much difficulty. Again, not all attractions need to provide data, as long as those that do are broadly representative of all attractions in the destination, and therefore can give an indication of change in tourist demand.

Possibly the easiest indicators to collect, and at no cost, are digital media statistics. Some of the most useful include unique visitors to the destination website and followers on Facebook and Twitter. All of these provide an indication of interest in the destination, and can be a useful measure of marketing activity.

Throwing in some national or international economic indicators is always worthwhile, to create a broader picture. These might include exchange rates with those currencies most used by inbound tourists, the domestic interest rate, rate of inflation, and fuel prices. All of these have an impact on either inbound and/or domestic tourism demand. They may not change vastly from one month to the next, but when doing annual comparisons they can provide some interesting insight.

Finally, for good measure, it’s not a bad idea to engage with the tourism sector through a business barometer survey, emailing accommodation establishments, tour operators, attractions, and other businesses that interact with tourists with a short online survey. Asking questions such as: what are your prospects for visits or forward bookings over the next three months? provide a good indication of business sentiment and confidence in the sector.

Sometimes it’s surprising how much intelligence you can pull together to track tourism in a destination; as was the case here in Oman.





Natural Capital Accounting for Tourism in Botswana

I’ve just arrived in Botswana, and whilst I’ve been working on and off here since 1999 it’s good to see Gaborone again. In many respects, Botswana is the birthplace of the tourism statistics database (T-Stats) that we’ve created and is in use around the world. Whilst I’m here to update their system and convert it into a cloud-based online system, there’s something more ground breaking to do that will utilise the information in the database.

We are working on a WAVES (Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services) project. This is a global partnership bringing together a broad coalition of governments, UN agencies and nongovernmental organisations aimed at establishing Natural Capital Accounts.

Sounds complicated? Well, not really, and in fact quite logical. Let me explain. When a company measures its annual performance it compiles a profit and loss account to find out how much it has made, and a balance sheet to identify its assets.

Traditional national accounts tend to serve the profit and loss side of things when measuring the economic performance of a country. For example the national accounts for agriculture show the output from farming, national accounts for minerals show the output from mining, etc. For tourism we develop a Tourism Satellite Account (TSA), which shows the output from tourism activities.

What these national accounts don’t show are the balance sheets. For example, when mining takes place in a country, the resource (diamonds, gold, coal, etc) is diminished. It is taken away, and the country has less of it. This is the basis behind natural capital accounting.

In Botswana a natural capital account for water has already been produced. Now it is the turn for tourism. Measuring tourism is not a straightforward process at the best of times (compared to measuring other sectors such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing). However, World Tourism Organization guidelines developed over the last 20 years have made it a well-documented process.

Developing a Natural Capital Account for tourism is less well documented, and in fact hasn’t been done anywhere else in the world yet. One of the first tasks is to determine how to measure the tourism resource. In Botswana this is mainly the national parks and game reserves that the tourists pay to visit. The quality of these parks largely determines the price tourists will pay to visit Botswana. If they become overcrowded with tourists, environmentally damaged, or suffer a reduction in wildlife stock they will become less valuable, no different from a diamond mine with fewer diamonds left in it to extract.

So that’s our task…to work out how the account will be compiled, and put together a work plan that will set out the process for collecting all the data required. It should be a busy and exciting few months.

BOTSWANA (Okavanga Delta) shutterstock_162514037

Tuvalu – The Least Visited Paradise!

It is human nature when looking at ranked lists (no matter what they may be of) to see who is at the top and who is at the bottom! In the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) table of tourism destinations, France stands proudly at the top with almost 84 million arrivals in 2014. At the bottom lies Tuvalu, a tiny country made up of 9 coral atolls in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.

In 2014, just 1,416 tourists visited Tuvalu, of which only 424 were travelling on holiday. It is hard to comprehend why so few people visit somewhere that, to most Europeans and North Americans, looks pretty close to their vision of an island paradise. Azure blue lagoons with low lying white sandy beaches and palm trees is a pretty accurate description of Tuvalu.

However, they are not easy to reach. The only air link is by Fiji Airways, which flies twice a week using a 66 seat aircraft, or the less frequent three-day trip on a small ship, also from Fiji.

When you get there, accommodation is limited and of not a particularly high quality, the variety of food is also limited, and there isn’t much to do. Diving would be world class, but there are no certified dive operators. Yachting and fishing would also be appealing to many tourists, but facilities are currently lacking.

Despite the lack of visitors, the reason I’m currently here in Tuvalu is to conduct a tourist survey. The country urgently needs good solid data upon which to base the recommendations of their recently completed National Tourism Development Strategy, which was undertaken by the South Pacific Tourism Organisation.

This survey is clear evidence that no matter how small your tourism sector is, good data is essential to ensure future decisions are based on solid evidence rather than hearsay. Tuvalu deserves it!


