Economist: MBIE’s top tourism data “next to useless”

An economist with detailed knowledge of MBIE’s tourism data collection has come out criticising it as “next to useless” after this week’s Tourism Satellite Account (TSA) showed a fall in international tourism spend.

Kirdan Lees

Kirdan Lees, a partner at Auckland consultancy Sense Partners, has blasted the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for a lack of rigour in its International Visitor Survey.

The IVS is the primary spending data input into Stats NZ’s Tourism Satellite Account, which showed a fall in international tourist expenditure for the year to March 2017 despite visitor and operator growth during the period. Stats NZ is undertaking a review of the IVS after industry concerns were raised over its accuracy.

Lees, who has worked previously as a consultant to help to produce MBIE’s tourism forecasts, called on the ministry to either improve its survey of international visitor spending or scrap it.

“At the moment we are expending resources on a survey which is next to useless so you can either drop the whole thing or you need to increase the sample size significantly to get a better handle on what’s going on,” he said.

“It is just so hard to square away the story. We are expected to believe that expenditure for international tourists fell by 1% on an annual basis [in the year to March 2017] yet all the stories are about the growth that has come through during that time.”

MBIE cited exchange rate movements as a possible contributor to the fall in spending but said it was “difficult to deduce an exact cause” for the fall in international tourism expenditure.

Lees said the latest TSA result called into question the value of the IVS, which plays an important role in producing New Zealand’s national accounts.

“It’s a survey and, sure, a survey is going to give you odd results from time to time but this is one of our key statistics – it goes into the construction of our national accounts and it’s used for comparisons across industries so it’s not a very good state of affairs,” he said.

He suggested MBIE started making more use of data such as electronic credit card expenditure by international tourists to help the IVS’ accuracy.

“They could take just card spend by international visitors and use that to calibrate and crosscheck that headline number from the IVS. If that card spend number went down then I’d find this number a lot more plausible but I bet you 20-to-1 that number has gone up.”

Operators spoken to by the Ticker said they had not been able to reconcile their own results with MBIE’s IVS reports.

MBIE said this week that more information was required to understand why the spending behaviour of international visitors may have changed.

Overall tourist spend for the year to March 2017 rose $36bn, up 1.9% on the previous period, according to the TSA. That compares to the 11% spending growth seen in the March 2016 year.

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