Measuring tourism you can manage!

There’s an old adage that goes: You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Every destination around the world measures its tourism performance on the number of arrivals and how much these visitors spend. However, as we have seen over the last 30 years, tourism is affected my many external factors ranging from wars, terrorism, and disease, through to the global economy. You can run the perfect marketing campaign but still see numbers go down! So by measuring tourist arrivals it can be argued that destinations are measuring what they can’t (at least completely) manage.

This has led several destinations to start looking at what they can manage, and measuring their progress and success on that. One such measure is TripAdvisor ratings. The rationale is that destinations can have a direct influence on how visitors feel about accommodation, attractions and tours.

We have been working with the Falkland Islands Tourism Board for nearly 10 years tracking their tourism performance. The Falkland Islands has 10 accommodation establishments, 21 attractions, 4 tours operators, and 10 restaurants and bars rated on TripAdvisor. By taking the scores of each one and creating an overall out-of-10 score for these different groups we are able to see how visitors rate the Falkland Islands’ tourism sector. The results are shown below.

Not only does this allow the Falklands to see where they need to improve, but by tracking these ratings it is possible to monitor changes over time.   This is something the Falklands can manage and measure!

measurements you can manage



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

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.


Visiting friends and relatives in Samoa

I’ve recently arrived in Samoa, a beautiful and very compact destination in the South Pacific.  Mainly consisting of two islands, close to each other and connected by a one-hour car ferry, it seems like an ideal place for tourists looking for a destination a bit more off the beaten track than Fiji or Hawaii, but less remote than other islands like Niue or Kiribati.  There were around 135,000 visitors to Samoa last year, with 83% of these coming from New Zealand, Australia or its neighbour, American Samoa.

But little is currently known about the tourists who come here, which is why the Samoa Tourism Authority has been undertaking an air visitor survey (the first for over 10 years) to find out all sorts of trip characteristics and visitor demographics, as well as what tourists like and dislike, and how much they spend.

It is these latter two aspects of visitor surveys that I enjoy analysing the most.  The open questions asking tourists what they have enjoyed, what they didn’t like, or what they have been doing, are often very revealing, and sometimes amusing.  Yesterday I noted one Samoan, now living in New Zealand, stating his activities as “Grandma’s Funeral” and “Clubbing”!

I’m often asked why “tourism” includes people travelling for business, to visit friends and relatives, for health or religious purposes, or even for transit visits en route to another destination.  Surely these people are not tourists as commonly perceived?  Well, these surveys really highlight why the World Tourism Organization made that definition over 20 years ago, which states that a tourist can be travelling for ANY purpose.

The average spend per day of a tourist visiting Samoa is £84.  Holiday tourists spend £80 a day, just below the overall average.  Business tourists spend £107 a day – this is typical, business tourists usually spend more than leisure tourists as they tend to stay in more up-market accommodation.

However, in Samoa, far away at the top of the spend league table are tourists travelling to visit friends and relatives, spending a massive £131 a day, over half of which is on “family remittances”.  These travellers are predominantly Samoans living overseas, bringing money back into the country when they visit, and giving it to their families who in turn spend it on transport, in restaurants, at shops, and on other things they need.

So there are two lessons here.  Firstly, VFR (visiting friends and relatives) tourists are not always the lowest spenders – a reputation they tend to have because they usually don’t spend any money in commercial accommodation, and get treated by their hosts.

Secondly, this is a good example of why tourism is not just about holidays – those travelling for VFR, business, and other purposes also matter, because they are also contributing (directly or indirectly) to the the same businesses that holiday tourists use: restaurants, car hire, attractions, even funeral parlours and nightclubs!Image