Data showing 'Trump slump' in tourism may not be accurate

Government statistics indicating a drop in international arrivals to the US in 2017 may be wrong, the US Commerce Department says. While officials rework the data, some travel experts remain concerned that foreign tourists are staying away to avoid President Trump.

Mary Altaffer/AP/File
Visitors wait to board a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York. Some international arrivals from last year may have been miscategorized as US citizens, contributing to inaccurate data, the US Commerce Department says.

That "Trump slump" we've been hearing about in travel may not be as bad it seems.

The US Department of Commerce says government statistics showing a decrease in international arrivals to the United States may be wrong. Publication of the data has been suspended until it can be revised.

The most recent government statistics showed a nearly 4 percent drop in international arrivals to the US, January-August 2017, compared with the same period in 2016. That was at odds with data from many other sectors of the travel industry showing upward trends.

Experts from around the travel industry applauded the effort to get the numbers right. But some cautioned that there is still concern about a Trump slump.

Adam Sacks, president of a company called Tourism Economics, says his company calculates that the US had a 2 percent increase in international arrivals last year. But that's "underperforming" because globally, international travel was up 7 percent.

The announcement by the Department of Commerce was also met with skepticism in some quarters. For months, critics have blamed the Trump administration's anti-foreigner rhetoric and policies for the so-called "Trump slump," using the government's own statistics as a basis for the criticism. Now that those statistics are being called into question, some wonder what's really going on.

"Honestly we're not sure who to trust here," said Jason Clampet, editor-in-chief of Skift.com, a travel industry site. "The current political leadership revels in sowing disinformation."

Skift reported the suspension of statistics Monday night. The International Trade Administration, part of the Commerce Department, quietly made the announcement Friday, stating on its website that "non-US citizens traveling on visas to the United States" were "being categorized as US residents" in records compiled by US Customs and Border Protection.

A government official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that as many as 4.5 million international travelers may have been undercounted from the end of 2016 through 2017. The official said it's possible that some of those travelers were not staying in the US but were merely flying through an airport here to a third country, in which case they should not be counted as arrivals. The statistics will be revised once the analysis is done.

Customs and Border Protection didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The government data – specifically known as I-94 overseas arrivals data – is a lagging indicator, showing statistics from about six months earlier. The reports are put out by the International Trade Administration's National Travel and Tourism Office.

There's been a discrepancy for months in the downturns reported by the NTTO and data from other sectors of the travel industry. Florida reported 116.5 million people visiting in 2017 despite Hurricane Irma, up 3.6 percent from 2016. And New York City had 62.8 million visitors last year, up 2.3 million from 2016, including an all-time high of 13.1 million international visitors.

The hotel industry has also been booming. "Total US room demand is higher than it has ever been," said Jan Freitag, senior vice president of STR, which tracks hotel performance. "We break records every month." In 2017, hotels sold 1.23 billion room nights in the US, up 2.7 percent from 2016.

Mr. Freitag warned against politicizing the Department of Commerce's decision to re-analyze the statistics. "The data should just be what the data is and people make mistakes," he said.

Many local markets rely on statistics from Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company, to count their visitors using multiple sources of data, including airline passenger numbers and credit card spending.

Mr. Sacks, the Tourism Economics president, noted the "irony" in government statistics painting a more negative picture than what was happening. "If you were thinking about conspiracy theories, that they might cook the books to show more positive results, it was quite the reverse," he said.

But he also said that policy and rhetoric from the White House do matter, pointing to drops in visitors from the Middle East and Mexico. He credited local tourism organizations with marketing campaigns that "convey a message of welcome" to counteract Washington.

Tori Barnes of the US Travel Association, which represents the travel industry, said her organization appreciates the government's "commitment" to getting the statistics right. But she added: "Even if changes to the official federal data reveal stronger numbers of visitors to the US in 2017 than previously reported, the fact will remain that while international travel is spiking globally, the US is losing a share of that growing market to our competitors around the world."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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