As T&T grapples with declining visitor arrivals in the face of regional growth in tourists, T&T’s unique approach to measuring tourism statistics is called into question, according to tourism research specialist Akilah Procope.
With nearly a decade of research and analytics experience, Procope is well-versed in both primary and secondary research methodologies across various sectors. Her background spans the corporate and research agency sectors, working with public and private organisations, as well as intergovernmental entities and specialised United Nation’s agencies.
According to Procope, T&T’s decision to track visitor arrivals by nationality rather than country of residence raises questions about its impact on tourism statistics.
“We are the only English-speaking country in the Caribbean that stands out for our decision to measure visitor arrivals by nationality rather than country of residence.
“In a region, where most countries rely on the country of residence to track visitor arrivals, this departure from the norm raises concerns about comparability with other Caribbean nations,” she said.
Procope added that the difference in measurement criteria may hinder efforts to draw meaningful conclusions about regional trends and market shares, potentially affecting T&T’s ability to develop effective tourism strategies.
Further, measuring visitor arrivals by nationality could result in undercounting specific visitor segments, such as Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) travellers and those with dual citizenship or residency in multiple countries.
This may lead to an incomplete understanding of the overall visitor landscape, resulting in the misallocation of resources in the tourism sector and missed opportunities for growth.
Additionally, focusing on nationality might provide limited insights into travel behaviour and preferences, which are often more closely linked to the country of residence.
Procope said this could impact T&T’s ability to tailor marketing campaigns and tourism offerings to the specific needs of different visitor segments.
She said despite the ongoing debate surrounding the measurement of visitor arrivals by nationality, calls for a hybrid approach that considers both nationality and country of residence have yet to gain significant traction.
According to Procope said if such a method were adopted, it could provide a more comprehensive understanding of the visitor landscape, facilitate better comparisons with other countries in the region, and ultimately contribute to more effective decision-making in the tourism sector.
She told the Business Guardian that while T&T nationals increasingly travel abroad, particularly to the US, inbound tourism has struggled.
“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of the local tourism sector, but recovery is on the horizon. Meanwhile, the debate over measuring visitor arrivals by nationality rather than country of residence raises concerns about data comparability and the potential for undercounting specific visitor segments,” Procope whose industry experience spans marketing, automotive, banking, tourism and telecommunications explained.
She noted that T&T experienced consecutive declines in annual visitor arrivals in the five years preceding the national border closure, except for 2019.
According to the Central Statistical Office (CSO), the country’s five-year annual average visitor arrivals, before COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, stood at 401,695, while the average in the three years before the pandemic dropped to 386,237.
When comparing visitor arrivals in 2019 with those of 2015, a 11.6 per cent decrease is noted.
Contrastingly, Procope said the World and the Caribbean region enjoyed a five per cent and three per cent average annual growth rate in visitor arrivals respectively in the five years leading up to the pandemic, as reported by the 2022 UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), World Barometer Report.
“This discrepancy between T&T’s declining numbers and the regional and international upswing raises questions about the factors contributing to the country’s tourism struggles.
“Despite the dip in arrivals, tourism earnings in Trinidad and Tobago remained significant in the years leading up to the pandemic. On average, visitors spent TT$566 per day and stayed for 13 days. Interestingly, in the last year before the pandemic, per-visitor expenditure decreased to TT$502 per day, while the average length of stay increased to 14 days,” Procope further explained.
Additionally, she said in the year after the end of the COVID-19 restrictions, the tourism industry experienced an uneven recovery.
Procope added that visitor arrivals, plummeted from 95,280 in 2020 to a mere 40,621 in 2021, highlighting the immense impact of the pandemic on the country’s tourism sector.
However, she noted last year brought a glimmer of hope as visitor arrivals rebounded to 226,489, and the first quarter of 2023 registered 81,762 visitors signalling that the industry is regaining its footing.
According to Procope, the international travel landscape in T&T has witnessed an “intriguing tug-of-war” between departures of T&T nationals and visitor arrivals from international countries between 2015 and 2022.
She said analysis of the travel statistics provided on the CSO’s website unveils the “hidden stories” behind fluctuating numbers and the impact of global events on travel trends.
Procope said from 2015 to 2019, departures of T&T nationals to overseas destinations experienced consistent growth. However, during this same period, T&T faced a consistent decline in visitor arrivals except for the year 2019 when a three per cent year-on-year growth was recorded.
“The contrast between outbound and inbound travel trends culminated in a net loss, with significantly more T&T nationals travelling abroad than tourists visiting the country. The largest gap occurred in 2019, with a staggering net difference of 99,094 travellers,” she explained.
However, Procope said the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 proved to be a game-changer, causing a dramatic nosedive in both departures and arrivals.
As global travel came to a standstill, the net difference between inbound and outbound travel flipped primarily due to Carnival which occurred just before the border closure announcement, resulting in a positive balance of 14,086 travellers in favour of tourist arrivals.
Procope explained that in 2021, the travel industry remained subdued, but T&T national’s outbound travel outpaced that of visitor arrivals to T&T by 23,544.
“As the world began to emerge from the pandemic in 2022, both departures of T&T nationals and tourist arrivals soared, marking a remarkable recovery.
The gap between inbound and outbound travel persisted, with more T&T nationals departing Trinidad than tourist arrivals by some 36,659 travellers,” she further explained.
Month-by-month travel patterns
As Procope delved into the intriguing patterns, some months stand out as particularly popular for departures of T&T nationals.
She noted July, August, and December consistently saw the highest numbers of residents venturing abroad, adding that these months coincide with summer vacations and the Christmas holiday season.
In contrast, the months of January and February witnessed the lowest numbers of T&T nationals departing for international countries which could be attributed to individual’s preference to stay home for the Carnival season or cold weather in popular destinations during these months.
When examining visitor arrivals to T&T, Procope also noted that the data revealed a different story.
She said August emerges as the peak month for tourist arrivals, with consistently high numbers across the years, adding that travel patterns among T&T nationals revealed that the US remains a popular destination, with US trips accounting for roughly four in 10 of all international departures by T&T nationals between 2015 and 2021.
Interestingly, this trend persists even as overall departures have fluctuated significantly over the years, she added.
According to the US International Trade Administration’s SIAT Inbound Survey Monitor’s 2019 data on the socio-economic background of T&T visitors to the US, roughly 70 per cent of T&T visitors to the US have a household income of no more than TT$22,670 monthly. When it comes to the purpose of travel, 58 per cent of T&T nationals visit the US for vacations or holidays, compared to 23 per cent for visiting friends and relatives (VFR) and seven per cent for business.
While in the US, T&T visitors prioritise leisure activities, with 89 per cent engaging in shopping, 56 per cent opting for sightseeing, and 30 per cent indulging in fine dining experiences.
Additionally, accommodation preferences vary, with 51 per cent choosing to stay in hotels or motels and 56 per cent staying at private homes. The figures indicate that T&T nationals stay in both hotels or motels and at private homes during trips to the US.
Hotel stays typically last one week, while visits to private homes extend to an average of two weeks.