21 July 2009

Cruising the numbers

The local tourism industry is a notorious spin machine, constantly trying to make things sound as magically delicious as possible.

That may be great for marketing but the hyper-torque makes it very difficult for anyone trying to get a handle on what the actual trends are in tourism or if all the money spent is bringing real dividends.

Take the local cruise ship marketing crowd for instance.  Their website is famous for predicting banner years in visitors, but the actual performance sometimes comes a little shy of the forecast.

In 2008, the tourism marketing agency predicted there’d be 60,000 passengers and crew visiting the province. The actual number was 50,000.  In fact, between 2005 and 2008, the number of passengers and crew from cruise ships has ranged between 50,000 (the low for the period) and 55,500 in 2007. The cruise authority’s forecasts are something else again.

This year, the prediction is for 65,000 visitors bolstered by provincial government cash. In fact, what catches the eye in a government news release is this claim:

Newfoundland and Labrador’s cruise industry has experienced significant growth in recent years. The latest industry research projects a 38 per cent growth rate since 2008 in the number of passengers and crew visiting the province – to exceed 65,000 visitors in 2009.

Since they don’t tell us what the performance was before 2008, we don’t know the basis on which the “research” makes the projection and we certainly don’t know how much growth there has been.

Usually a lack of concrete information is the first sign of bullshit and in this case, you’d be right on. Once you’ve checked the numbers, you’d discover that they’ve actually been pretty stable over the last four “recent” years.  Between 2007 and 2008, the trend was decidedly downward.

That second sentence is a bit dodgy as well since it holds out a prediction for this year compared to last year but without any solid underpinning.

Now once you have the numbers, you can also start to question basic math skills.  65,000 visitors in 2009 would represent 15,000 more than actually showed up in 2008.

That’s 30% more, not 38%.

But that number “38” didn’t wind up there by accident.  It was probably cut and pasted from an earlier news release.

You see 38% would be the increase CANAL predicted earlier this year when they were forecasting there’d be 69,000 cruise visitors in 2009.

Luckily they didn’t cut and past the earlier earlier prediction:  a 56% increase - 78,000  - in cruise ship visitors to in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2009. 

In other words, in the space of a few weeks, the cruise authority’s “research” forecast a 56% increase, then successively smaller numbers until this most recent one which is now 13,000 visitors lower than their first prediction.

Now the cruise ship industry, like the whole tourism industry, is a key part of the local economy.  Unfortunately, when it comes to facts, there are some in the industry who prefer the stuff that sounds good over the stuff you can measure. That’s too bad because every one of these visitors is a real visitor bringing new money into the economy.  Whether there are 50,000 of them this year or 60-, 65-, 70- or 78, 000, that’s a good thing.