Statistics (on tourism)

Contrary to the claim that “Anything is debatable except figures”, repeated at will at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in the advertisement produced for the French Ministry of Solidarity and Health in favour of vaccination, figures can be discussed. To be clear though, we are not against vaccination and are not conspiracy theorists. A scientific debate led by Alain Desrosières (2014) and Luc Boltanski (2014) raises questions about the production of data.

The former shows that data production is contingent on the context in which it is produced and the latter that the world is perceived through representations which, although expressed in the form of numbers, and therefore deemed to be scientific, are nevertheless constructs that serve the intentions of the institutions that produce them. What are the questionable aspects of the statistics produced? A more detailed analysis is provided in Chapter 2, “Quantifier les touristes et le tourisme: problèmes statistiques” (Quantifying tourists and tourism: statistical problems), of the handbook led by Mathis Stock (2020).

First of all, who do these statistics count?

This question refers to the definition of tourism. The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has imposed a standard that has not been deconstructed by most scientists, which in itself is problematic. The fact that this notion is adopted because it is universally accepted is already called into question by the fact that the actual conditions of their production are very diverse.

In fact, the UNWTO differentiates between tourism and migration. The former is mobility accepted by countries because it is both a visible and short-term source of wealth production, and accepted since the persons concerned return to their country of residence. Thus, people travelling for reasons as diverse as business trips, for which they are paid, refunded, insured by their companies but also constrained in their movements, their schedule, their freedom… or pilgrimages, for which destinations are imposed and rites are prescribed … are mixed with those who travel on their own initiative, at their expense, in their free time …

More recently, consideration has been given to the relationships between different types of travel: for example, between business trips and leisure trips. It is to be recalled that the neologism was invented by the MIT team (2002), in an analysis of the concept of tourism and in order to replace the heuristically limited term recreation, referring to school breaks, indeed memorable but of limited scope compared to tourism, which is a fundamental issue in the development of industrial civilisation.

However, analysing convergences between different modes of travelling, requires first highlighting differences. There can be no confluence without divergence in nature. While a business trip can indeed offer opportunities for leisure or a visit to relatives and can conceal the real intention of discovering a place, while enjoying paid accommodation, the fact remains that the traveller has to meet the objectives set by the company in the first case, and at least accommodate social rituals in the second case, which implies board as well as lodging. Tourism moments that some call “tourism sequence” (Duhamel, 2013 and 2018) can be fitted into a non-tourist mobility but the main intention is not recreation. As such, the distinction is relevant.

Other than that, at the local level, the confusion is great. In tourist offices as well as in places of visit, it is not uncommon to count all the individuals who come in, regardless of their place of residence, while the UNWTO maintains the criterion of crossing the borders around the place of daily life.

And for good measure, to assess the number of “tourists” in many territories, the data is manufactured by adding the number of entries in all places where there is control, even if loose. For example, in most religious establishments, individuals who come to worship, those who visit as well as those who take shelter there when it rains are counted… and across a territory, the aggregation of entries in all closed places of visits can reach peaks of attendance and the height of self-satisfaction.

The occupancy of accommodation is not entirely measurable either (De Cantis Stefano, Parroco Anna Maria, Ferrante Mauro and Vaccina Franco, 2015). While it is true that in some facilities, deviations from actual figures are limited due to the very nature of the accommodation (hotel), in other modes of accommodation, arrangements are possible, at least at the margin.

Accommodation not declared by local hosts has always been a source of income for the local community, including those who occupy ground floors half buried underground in order to rent the upper floors to tourists; those who ask their tenants to move out during the summer months which are much more profitable as they are booked for tourists; those who have invested in a second house on their large plot of land … Today, social media and other platforms have significantly boosted the dissemination of rental offers, not all of which are declared.

In fact, measuring tourist attendance is not simple, especially because of this undeclared part. It is not known exactly how many individuals live temporarily in tourist destinations. The photos below (Ill. 1 and 2) show that some forms of self-production lead to underestimates. This implies that methodological approaches cannot be based on samples that are fully reliable and that random or other suitable methods should be used.

Ill. 1. So-called “wild” camping in a parking lot in Saint-Jean-de-Monts (Vendée) on 28 August 2021 at 7:48 am (Cl. Philippe Violier)
Ill. 2. So-called “wild” camping in a parking lot in Saint-Jean-de-Monts (Vendée) on 28 August 2021 at 7:46 AM (Cl. Philippe Violier)

Secondly, what do they observe?

Statistical observation is very focused on measuring economic benefits. However, the significance of these benefits depends on the satisfaction experienced by tourists in carrying out their project. The latter is rarely surveyed or is surveyed through the black box about the reasons for travelling, which is often not assessed beyond the broad categories. This brings us back to the question of the definition of tourism.

From this point of view, a regression can even be noted in the national statistics in France. Thus, the holiday survey, a specific section included every five years in the household consumption survey, until 2004, dealt more closely with the “reasons” for travelling than the tourism travel monitoring survey (Suivi des déplacements touristiques – SDT) which replaced it, conducted by Sofres-Kantar for the Directorate General for Enterprise, and which is limited to a distinction between “personal trips” and “business trips”. However, “visits to friends and relatives” is a category that should be surveyed. This includes socialisation which rules out the choice of place and the control of time, as well as opportunistic strategies that show that people who live by the sea or in the mountains have more loyal friends and relatives than others.

