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Monday, October 01, 2007

'Tourism' Ain't What It Used To Be

Astounding numbers have just been released regarding the growth of the tourism industry in Southwest Virginia.

This from Saturday's Bristol Herald Courier ("
Tourists flocking to Southwest Virginia and opening their wallets according to Virginia Tourism figures,"):

Figures released this week by the Virginia Tourism Corp. ... Tourists are flocking to Southwest Virginia and they are opening their wallets.

Virginia saw a 7.2 percent increase in visitor spending in 2006. But Southwest Virginia’s jump outpaced that.

Four of the seven coalfield localities netted an overall 8.9 percent increase, according to the Virginia Tourism Corp. Five of the state’s top 15 localities recording the biggest tourism spending increases are in Southwest Virginia.

Four of the five – Tazewell, Russell and Dickenson counties and the city of Norton – are in the coalfields.

Smyth County is Southwest Virginia’s other locality to make the top 15 list of spending increases.

Tazewell County saw a 13.2 percent growth when tourists spent $38.8 million in 2006. Smyth County’s numbers jumped 11.3 percent to reach $20.7 million. Visitors to Russell County spent $9.3 million in 2006 for a 10.9 percent increase. Dickenson County visitors dropped $5.7 million into local coffers when tourism jumped last year by 10.2 percent. The city of Norton also drew more revenue when tourists spent $14.5 million, a 9.8 percent increase from the previous year.

Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, said the region’s investment in tourism infrastructure is improving the economy.

The tourism figures show the authority’s decision a few years ago to pursue tourism development was a solid move, he said.
Gosh. It looks like I need to take back every negative thing I've ever written about the tourism industry here and apologize to Congressman Rick Boucher for ever having doubted his plan for economic revitalization that was to come about through the construction of dozens of bike paths and hiking trails in the area.

It would appear that his plan is a wild success.

"Would" being the operative word.

The numbers cited above, had the reporter checked them out, aren't "tourism" numbers. They're "travel" numbers.

What's the difference, you ask?

It's all in the definitions, the associated data, and in the conclusions that Virginia's paid cheerleaders are then able to extrapolate from it all.

First, let me say this: In a former life I was responsible for the acquisition and interpretation of demographic data at one of America's larger corporations. It was my job, as Director of Development, to gather statistics, organize them, determine from them trends in the marketplace, evaluate those trends and report them to upper management so that they could plan accordingly.

So I know how this stuff is accumulated. And fashioned. And I know a bit about how to interpret it.

I also know when I smell a rat.

Here's the sentence in this article that gave me pause:

Visitors to Buchanan County spent $16.3 million, much of it due to the Appalachian School of Law and the University of Appalachia’s pharmacy school.
A pharmacy school is a tourist destination. As is a law school.

What? WHAT?

Anyone else suddenly becoming suspicious of the report and/or the conclusion derived from it?

I first caught on to how tourism officials score this kind of thing when I read in an article in
the Galax Gazette in March that Carroll County's tourist traffic had skyrocketed in 2006 compared to the previous year. The increase was measured in dollars relating to lodging revenue, lodging taxes, and meal taxes.

Swell. All three categories are very quantifiable.

But they're not measures of tourism. They're simply measures of business activity. In the case of Galax and Carroll County, the growth could be attributable (and the local tourism director in fact attributed the numbers to ...) the build-up of motels at exit 14 on I-77. Were the dollars spent at those motels - and nearby restaurants - spent by tourists? Or just travellers passing through on their way to the Charlotte Motor Speedway?

Who knows?

Well, the tourism director knew. He classified all guests at the Holiday Inn at exit 14 as tourists. And celebrated. And he made those who pay his paycheck know how successful the county had been in drawing tourists to the community (even though the experience of those tourists may have not extended beyond the use of a toilet and a bed before moving on the next morning).

But that's not the half of it. As a (former) demographer, I know the next step in calculating the impact of tourism on the area is to take the measurable numbers and perform what's called extrapolation. We make inferences based on known facts. Some call it massaging the numbers.

