Defining Tourism–Why It Matters

It can be hard for the tourism sector to get much traction in the public mind.

Partly it’s that the industries that comprise tourism are so diverse that it’s hard to ‘see’ them as a unified whole. Partly it’s that when economists and statisticians talk about the labour market as a whole, only two of our industry groups (accommodations and food and beverage services) are brought together, which underestimates the size of the sector’s labour force by around 40 to 45%. And partly it’s that, even at the level of granularity that Tourism HR Canada works with data, it’s not always clear that we are counting the right things.

Numerous attempts have been made over decades to carve out some kind of static definition, sometimes focused on industries (using the North American Industry Classification System [NAICS]), and at other times focused on occupations (using the National Occupational Classification [NOC] system from the Government of Canada).

As Tourism HR Canada’s mandate is to work directly with issues concerning labour in the tourism sector, these definitions matter.

An exclusive focus on occupation is complicated by the fact that not all employment instances of a given ‘tourism’ occupation are necessarily related to tourism. For example, deck officers in water transport may work on passenger and vehicle ferries (which would be included in tourism) or they may work on cargo transport ships (which would not). At the NOC level, this distinction is immaterial—they have the right technical proficiencies and licences to work in either environment, so they are equivalent from a structural perspective. But from the point of view of trying to map the scale, distribution, and economic footprint of the tourism sector, they are not at all equivalent. Similarly, tourism businesses routinely employ people in occupations that cannot reasonably be considered ‘tourism’ occupations: HR managers, marketers, accountants, lawyers, and so on.

Using data from the national census, it is possible to cross-tabulate occupations with industries and arrive at a reasonable picture of the composition and distribution of the tourism sector. Unfortunately, the census is undertaken only once every five years, and up-to-date estimates are needed much more frequently. This quality of data is simply not available on a rolling basis, so estimates are tabulated using other statistical resources that are updated monthly, quarterly, and annually. Identifying which slices of the labour force to include in discussions of the tourism sector remains a complex question, as these data sets are not as finely or accurately tuned to the interaction between industry and occupation as the census.

One method to define tourism occupations proposed by Statistics Canada[1] is to use tourism Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratios, coupled with tourism’s share of each occupation, to estimate the proportion of employment dependent on tourism. This method approximates how much of the GDP is attributable to tourism, on an industry basis. The calculations yield three levels of tourism entanglement:

  1. Tourism characteristic occupations (with a threshold of at least 10% of employment being lost in the absence of tourism)
  2. Other tourism occupations (between 5% and 10%)
  3. Other occupations in tourism industries (less than 5%)

While this approach is good at identifying core tourism occupations based on NOCs and NAICS classification, it is reliant on the right NAICS codes having been identified to define tourism.

The Canadian Tourism Satellite Account (CTSA)[2] defines a tourism industry as “one that would cease or continue to exist only at a significantly reduced level of activity as a direct result of an absence of tourism”. This criterion of “a significantly reduced level of activity” is rather more subjective than the GDP ratio approach for occupations, and so there are potential exclusions and over-inclusions at this level of the analysis.

These industries are defined in the CTSA at the six-digit NAICS level, although the data that Tourism HR Canada regularly collects from Statistics Canada is generally at the four-digit level, so may inadvertently include specific industries intended to be excluded. In practice, any such inclusions are likely to be small, so not of immediate concern for our purposes. There are also exclusions, such as border control officers, who are not really working ‘in’ tourism but without whom international tourism would grind to a halt—and these may have a bigger impact on how we estimate both labour force issues and the sector’s economic impact.

The Tourism Characteristic Occupations method is easy to implement given the right economic and labour force data, and has the benefit of making the identification of tourism occupations less dependent on introspection or intuition than some previous methods. One weakness of this approach is the frequency with which tourism GDP ratios are calculated: they are generated when the Tourism Human Resource Module created by Statistics Canada is updated, the most recent instance being in 2019[3]. Under normal circumstances, we might expect these ratios to remain relatively static, but in the face of massive disruption—such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which destabilized not only tourism but all sectors and all aspects of daily life—this assumption of continuity may be unwarranted.

Another consideration of this approach is that it does not account for the tourism-internal share of employment for a given occupation. That is to say, it is designed around “how much of X is tourism”, but does not also ask “how much of tourism is X”. The tourism sector may have a low share of an occupation relative to the total economy (if that occupation is widely found in other sectors as well), but that same occupation may represent a substantial proportion of all tourism jobs. From a labour force perspective on the sector, this second element is also an important piece of the puzzle, and ought ideally to be built into formulas used to define tourism occupations within tourism industries.

Part of the issue in trying to arrive at one static definition of tourism is that inclusions and exclusions will depend to some extent on the questions being asked of the data. It may be more productive to develop more than one definition of tourism, each tailored to a particular line of inquiry. Data-driven explorations of the tourism labour force, for instance, may be oriented to a fundamentally different set of requirements than ones trying to estimate the economic footprint of tourism in a region, or to those trying to model the impact of labour issues on points of contact on a visitor’s journey.

As tourism ventures continue to diversify the products and services they offer, the types of questions being asked of tourism data will change, as will the socio-cultural contexts in which those businesses will operate. Sustainable and regenerative tourism practices are in their relative infancy now, but it is anticipated that they will proliferate in the coming years—so it also likely that the set of occupations and industries that are considered in defining tourism will need to accommodate these new, as yet unmapped, realities.

In a similar vein, the measures used to evaluate or account for tourism’s impact—environmental, social, and economic—will likely need to be reconsidered in light of the shifting backdrop against which the sector operates. Traditional measures of productivity do not currently account for the full impact of tourism on a region, the communities that make up that region, its natural resources, or its human capital.

Refining the definition(s) of tourism will be a long-term project, as the sector itself evolves, our socio-economic contexts adapt to a changing world, and the available statistical measures change. Tourism HR Canada is committed to bringing the best data to the table and balancing the need for continuity in reporting with the equally pressing need for innovation in our research.

[1] Martin, Terrance. Identifying tourism characteristic occupations in Canada. Statistics Canada. 2014 [?].

[2] Statistics Canada. Canadian Tourism Satellite Account Handbook. Income and Expenditure Accounts Technical Series, 13-604-MIE no.52. 2007.

[3] The next iteration of the Tourism Human Resource Module (T-HRM) is expected in 2024.

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