Statistics also contribute to recognising good tourism, which is necessarily cultural or “sporting” and respect decorum. Thus, in the above-mentioned SDT survey, the list of activities allowing the coding of responses introduces a bias in their favour (Ill. 3). “Fine arts” are distinguished from other forms of discovery such as “observation of fauna and flora” or “visits to sites and natural spaces”, etc., which are incorporated into the category “relaxation and miscellaneous activities” along with thalassotherapy. Similarly, rest, self-care, clubbing, etc. do not appear, and even less do the search for sexual partners, siestas, or aperitifs, etc.

Ill. 3. A long and yet incomplete list of activities that tourists are supposed to engage in (source: SDT survey)

Thirdly, on what spatial bases?

The statistical apparatus of a country produces data based on institutional territories, and rarely, or only to a limited extent, on places. In France, the primary data is produced at the level of departments, for resident tourists, or regions, for non-residents. However, the people’s experience takes place in basic locations and in areas that are created by networks developed through practices by tourists, influenced by various other actors, public or private (Piriou, 2019). These territories built by tourists are destinations in the proper sense of this term and do not replicate the administrative boundaries of a region or a department.

What can be done?

Since we do not have the means to compile data beyond the local area and at a defined time, what can be done? We have two options.

The first is to use the figures produced by discussing them beforehand and putting them in perspective. The second is to produce our own data, with the limitations that this entails, which requires discussing them. This second option is illustrated in the work of Antonescu and Stock (2014), (Antonescu 2016), on the one hand, Gay and Decroly, on the other hand, on the distribution of tourism in the world. Violier (2011; Violier and Taunay, 2019) carried out an analysis of tourism in the world based on an analysis of the catalogues of tour operators. This initiative bypasses the data produced by the UNWTO by focusing the approach on a categorised definition of tourism and on specific places, thus avoiding the application of state boundaries.

One question remains: who can analyse what?

Other than data production, data mining also raises questions. Not only do institutions produce data according to their own standards, but the results are also not easily accessible. Thus, the SDT survey produced information that was far from being fully processed. But since the financial partnership between the national body and the company, Sofres, which later joined the Kantar group, provided for paid access to basic data other than publications distributed free of charge, this severely restricted the scope of exploitation to only what the institutions deemed useful. A considerable amount of data remained unused.

Today, INSEE has taken over the management of operations for the production of tourism statistics, in a somewhat opaque, unclear context, made worse by the Covid pandemic. Today, we do not know what it is planned to achieve or not.

Are openings possible? Let us recall that the same INSEE had called on researchers to process, as part of the “Holidays” survey of 2004, part of the data that the organisation did not intend to use. A call for applications was launched. This made it possible to address innovative subjects that are perhaps useful to industry professionals. For example, Mondou and Violier (2009) were able to explore the functioning of the tourism system by feeding information on the links between practices and destinations. Can such a partnership, between a state agency and university researchers also paid by the state, be renewed?

Philippe VIOLIER


  • Antonescu Andreea et Stock Mathis, 2014, «The globalisation of tourism. A geohistorical approach», Annals of Tourism Research. vol. 45, p. 77-88, en ligne.
  • Antonescu Andreea, 2016, La dynamique du champ mondial du tourisme. Constitution et analyse d’une base de données historique à partir d’un corpus de guides de voyage. Thèse de géographie, université de Lausanne.
  • Boltanski Luc, 2014, «Quelles statistiques pour quelle critique?», dans Bruno Isabelle, Didier Emmanuel et Prévieux Julien (dir.), Statactivisme. Paris, La Découverte, p. 33-50.
  • De Cantis Stefano, Parroco Anna Maria, Ferrante Mauro et Vaccina Franco, 2015, «Unobserved tourism», Annals of Tourism Research. vol. 50, p. 1-18, en ligne.
  • Desrosières Alain, 2014, « La statistique, outil de libération ou outil de pouvoir », dans Bruno Isabelle, Didier Emmanuel et Prévieux Julien (dir.), Statactivisme. Paris, La Découverte, p. 51-66.
  • Duhamel Philippe, 2018, «Chapitre 1: Touristes et tourisme: les spécificités d’un voyage et d’un voyageur dans un monde mobilité», dans Géographie du tourisme et des loisirs. Dynamiques, acteurs, territoires. Paris, Armand Colin, coll. «U», p. 11-45.
  • Duhamel Philippe, 2013, «Des mobilités et du tourisme (chapitre 1)», dans Violier Philippe (dir.), Le tourisme, un phénomène économique. Paris, La Documentation française, coll. «Les Études», p. 15-28.
  • Équipe MIT, 2002, Tourismes 1. Lieux communs. Paris, Belin.
  • Mondou Véronique, Violier Philippe, 2009, «Projets, pratiques et lieux touristiques, quelles relations?», Mappemonde. n° 94, en ligne.
  • Pirou Jérôme, 2018, La région touristique. Une co-construction des acteurs du tourisme. Londres, Éditions ISTE.
  • Stock Mathis (dir.), Coëffé Vincent, Violier Philippe, avec la collaboration de Philippe Duhamel, 2020, Les enjeux contemporains du tourisme. Une approche géographique. Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, coll. «Didact Géographie»