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.
— Dan Peltier
Many U.S. destinations and travel companies expect accurate international arrivals data from the U.S. National Travel & Tourism Office, but documents obtained by 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.
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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 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.”
.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.
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.
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.