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Measuring tourism's impact still an inexact science

April 1, 1997


Kathy Cobb Associate Editor

Measuring tourism's impact still an inexact science

While most industry activity can be measured by clear statistics such as steel or auto manufacturing, travel and tourism often generates ambiguous figures. For example, many businesses classified as tourism related also provide services to local residents, like restaurants, shops and museums.

Dean Runyan, principal of Dean Runyan Associates, Portland, Ore., an economic and marketing research firm working primarily in the travel industry says this is a problem. "However you measure portions of business attributed to travelers, you have to acknowledge services to residents," he says. What doesn't work, Runyan says, is using straight SIC codes.

Currently, much of travel and tourism's impact is measured by 10 three-digit standard industrial classification (SIC) codes, created by the federal government primarily to track covered employment, that is jobs eligible for unemployment compensation. Tourism codes include: passenger travel arrangement operations; eating and drinking places; miscellaneous shopping goods stores, including souvenir shops; hotels and motels; camps and recreational parks; orchestras and entertainment services; commercial sports; miscellaneous amusement and recreational services, including casinos, golf resorts and amusements parks; museums and art galleries; and botanical and zoological gardens. On the other hand, industries that often also may be considered tourism-based, such as bus charter service, airports and car rentals are not considered.

In addition to encompassing resident usage, another weakness in travel and tourism SIC codes, Runyan says, is that the proprietor of a business is not counted in the reporting. And, he adds, in many travel businesses, the main employee still is the proprietor.

Whether tourism's impact is measured through SIC codes, the ongoing national telephone surveys by the U.S. Travel Data Center, a subsidiary of the Travel Industry Association of America, or gathering county data as Runyan Associates does, Runyan says, elected officials and economic development directors need to know how tourism compares with other industries when making policy decisions. And, currently, there is no easy, direct way to furnish that information.

The need to improve the collection and reporting of tourism/travel data and to establish a standard definition for travel to ensure comparable data collection with other industries was also a topic at the October 1995 White House Conference on Travel and Tourism. The conference, the first hosted by the White House to focus on a specific industry, drew more than 1,700 business and government leaders from every state and territory, who met with the goal of developing a national tourism strategy to take the United States into the next century. Delegates continue to research alternative methods, such as a uniform satellite accounting system that would break current SIC categories into much more detail.

Tourism links:
University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research
Travel Industry Association of America
World Travel and Tourism Council