St Helena: New airport, new challenges

Runway - Almost complete

These days it is unusual to start a journey and not know the time, or even day, you will arrive at your destination. In fact there are very few trips you can take where that might happen. Soon there will be one less.

The journey on the RMS St. Helena from Cape Town to the British overseas territory of St. Helena starts that way. On leaving port we are informed that the journey will take six days, and as time progresses the date and time of arrival becomes more precise, depending on the wind and waves. Until the first airport on the island opens next year, the ship is the only link to the island.

One of the enduring appeals of the RMS St Helena is that it is the last working Royal Mail Ship in operation. All 110 passengers on board are travelling home, to work, or to visit the island. This isn’t a ship designed, built and sailing for the pure pleasure of cruising itself. This ship has a job to do.

However, it’s about to lose its job. The long awaited airport on St. Helena is expected to open in February 2016 – in less than 12 months time. The RMS St. Helena, which has been the lifeline for the island for so long, will then be decommissioned.

Until now, when travel writers and journalists write about the island of St. Helena, much is made of the long journey on board the RMS, as the ship is affectionately known. The island, as such, has effectively become a fly-cruise (or just cruise for the South African market) destination. For most visitors, more time is spent on board the RMS than on the island itself. As a tourist, by the time you first set sights on the Island in the 6th day, looming staggering large on the horizon, it has achieved almost mythical status. Passengers have spent days reading about it, watching videos, and hearing stories told by the Saints travelling back home. Disembarking the RMS onto dry land gives the tourist a feeling of arrival at somewhere very special, and there is also a strong sense of discovery.

This counts for a lot in today’s marketplace where destinations fight for the attention of potential tourists, all trying to distinguish themselves from other destinations, and offer something different, new or exciting. And this is why I’m here – to help St. Helena Tourism with their branding of the island.

Research that we undertook earlier this year showed that long haul travellers demonstrated a high level of recognition of St. Helena as a destination, however there was considerable uncertainty regarding where it lay. 15% thought it was in the English Channel and 20% in the Mediterranean. Only around one-third could place it in the South Atlantic. There was also uncertainty over what it offered as a destination, with one-half choosing beaches as its prime attraction. There are no beaches of note on the Island.

The airport runway is almost complete – just another 400 meters of concrete to pour, and work is pressing ahead to complete the terminal building and control tower. In July a test flight will arrive on the island to ensure that the landing systems are calibrated properly. Comair, the British Airways subsidiary, has been selected as the airline that will initially connect the island to the rest of the world, flying weekly between Johannesburg and St. Helena in just over four hours.

No longer will it be primarily a destination for retired people, with the combined time of the journey on the RMS and a week on the island necessitating a holiday of at least three weeks. It will become more accessible to everyone.

Consequently, there is much to be done to prepare for a more regular influx of tourists (at present the RMS visits the Island approximately every 3-4 weeks with around 120 passengers on board). Accommodation, restaurants, cafes, and transport are just some of the services that tourists will require in greater quantities then ever before.

However, and possibly most significantly, there will be new expectations of St. Helena as a destination. In just over 4 hours the tourist will have flown from South Africa to the Island. No time to adjust, reflect, read, and prepare for arrival as they do at the moment. This is likely to make visitors more demanding and less forgiving. They will start to lose sight of the remoteness and challenges an island 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa and 1,800 miles from Brazil faces.

Today, very few tourists leave St. Helena disappointed, but this may change once tourists start arriving by air. St. Helena then runs the risk of over-promising and under-delivering, and this will lead to some tourists returning home and not passing on in a positive way that most effective form of marketing – word of mouth.

Why technology is challenging the way we measure tourism in Africa


I’ve just arrived in Lesotho to help improve the accuracy of tourist arrivals statistics.  Like most other countries in Africa, there is considerable cross-border traffic in Lesotho, a country that is completely surrounded by South Africa.

Consequently the main problems faced when measuring tourist arrivals is identifying who they are (we need to exclude regular border crossers and returning residents), and also dealing with the sheer volume of people arriving at the border posts.

This latter point is usually the deal breaker when trying to accurately measure tourist arrivals in African countries.  For each arrival (and there can be hundreds of thousands each year) we need, at the very least, to capture their country of residence and purpose of visit – two attributes that are essential for measuring and understanding tourism, and two attributes that are not coded into the traveller’s passport.

Here lies the root of the problem – computerisation of border posts in African countries is starting to become more commonplace, and to speed things up, some countries have implemented a system whereby immigration officials scan the traveller’s passport, stamp it, and then grant entry (assuming all is in order) to the person.

South Africa is a good example of this – when you arrive at a border post in South Africa, no one asks your purpose of visit or country of residence, and therefore in the absence of a large sample passenger survey (such as those undertaken in European countries to measure tourism, due to the open borders prevalent across most of the continent) it is not possible to measure tourism accurately.

