Opinion » Editorial


The best of times, the worst of times


One of the most interesting aspects of relying on statistical data is that you don’t fully understand a situation until it’s over, or at least until all the numbers are in and by that time it may be irrelevant. Conversely, there may be so many numbers that six different experts in the field will give six different interpretations of what the numbers mean.

A recession, for instance, is defined by economists as three consecutive quarters of negative growth. But nine months after a recession has started how important is it to statistically confirm the fact? Economists could give you dozen’s of answers.

An Infoline Report produced by BC Stats last month presented some interesting information about tourism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The report looked at the 12-month period preceding Sept. 11, 2001 and compared it to the following 12 months. The analysis: "From this viewpoint, 9/11 has not been a significant factor in the B.C. tourism economy.

"Overall, the 9/11 effect – where there was any effect at all – was highly transitory and disappears in a medium-to-long term analysis. The one exception is the airline industry, though even here it is hard to blame the industry’s problems on 9/11 alone."

While the tourism industry has had its struggles in the last two years, including a sluggish economy, SARS, war in Iraq and miscellaneous fears of terrorism, the BC Stats report dismisses 9/11 as a factor.

"If there is any lesson to be learned from this analysis, it is that B.C.’s tourism economy has staying power," the author concludes. "After an initial spike downward, the tourism economy bounced back within two months of the terrorist attacks. And if one takes the whole 12 month period beginning September 1 st , 2001, nothing out of the ordinary seems to have occurred.

"Hotel room revenues and overnight visitor entries were marginally lower (both down less than 2 per cent), but tourism employment levels were unchanged and the restaurant business was unaffected. The volume of U.S. visitors is lower, but the number of British Columbians staying closer to home is much higher. Perhaps as a consequence, patterns of tourism seem to be shifting away from the Mainland/Southwest region towards other, less-travelled parts of the province.

"For the year as a whole, September 11th is largely a non-story."

While BC Stats has the statistical data to back up its conclusions, the anecdotal evidence would suggest that the tourism industry in B.C., and elsewhere, reacted to Sept. 11 with rapidly revised marketing plans that focused on regional visitors, as opposed to destination travellers, and that it was this effort that kept some of the numbers up.

Meanwhile, this past April the Wall Street Journal reported that as the winter season was drawing to a close the goal of the ski industry was to "bring back visitors who have been staying away in droves due to the uncertain economy and, more recently, war apprehensions."

Ski Area Management, a trade publication, suggested The Journal’s analysis of the ski industry was based on conclusions drawn from reading quarterly reports of the publicly traded companies that own multiple resorts: Intrawest, Vail Resorts, ASC and others. Many of those companies stated that the slow economy and the war or threat of war in Iraq were responsible for financial performances this winter that were below expectation.

But are the economic performances of the publicly traded resort owners a fair measure of the overall industry? The National Ski Areas Association reports that the winter of 2002-03 set a new unofficial record for skier visits at American resorts, 57.6 million. With the exception of the Pacific Northwest, every ski region in the United States experienced record or near-record skier visits, according to the NSAA. This record for skier visits, a .6 per cent increase over the previous record total set two years ago, was achieved, as Ski Area Management points out, during "…the relatively adverse effects of a sluggish economy, impending and actual war with Iraq, and travel concerns over terrorism…."

Whistler-Blackcomb, which doesn’t release exact skier numbers because they may be misinterpreted by financial analysts looking at parent company Intrawest’s performance, said in April it would exceed 2 million skier visits again this season. Not quite a record but on par with numbers two seasons ago.

This is admittedly a grab-bag of numbers and statements from various industries and organizations, none of which provide a full story on their own. But numbers can be powerful persuaders. How powerful? Ask six different experts and you’ll get six different answers.