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Mistakes in 2017 Arrivals Data Call Travel Slump Into Question

The International Trade Administration’s National Travel and Tourism Office has suspended its release of further overseas arrivals reports due to technical issues with records received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This calls into question previously reported statistics, such as those released in December that show a dip in international travelers coming to the United States.

While assessing the 2017 records it received from CBP, NTTO identified significant anomalies in DHS I-94 visitor arrivals data that challenged the validity of the data set. During its investigation, NTTO discovered that an increasing number of non-citizen arrivals traveling into the United States on visas were incorrectly classified as U.S. residents and therefore not counted in the number of international travelers coming to the United States. This resulted in an undercount that may well dispute previously reported visitor data for 2017.

The data in question is used by several organizations both in the public and private sectors to gauge the health of the economy and various industries. The Bureau of Economic Analysis uses visitor expenditures to calculate the balance of trade because visitor expenditures are considered exports for the United States. Travel and tourism represented 11 percent of all U.S. exports and 33 percent of all services exports in 2016, creating a $83.9 billion balance of trade surplus for that sector.

The 2017 slump in arrivals was trumpeted as a warning. “These numbers are an undeniable wake-up call,” Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said in December. “Correcting this troubling trend needs to become a national priority.” However, now that flaws in the data have been revealed, December’s calls for alarm may prove premature.

NTTO is now identifying, counting and categorizing the faulty records, and the tourism office will not report any more data beyond the preliminary data previously released on March 7, 2018, until a solution is reached.

“The National Travel and Tourism Office is committed to providing accurate statistics on international travelers to the United States as defined by international standards for the travel and tourism sector,” says Isabel Hill, director of NTTO. “NTTO is working with CBP and the Department of Homeland Security to resolve these issues. NTTO will resume publication of these data as soon as possible.”