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 numbers.

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 Sabre.

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 so precipitously.

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."

Sacks concurred.

"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."

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