About halfway through 2017, when "Trump Slump" had
become a popular term for explaining a predicted slowdown in inbound travel to
the U.S., researchers at Tourism Economics (TE) began to notice some funny
TE works with hundreds of destinations around the country,
including major cities, to help forecast travel patterns and numbers. Company
founder and president Adam Sacks said that because the U.S. government's
official data from the National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO) is released
well after the period it tracks, TE taps other data sources for a more
up-to-date view of international inbound tourism trends.
Typically, he said, once the NTTO releases its numbers,
which it takes from the Department of Homeland Security's Form I-94 arrival
records, the data typically lines up with the other sources. For TE, those
sources include the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), the U.S.
Customs and Border Patrol manifest for arriving flights, IATA, OAG, Diio, and
In 2017, that wasn't happening.
The NTTO reported that total international visitor numbers
fell 3.8% through September 2017, while overseas visitor numbers
(international, excluding Canada and Mexico) fell 6.3%. TE's numbers, however,
indicated that 2017 total international travel to the U.S. increased 2%, while
overseas travel increased 4% over the entire year.
"It couldn't be a more starkly different story than
what the published data indicated," Sacks said. "We had to wonder why
all these other data sources were showing a different direction than the
official data. As we began to probe, we learned about various issues with the
actual processing of those records."
The NTTO this month revealed it had detected that "a
meaningful" number of non-U.S. citizens traveling on visas to the U.S. had
been categorized as U.S. residents, resulting in a probable undercount for
2017. The office suspended publication of its arrival numbers until the records
can be "properly identified, categorized and counted."
Sacks explained that the problems started in 2016. The year
prior, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shifted almost the entire I-94
system from paper to electronic documents via its website, apps and kiosks at
customs and immigration entry points.
The DHS has long had a mechanism to categorize inbound
foreign visitors to the U.S. separately from non-citizen residents returning
from another country: When filling out the paper I-94 arrival form, it simply
asked them to indicate where they live. According to Sacks, the digital system
did the same thing, but for a large number of records, that category was
automatically defaulting to the U.S. As a result, many foreign travelers were
being counted as residents and not included in the inbound visitor count.
The NTTO, which is part of the Commerce Department, said
this month that it was working with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the
DHS to resolve the issues causing the miscategorizing.
Sacks said there were other telltale signs that the official
data was erroneous. TE's data indicated that data gathered by major cities and
states around the country showed that they were outperforming the U.S. overall.
The U.S. hotel industry also reported historically high demand in 2017, which
would have been a surprising achievement if international arrivals had fallen
One good example of the data dissonance is New York City,
which has the highest market share of inbound overseas travelers in the U.S. --
nearly 30%, which is higher than the shares of Los Angeles and Miami combined --
and had predicted a drop-off in overseas visitors in 2017. Instead, the city
set its eighth consecutive year of record arrivals, with an estimated 62.8
million visitors, 2.3 million more than in 2016.
At first, the NTTO's disclosure caused some people to wonder
if it was a political ploy designed to show a bump in inbound visitors, rather
than a slump, under the Trump administration.
The U.S. Travel Association said this was not the case and
that it, too, had noticed a problem with the data in about mid-2017 and had
started to speak to the NTTO about it.
"This action, in our view, is based on an honest
assessment of the data and nothing else," said Chris Kennedy, U.S. Travel's
senior director of strategic communications."That's why we support it and
praise DHS and the Commerce Department decision to suspend the release of this
data. It's not a good thing to have bad, inaccurate data out there."
"There's no conspiracy theory here," he asserted. "It's
the NTTO doing the right thing."
The repercussions of erroneous official visitor data can be
serious for destinations, which use the numbers to make marketing decisions, and
for travel companies, which might be swayed whether or not to invest depending
on travel trends.
"We just want the data to be correct and accurate,"
said Andreas Weissenborn, director of research and analytics for Destinations
International (formerly Destination Marketing Association International)."Whether
it's up or down, we just want it to be dependable so people can make accurate
decisions. We're in a position right now which is not a good place to be, where
you're not confident in the data."
If the revised numbers align with those compiled by TE, it
will bode better for the U.S. travel sector, but the country is still
underperforming compared with the rest of the world, given that from 2015 to
2017, global travel volume increased 7.9%.
"The fact will remain that while international travel
is spiking globally, the U.S. is losing share of that growing market to our
competitors around the world," said U.S. Travel's senior vice president
for government relations, Tori Barnes.
It is also possible, Sacks said, that there would have been
a further downturn had destination marketing organizations like NYC &
Company and Visit California, not doubled down on marketing efforts to combat
the predicted Trump Slump.
"They all went very hard in terms of communicating a
message of welcome," Sacks said. "In doing so, they were able to get
a voice into the marketplace that helped to mitigate some of those losses."