April 30, 1997
Dear Summary and Analysis subscriber:
Tourism Industries, in the International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, is responsible for reporting the official international visitor arrival figures for the United States. The arrivals figures are released on a monthly basis in the Summary of International Travel to the United States. This report is sold and distributed by the Tourism Industries' marketing contractor, the Travel Industry Association of America.
To date, Tourism Industries has not issued any 1996 reports. This letter is intended to explain why Tourism Industries has not released the 1996 Summary of International Travel to the United States and provide subscribers with an explanation of what Commerce plans to do for reporting 1996 arrival figures and publishing the 1996 monthly Summary of International Travel to the United States. The last reports released to subscribers were the revised 1994 and 1995 YTD reports.
Since the 1970's the Department of Commerce has provided the travel and tourism industry with visitor arrival figures which are derived from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Form I-94 data base. The information collected on the I-94 form is vital to reporting the official visitor arrivals, but it is also the principal data base in the entire U.S. tourism statistical system. It is a key source for the Survey of International Air Travelers to the U.S. (IFS) - which provides the nation with spending figures, international visitor characteristic data and state and city level visitation estimates. (It is important to recognize that the Immigration and Naturalization Service utilizes the data collected from the I-94 form to help protect and manage the safety of our borders, a mission quite different from Tourism Industries.)
On a normal schedule, the INS provides the Department of Commerce with monthly data tapes approximately three months after the month of arrival. However, over the years the INS data processing system has, from time to time, experienced intermittent delays for one reason or another. Around the same time that the USTTA was de-funded and closed by the U.S. Congress and the Tourism Industries office in ITA was created, the INS was in the middle of restructuring and updating the processing system for the I-94 form. The revisions to the data processing system caused major delays and, at the same time, uncovered discrepancies in the 1994 and 1995 figures. INS decided to revise and re-release the 1994 and 1995 I-94 figures after reprocessing the data. The Department of Commerce, upon receipt of these new figures, reprocessed the I-94 data and published revised 1994 and 1995 Summary of International Arrivals reports. The Department of Commerce also revised all statistical systems and publications derived from the I-94 data. This was completed seamlessly and quickly, with nearly 150 publications revised and published with the adjusted figures.
INS felt sure that the problems had been resolved and Tourism Industries fully expected that the 1996 data would be delivered from INS on time and accurately. However, this was not the case. Starting with the January 1996 data there appeared to be discrepancies. Tourism Industries processed and reviewed the January arrival figures provided by INS and concluded that the data results were not being processed correctly. The data anomalies were, however, different from the 1994 and 1995 problems.
Based on extensive analysis Tourism Industries requested that INS reprocess the January arrival figures. INS complied, but the January data results continued to be low. As INS re-ran the January data they also continued to process the February I-94 forms that continued to be submitted by international visitors. It takes INS approximately two weeks to re-run a month of data. After several attempts to re-process the January data, the February data was fully processed by INS. Tourism Industries continued to review the data results for both months and based on other industry indicators continued requesting that INS review the January data as well as the February data.
INS continued to comply with Tourism Industries' requests to review the problems in the first two months of data, but, at the same time, continued to process March, April, May and June data. The January and February data problems remained unresolved. In fact, the data anomalies perpetuated in the subsequent months with March, April and May off substantially more than January and February.
Tourism Industries identified several areas that eventually helped to correct portions of the data, namely mode of transportation. However this did not correct the arrival figures. Only after Tourism Industries reviewed INS raw data did it discover the main data problems. Key data sets had a substantial and disconcerting increase in the number of unknown records within each data string. Some of the key areas included the residency of the traveler (country they lived in), the port-of-entry (where they officially entered through US inspections). These data sets are key in processing the I-94 data to extrapolate international visitor arrivals.
INS, at the request of Tourism Industries, tried to identify the reason(s) for the unexplained increase in unknown records. During the week of April 7, 1997 INS informed Tourism Industries that it could not determine the cause of the data anomalies for the residency and port of entry data sets and, thus, could not provide Tourism Industries with corrected 1996 data tapes.
Tourism Industries works closely with the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) because they use this vital information to help calculate our nations trade balance and the contribution of travel and tourism to the GDP. At the beginning of March 1997 the Department of Commerce, Tourism Industries office in consultation with the Bureau of Economic Analysis, began formalizing a fall-back plan in case INS could not fix the I-94 data anomalies. We plan to use historical INS raw data to allocate the unknown records to the appropriate country of residence and port of entry.
Tourism Industries' goal is to develop new 1996 arrivals data by May 19, 1997. This would provide subscribers with the 1996 YTD report by the end of May. Monthly reports, starting with January, could be completed by mid June 1997.
At the same time, Tourism Industries is in the process of producing a revised 1996 forecast of our country's top inbound tourism markets. Tourism Industries' forecast has been an extremely reliable tool according to economic analysis of actual performance compared to the forecast. The new forecast will incorporate updated economic indicators and provide subscribers and the industry with a guidance for the revised estimates for 1996 arrivals from major markets.
TI is deeply committed to working with our subscribers, the tourism industry and INS to improve the timeliness and accuracy of the monthly arrivals figures to the United States. Tourism Industries has asked the Tourism Policy Council (TPC) to make this issue its number one priority. Chaired by the Secretary of Commerce, the TPC, which is responsible for coordinating U.S. federal polices for tourism development, will confer in June.
We realize that this is a long and detailed explanation. But, as you can imagine, it has been and continues to be a long and difficult process to provide our U.S. economists and the industry with accurate data on arrivals to the U.S. Our choice was to delay release until we feel the integrity of the data will meet statistical rigors acceptable to both our office and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It is our job to uphold the standards needed for the industry's decision-making for investment and policy issue considerations.
If you would like to discuss this issue further, or require a better understanding of the U.S. statistical system, please send the Tourism Industries office a letter with your comments, thoughts or concerns to: Tourism Industries, Room 1860, International Trade Administration, 14th & Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20230. We look forward to your input.
Leslie R. Doggett
Deputy Assistant Secretary
for Tourism Industries