Try to imagine what you end up with when you try to draw inferences from grossly flawed data.

You get the kind of newspaper article that appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier on Saturday.

In this case, unlike the reporter who simply regurgitated that which she was fed (Why do we need reporters for this? Why doesn't the Virginia Tourism Authority simply fax this crap directly to the people?), I went directly to the source - the data.

You can too.

First we go to The
Virginia Tourism Corp. website (that's where this report resides).

We then go to the site's page entitled, "
Economic Impact."

There you'll find two reports. The first is called "2006 Preliminary Economic Impact Estimates." That's where preliminary summary numbers are to be found.

The second and more important report is accessed at "
2006, The Economic Impact of Domestic Travel Expenditures on Virginia." Click on it and it brings you to a 54-page report entitled:

"The Economic Impact of Domestic Travel Expenditures on Virginia Counties 2006"

It's from this study that the reporter obtained her numbers.

It's at this point that she should have asked a simple question: Why does the report use the word 'travel' and not 'tourism'?


As noted on page 46 in the report itself:

There is no commonly accepted definition of travel in use at this time. For the purposes of the estimates herein, travel is defined as activities associated with all overnight and day trips to places 50 miles away or more, one way, from the traveler’s origin and any overnight trips away from home in paid accommodations.

The word tourism is avoided in this report because of its vague meaning. Some define tourism as all travel away from home while others use the dictionary definition that limits tourism to personal or pleasure travel.
"Some" being those who depend on the growth of the tourism industry for their livelihood.

Which definition would a sane person use?

● Some define tourism as all travel away from home

or ...

● Tourism is limited to personal or pleasure travel.

You can see where this is going. You get in your car and, by God, you're a tourist!

Most of us would look at a tourist as being someone on a trip for pleasure and/or for relaxation. But not these guys. They include ALL travel.

Which means (read the detail and you find that a 50-mile trip is considered "travel") for the purposes of this study, my wife's occasional trip to Home Depot in Christiansburg is considered a tourist journey. When I run down to Marion to buy tractor supplies at the TSC, I'm "travelling."

Considering the fact that I have to drive 20 miles just to buy a pair of fruit-of-the-looms, by these standards I do a whole mess of tourist travel.

And then there's the forty or so cities I visit each year - on business - the dollars spent therein are considered "travel" dollars?


Go to page 50 and see the industry categories that are included in the computation. Convenience store transactions. Purchases of medicines, cosmetics, and clothing. The "fixed costs of owning an automobile." "Commercial eating facilities and grocery stores or carry-outs, as well as on food purchased for off-premise consumption."

If all that doesn't make you a bit leery of the validity of this report, go to page 54 and you'll find the sources of the data from which the tourism travel conclusions were drawn. Included along with the many legitimate sources is one that has proven itself to be less than trustworthy in such matters - The Virginia Tourism Authority. The state's tourism cheerleader.

It would do the citizens of Southwest Virginia well to learn how it is that this travel report came to be represented as a tourism report. "Travel," as you now know, can mean about anything. And is represented by some to mean something far different from the truth.

My guess is it wasn't a mistake made by the good folks at the Bristol Herald Courier (well, not completely anyway). After all, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph came out with a similar story a few days before (see "
Tazewell Tourism Flourishing") and cited the same report as its source. That's not a coincidence.

There was someone else pushing the story. Some cheerleader somewhere.

Beyond that, look at the numbers in that 54-page report relating to your community. You tell me if those travel expenditure dollars (Russell County - $9.31 million!) and related travel employment numbers (Washington County - 1,190 people!) pass your smell test.

If you're like me, you are by now having a few doubts.

Maybe some day someone in the mainstream media will as well.

Some day.

Update: October 2 - The Roanoke Times buys into the bait and switch as well. See "Tourism dollars check in to Roanoke Valley." And all kinds of officials are claiming credit.