International visitor data reporting began to run amok before President Donald Trump took office and destinations are left wondering what data they can trust. The Trump Administration has worked to spread disinformation, but this is a new level of concern for the travel industry.
Many U.S. destinations and travel companies expect accurate international arrivals data from the U.S. National Travel & Tourism Office, but documents shared Tuesday with Skift show flaws have existed in the data collection process for years and that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been reluctant to correct errors.
Data is an increasingly key pillar of any industry, and particularly for the travel industry. Inaccurate data reporting has the potential to impact companies and destinations beyond the United States, but many destinations and companies aren’t waiting around for National Travel & Tourism Office data as they use a handful of sources to understand who’s getting off planes, boats, busses, and cars in their locales.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Travel & Tourism Office, announced on Monday that it plans to suspend further releases of international arrivals data until technical issues are resolved, according to a statement from the agency. Skift first reported that news.
Data is only currently available through September, 2017, when international arrivals were down 5 percent year-over-year and 3.8 percent year-to-date. Canadian arrivals were up more than 4 percent for September and year-to-date, but Mexico and overseas arrivals fell more than 6 percent for the month and first three quarters.
The U.S. Travel Association, which represents travel industry sectors in Washington, D.C, issued a statement Monday that it praised the Department of Commerce’s decision to suspend further data releases.
The organization later defended its position and said it began to notice discrepancies in I-94 arrivals records, or paper and electronic forms that record international arrivals via land, sea, or air, and challenges with collecting accurate data, since the latter half of 2017.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, collects travelers’ I-94 records and shares them with the Department of Commerce.
“We’ve been engaging with the administration since the latter half of last year because based on other inputs we use in our own research, we thought the I-94 data might have some anomalies with it and that it wasn’t providing an accurate picture,” said Chris Kennedy, a spokesperson for U.S. Travel. “There have been a number of engagements since.”
The Commerce Department did not respond to Skift’s request for comment on Tuesday.
But a former National Travel & Tourism Office researcher said inaccurate data reporting goes back further than last year.
At the Travel and Tourism Research Association conference in June, 2017, Ron Erdmann, a former deputy director of research for the National Travel & Tourism Office who retired in December, gave a presentation about the state of I-94 records that received little attention at the time. That presentation’s information was shared with Skift.
Erdmann said problems have become apparent since the Department of Homeland Security started to automate I-94 data collection in 2013. “Early on we had issues with transit passengers being counted as visitors and no way to track visits to one night or longer,” Erdmann’s presentation said.
In 2014, the National Travel & Tourism Office started to use the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization‘s definition of international arrivals — those who spend one or more nights in a destination.
Erdmann said data quality increased dramatically as a result, but more problems occurred in late 2014 and are still ongoing. Those problems include the loss
of the country of residency for certain visa waiver program countries due to kiosks and other entry processing technology, the presentation said.
More than seven million I-94 records from 2015 are missing country of residency information, according to the presentation, and 3.1 million records were missing such information in 2016, which amounts to 8.5 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively, of all records for 2015 and 2016.
Other missing data from 2015 and 2016 records include mode of transport data, automated passport control and mobile passport apps not collecting country of residency information, and cross-coding of some countries such as China, Hong Kong, Turkey and Turkmenistan.
When reached Tuesday, Erdmann said: “They told us that they were going to do another reengineering, and this suspension might be a signal that they might be close to fixing this. (Homeland Security) doesn’t really care about the big numbers, they only care about the individual.”
Some destinations like Philadelphia don’t view data suspension by the Department of Commerce’s move as detrimental to their operations.
The National Travel & Tourism Office’s data is only one international arrivals data source that Philadelphia uses, said Alethia Calbeck, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, and it’s not weighted heavily enough to have a significant affect on the organization’s overall reporting.
“Although we recognize the seriousness of the situation as its important for our industry’s advocacy efforts, it won’t impact our reporting as we – like many other U.S. destinations – use Tourism Economics as our source for international arrival and spend data,” said Calbeck. “In Tourism Economics’ model, [National Travel & Tourism Office] data is only one of 10 sources used.”
Congress Wants Answers
U.S. Senators Brian Schatz, Amy Klobuchar, Dean Heller, and Roy Blunt — a bipartisan group of senators who are co-chairs of the Senate Travel and Tourism Caucus — echoed Erdmann’s claims of problematic data in an April, 2018, draft letter addressed to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The senators said the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t done enough to fix the problems. “We were heartened to hear that DHS staff does address the data discrepancies as they are pointed out but after more than 3 years the data is still not being delivered with consistent accuracy,” the senators said in the letter. “We would like to see these data issues addressed in a comprehensive and systemic manner so that the American public and travel and tourism sector can have full confidence in the data and reports they receive from the federal government, and their ability to plan for providing services and travel experiences to international travelers.”
“We recognize that the primary mission of DHS is to serve as a law enforcement agency, and one that has a significant imperatives to fulfill, however, in an increasingly data driven society, it is essential that the data produced by all government agencies be accurate, high quality, and timely,” the letter said. “The recent budget agreement provides additional funds for all federal agencies and we strongly urge you to devote staff and resources to resolve the international visitation data issues and providing ongoing quality control analysis of all DHS data.”
Erdmann said the National Travel & Tourism Office’s has proposed alternative data collection methods to I-94 forms including using beacon technology, credit card data, and email surveys. It’s uncertain whether any of these alternatives will be adopted.
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Photo credit: International arrivals data collection in the United States has been flawed for years. Pictured is a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer interviewing travelers entering the United States from Mexico at the border crossing in San Ysidro, California. Reuters / Mike Blake