Here in Lesotho, our goal is to ensure that immigration officials at the border posts not only electronically capture some useful data that is encoded into the passport of each traveller (age, gender and nationality), but also to ask each arrival what their purpose of visit, country of residence and intended length of stay is, so that these three pieces of data can be added to the record stored on the computer.

If that can be achieved, then the computerisation of border posts can be a very positive change.  It means that data are available almost immediately, and information on the number of tourists, where they come from and what they are doing, is much more useful.

Here in Lesotho (thanks to the World Bank Private Sector Competitiveness Project) we are going to load this information into an online database that will, through a web interface, enable the sharing of these statistics so that they can be accessed by hotels, attractions, and potential investors, as well as the government for planning, marketing and monitoring the sector.

And that should make a big difference.

Kiribati: Big fish, nice people…


Over the last few days I’ve been in Kiribati, a collection of 33 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator.

The country comprises three island groups of the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands.  The nation’s capital, Tawara (where I am), is located in the Gilbert Islands in the west, whilst Christmas Island (or Kiritimati) is found in the Line Islands in the Far East.  Kiribati is the only country in the world that is situated in all four of the earth’s nominal hemispheres, northern, southern, eastern and western.

In 1994 the International Date Line, which separated the western and eastern island groups by 23 hours, was moved in order to make a more convenient two-hour difference between the Gilbert Islands and the other two groups.  On 31 December 2000, Kiribati was the first country in the world to see in the third millennium and Caroline Island was renamed Millennium Island to celebrate the occasion.

According to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Kiribati is the second least visited country in the world (bottom of the pile is neighbouring Tuvalu).  In total, all the islands in Kiribati welcome around 5,000 inbound visitors a year.

Consequently, it seems like an odd place to be undertaking a visitor survey!  We commenced this in April 2013, in both Tarawa, which is characterised by business and VFR (visiting friends and relatives) visitors, and Kiritimati, which tends to attract leisure tourists for fishing.

Despite the low volume of tourism in Kiribati, it is a very important sector, supporting the local economy and the population of around 100,000.  Overall, the survey found that tourists spend approaching AUS$ 11 million a year (around £5.5 million) when in Kiribati.

However, the survey wasn’t all about expenditure.  Visitor surveys generate some of their most useful content from open questions that are often asked towards the end of the interview.  In Kiribati, we asked visitors what were the highlights and disappointments of their trip, as well as how they thought tourism could be improved. 

Many of these comments provide a gold mine of information for developing tourism in the country, and I hope the relevant authorities use them to improve their product and market tourism more successfully.  There is considerable potential in Kiribati, especially in an age when tourists are seeking new and exciting destinations so they limit their chances of running into other tourists!  Indeed, the strapline that Kiribati uses is “…for travellers, not tourists”.  It is a good one, as it suitably aligns visitor expectations with what they find when arriving on the various islands. 

If Kiritimati (Christmas Island), famous for its bone fishing, is ever looking for its own strapline, then the survey captured a comment from one visitor that would work perfectly: “Big fish, nice people!”

Can Cruising Shape Overnight Tourism?

This week I’m in the Cook Islands, arguably one of the most beautiful places in the South Pacific.  15 islands make up the Cook Islands, but the two most visited are Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  They complement each other well as they are very different.  Rarotonga is mountainous with impressive peaks, lush with vegetation, whilst Aitutaki is a low-lying coral atoll with one of the most picturesque lagoons in the Pacific.

We are here starting a cruise survey, which will run for the next five months, in both Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  Not all cruise ships stop at both destinations, some just go to Rarotonga, but it will be interesting to see what the different findings are between the two destinations.

One of the challenges cruise destinations face is distinguishing themselves from other destinations where cruise ships also stop at.  If visitors remember a specific destination, they are more likely to talk about it with their friends and relatives when they get home, and more likely to come back to visit as a (potentially) more lucrative land-based overnight tourist.

We have recently completed a similar survey in Vanuatu, interviewing in the capital Port Vila, and a small island called Mystery Island, which is little more than a very picturesque sand bank right in the south of the group of islands that make up Vanua

The findings from the survey showed that whilst visitors spent a lot less on Mystery Island (which wasn’t a surprise as there is less to spend your money on there), their levels of satisfaction were much higher than in Port Vila.  It is clear that Mystery Island provides a much better advert for Vanuatu than the bustling Port Vila, where the scramble to make money from cruise visitors is highly evident.

This raises an interesting discussion, for which I don’t at present have the answer.  Might it be better to develop cruisedestinations that provide entertainment and a relaxing atmosphere for visitors at the expense of trying to make as much money as possible, thereby leaving them with the greatest desire to return as a much more lucrative overnight visitor?

Cruising in the South Pacific, in particular on cruise ships from Australia, has grown rapidly over the last few years.  It could be the ideal catalyst for growing the overnight tourism sector as well.  But destinations that leave the best lasting impression on cruise visitors will surely benefit the most.