28 December 2007

Tourism numbers don't add up

It doesn't happen very often, but vocm.com seems to revealed a provincial tourism strategy that draws more from the locals than it does from boosting visitors to the province. 

The revelation came in two stages, separated by a couple of days so unless you were paying close attention you may have missed it.

On Boxing Day, we learned that the tourism industry contributed about $840 million to the local economy in 2007. The province's tourism minister is quoted as saying that the tourism budget has doubled since 2003 and that, as a result, we are seeing more tourism into the province.

But then later this week, we find out something else:

Tourism Minister Clyde Jackman is encouraging people in the province to take a vacation at home next year.  Jackman says between the icebergs, the whales and the some 9000 plus kilometres of roadway in the province, there is lots to explore. Jackman says this year local tourists comprised nearly 90 percent of the tourism business.

Take a second look at that last sentence and read it again.

Even though the tourism budget has doubled since 2003, fully 90% of the tourism business in Newfoundland and Labrador last year came from people traveling within the province.  That's according to the province's newly appointed tourism minister.

Go back to the Boxing Day story and do the simple math to find that the province's "tourism" industry apparently took  $756 million out of local pockets.

That's astonishing, and while the numbers are somewhat startling, the whole focus on local cash versus visitors fits the tourism department's marketing strategy since 2006. While the  marketing plan that year continued the main focus on visitors, there was a section devoted to a new  "in-province" project. By 2007, the program even had a title, albeit one lifted from a well-known fantasy movie.

Some of the changes in departmental emphasis were subtle.  For example, in April 2005, tourism minister Tom Hedderson announced that the provincial government as extending the operating season for visitor information centres into the spring and fall. These are not times when one might expect visitors to come to the province but they do represent the so-called "shoulders" of the season where the local tourist operators went looking for cash.

Then there was the cheesy series of television ads featuring Tom Hedderson that aired in 2006.  They appeared only on Rogers within Newfoundland and Labrador and were remarkable only for their generally miserable quality. In hindsight, though, they represented a major emphasis in tourism advertising on keeping locals in the province.

The local retention project is not something one would really pick up by casual observation.  After all, the new minister trumpeted the overall success of the tourism industry in 2007, apparently without breaking down the numbers. Likewise, a departmental "flash sheet" of facts and statistics gives only data on people coming from outside the province.

The flash sheet, incidentally, includes cruise passengers, even though the Love Boat passengers typically come into port, run around for a day and then head off off to their next location.  They are all good people and we welcome their cash, but they don't represent the economic impact of say a family of four from Teaneck spending a week traveling the province in a rented car, resting at the various bed and breakfast establishments and visiting a wide variety of cultural, natural and historical sites. Cruise passengers dropped $1.9 million in the economy last year (2006) out of a total of $364 million contributed to the local economic by visitors.

Before we leave that document, notice that overall, the number of visitors to the province dropped 1.5% over 2006.

The reality of the tourism figures Jackman and his predecessors have been using becomes clear when one looks at the tourism department's backgrounder on overall tourism performance for 2006 with a forecast for 2007.  You won't find that document on the tourism department's website.  You have to go to the finance department's statistics agency to get the facts on tourism.

According to the 2006 analysis, visitors to the province accounted for an estimated $364 million in economic activity in the province out of a total of some $820 million overall, as described in the 2007 budget.

That's right.  Visitors accounted for 44% of tourism dollars in 2006.  The rest of the spending  - 56% - must have come from locals staying in the province.

vocm.com may well have misquoted the tourism minister and the 90% figure. There's no denying the provincial government's own figures though. The majority of what it classifies as "tourism" is actually generated by residents of the province.

The relative proportion of overall spending by locals has actually grown in the four years of the New Approach to tourism much faster than visitor spending.  In a May 2004 statement to the legislature,  former tourism minister and current Humber Valley resort general manager noted that visitors generated approximately $300 million in spending in 2003 out of total tourism spending in the province of $620 million.

In other words, over the four years from 2003 to 2006, overall "tourism" spending increased by $200 million but only $64 million  - 32% - of that new spending was related to visitors.  In the meantime, the tourism advertising budget  - supposedly aimed at bring new dollars into the economy through increased visitation- has increased from $6.0 million to $11.0 million.

No matter how you look at it though, the tourism department's media comments on its "tourism" strategy don't add up. Nor does the advertising strategy seem to be working, no matter how much additional cash has been added to the pile.

It's time for a genuine new approach, so it seems, rather than just creative presentation of information.