Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Improving The World's Best Tourism Statistics

Spain has the best tourism statistics system in the world. If true, then many of you will be wondering how bad other countries' systems are. This best status is claimed by Manuel Figuerola, the director of tourism doctorate studies at the Antonio de Nebrija University in Madrid. In giving an indication of other countries' systems, he suggests that it isn't that they don't know how to go about obtaining statistics, just that they don't give the same weight that Spain does to the measurement of tourism activity in evaluating total economic performance. For a country whose economic rebirth in the 1960s was founded on tourism, this is not perhaps surprising.

Though Sr. Figuerola praises the stats, he is not getting carried away. There is a great deal of information and data but not a corresponding level of knowledge as to what the stats mean. It is why he is proposing changes.

We are bombarded with this stuff. Tourist arrivals, passenger numbers at the airport, tourist spending, hotel occupancy, the occupancy of the "extra-hotel" sector (the legitimate one), occupancy of the less than legitimate sector, the number of overnight stays, percentage increases or decreases of all sorts of indicators compared with the year or years before or with the previous month or quarter. It was big data before anyone had come up with the term big data: big because there is so much of it. But big doesn't always mean good. Just because there might be a ten per cent rise in whatever, without context and explanation (knowledge), the information is largely meaningless.

Taken at face value the reports of growth, as shown by statistics, are automatically assumed to be a "good thing", something to be shouted out and styled with clichés of booms, bonanzas, historic records and what have you. Some of this may well be a good thing, but to arrive at a true appreciation of how good (or less than good) it may be, something more than the superficiality of the figures themselves is required.

The tourism stats that are produced, as I've explained previously, are driven by Bank of Spain requirements. It is the body which comes up with balance of payments information, and tourism is a key ingredient in this. Consequently, the system of statistics is directed at providing global macroeconomic data, and herein lies the fundamental fault with the reporting of tourism statistical information. It is reporting of something that can never be anything more than indicative. And Sr. Figuerola recognises this. It is why he wants to move towards a system that is far more specific: the impact of tourism on the economy, employment and environment at the local level. By this, he means individual municipalities. By extension, this means individual resorts.

Such an approach will doubtless resonate with many of you. The quoting of global statistics can all too often appear at variance with realities: those of specific resorts. This may invite a question as to why there hasn't been greater attention paid to a more micro approach, but if the macro level is all that has been of concern, then it is perhaps understandable. Or maybe there has been a wish not to know. It's better to have the global figures than worry too much about how types of accommodation and board, predominant tourist profiles, environmental and infrastructure sufficiencies or deficiencies might give very different information. And if the objective, as Sr. Figuerola is suggesting, is to end up with comparative tourism competitiveness data by municipality, there may be some municipalities which might prefer to still not know.

The fact is that they should know and be eager to find out. And the same applies for Mallorca as a whole. But to arrive at a far more meaningful system will require a change in how statistics are gathered and probably greater expense, though not vastly greater. At present, the statistics that we are presented with come via national government in the form of the National Statistics Institute (INE). The regions, such as the Balearics, have their own systems as well, though their information is rarely given as much prominence as those from the INE. And it, the INE, has come in for criticism since it assumed control of statistical reports for tourism spend, arrivals and so on from the national tourism agency, Turespaña.

In the Canaries, the government there took great exception to INE data which suggested January arrivals were almost 100,000 fewer than what the Canaries Institute of Statistics had calculated. That was a substantial difference. And if the local information was accurate, then it draws into question the role of a national body such as the INE, thus lending weight to the Figuerola proposal. This would require far more emphasis being placed on local organisations which are in a better position to arrive at the type of statistics which might give a truer picture of tourism.

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