GAO Recommends DOT Gather More Tourism Data

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a new study this week entitled Travel and Tourism: DOT Should Improve Strategic Planning and Data Collection.

It may seem surprising to some, but the Department of Transportation’s responsibilities in the realm of tourism are very recent.

During our 2016 discussion with Transportation Secretary Alan Boyd about the creation of USDOT in 1966, Alan Pisarski noted ” the world of tourism, recreational travel, tourist travel, stayed in Commerce, or grew up in Commerce, I guess, and now in the recent legislation [section 1431 of the FAST Act and other provisions of that law relating to planning] there is a requirement for transportation people to recognize the needs of tourism in the current legislation. I worked between those two worlds over the years and it’s amazing how distinct and separate they have kept over the years.”

The GAO report neglects to emphasize that Commerce had a 50-year head start on Transportation when it comes to focusing on tourism. The report mentions that Commerce hosts the National Travel and Tourism Office and the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, as well as chair the Tourism Policy Council.  What the GAO report doesn’t note is that, in its original 1966 justification book for creating a DOT sent to Congress, the White House determined that the then-agency at Commerce in charge of tourism promotion had a “connection to other industries, institutions, or the public in general [which] mitigated against their inclusion in a department devoted solely to transportation.”

So it’s not that DOT has been slacking off on its tourism responsibilities for decades; it’s that they were specifically kept out of the tourism business until 2015. That’s when Reps. Dina Titus (D-Las Vega$) and Daniel Webster (R-Disney World) added their amendment in committee to what became the FAST Act to require that local and state transportation planning organizations consider the potential of a project to “enhance travel and tourism.” Then, when the bill went to the House floor, Rep. Corinne Brown (D-FL) offered an amendment (passed by the narrow margin of 216 to 207) creating a National Advisory Committee on Travel and Tourism Infrastructure within DOT and directing the Committee to produce a national strategic plan (issued January 2021).

As the GAO report notes, the IIJA of 2021 (in section 25018) directed the Committee to update the strategic plan. The IIJA also:

  • Ordered DOT to create an office of Chief Travel and Tourism Officer (sec. 25018 – done in February 2023);
  • Added requirements to several grant programs that the Secretary consider the impact of the project on tourism promotion; and
  • Required DOT to conduct a study of its travel and tourism responsibilities and submit the study to Congress by November 15, 2022 (sec. 27004 – not done yet).

GAO’S criticisms of DOT from the report are as follows:

The original strategic plan did not include specific goals. It did include four agency-wide strategic goals, but it did not include any short- or long-term goals or deliverables. “Rather, the plan contains an assessment of the current state and trends of travel and tourism; and identification of the major transportation facilities, barriers, and best practices that affect national travel and tourism as pursuant to requirements of the FAST Act, as amended.”

The GAO report says that DOT has contracted with the Volpe Center to update the strategic plan, as required by IIJA, but there is no indication yet if the revised report will set tangible goals and deliverables, either. And, the report says, “without short- or long-term goals for support of travel and tourism, it is unclear what DOT intends to accomplish through its efforts.”

DOT does not collect comprehensive data on travel and tourism. “DOT has not collected data that included all modes of long-distance travel since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics conducted its 1995 American Travel Survey. The survey provided detailed information on state-to-state travel, as well as travel to and from the metropolitan areas by modes of transportation. However, since that time, DOT officials said the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has not collected data on different trip purposes.”

“DOT officials said that they have not collected comprehensive data specifically on travel and tourism because they have not identified what is needed to support their efforts in the National Travel & Tourism Infrastructure Strategic Plan. Moreover, DOT officials also said they do not collect comprehensive data specifically on travel and tourism because it has not been a separate priority from DOT’s work to facilitate mobility.”

The report explains that part of this is inherent in the way that DOT modes collect data. FHWA tracks the number of vehicles on a given road at a given time. FTA and FRA track the number of passengers on each rail line and bus line. FAA and the Secretary’s office track the number of planes and passengers going between pairs of airports. But no one – not the modes, not the Secretary’s office, not Amtrak, not transit agencies, and not even airlines anymore – no one actually asks travelers whether or not they are tourists and then reports that information to DOT.

Asking those questions of all travelers, and then reporting and collating the responses, would be so time-consuming and expensive that it probably won’t happen. Instead, some kind of sampling and estimation would be involved. Since the GAO report mentions the 1995 American Travel Survey, it is helpful to look at that study’s methodology. The 1995 ATS was commissioned to get “flow data” and was itself the first update of the 1977 National Travel Survey.

The ATS was a joint product of BTS and the Census Bureau and involved visiting 80,000 households and paying them four visits each over the course of a year, with questionnaires about the extent and purpose of their quarterly travel. “The length of each quarterly interview for all households averaged 12 minutes. Interviews ranged from a low of 3 minutes to a high of just over two hours.” The ATS required the hiring of about 1,200 interviewers for a full year, paid on an hourly basis (about $8 to $12 per hour in 1995 money).

The ATS produced some great data, but as noted, it was an expensive undertaking, and Congress and the Department will have to consider just how much money they want to spend divining tourism-specific data to meet the IIJA’s requirements.

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