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A Strange, Partisan, Take on “Year of Return” Data

My friend and colleague, Selorm Branttie, forwarded to me snippets of a Facebook thread about my recent comment on the Year of Return, in which he had been tagged and expressly asked to forward to my attention.

My inclination was to ignore the thread, for obvious reasons.

First, it is Christmas for Christ’s sake! Second, I have had to switch off Facebook because it was taking too much of my time. Facebook is designed to compel conversation. I simply don’t have hours in the day to spare for casual banter anymore; the daily hustle has made sure of that. Twitter, which I have been using more and more, is, on the other hand, a broadcast medium that allows me to disseminate random thoughts with far less expenditure of time. Lastly, I recognised the key discussants on the thread as strong partisans of the ruling party in Ghana with whom I share a bit of a history.

In the past it has been virtually impossible to have a sincere debate about anything since they seem sworn to see any dissent from positions of the ruling NPP government as motivated by “cynicism” and “ill will”. In my brief and occasional dealings with such people, sincere and mutually respectful discussion of facts and figures consistently degenerated into motive-questioning and other such base exchanges.

Frankly, I have neither the time nor ability to understand what it is that make some people so loyal to political parties to the point of losing all capacity for objectivity, but, well, we live in a complex world.

I have decided to respond to the Facebook thread for only one reason: a debate over data is always worth having in the peculiar circumstances of Ghana’s development.

Having chosen to mount what amounts to a mini-campaign about the issue of the Government’s reliance on bad data to appraise the generally successful Year of Return initiative, I feel obliged to address reactions, even if they are accompanied by insults accusing me of “cynicism” and statistical ignorance, so long as they present themselves as offering counter evidence.

The “counter evidence” presented in the said Facebook thread was along these lines:

  1. In the thread, I was accused of presenting data covering all “international arrivals” instead of just “tourist arrivals”.
  2. My data is thus, according to this framing, a superset. The more relevant subset of tourist arrivals is much smaller. The data that I had culled from the CEIC and IATA datasets, and which was corroborated by Ghanaian Civic Aviation Authorities disclosures (some of which are openly available on the Ghana Airports Company website) could thus, in the view of my Facebook accusers, not be relied upon since not all international visitors are tourists.
  3. If the smaller tourist arrivals dataset is used, the claims by Government functionaries that $1.9 billion has been generated from the Year of Return would be justified.

This is the coherent part of the argument. How exactly the exponent of this theory jumps from these premises to satisfy the requirement of showing that $1.9 billion has been generated by the Year of Return initiative is both murky and confused.

Here is an extract from the thread so that the reader can judge for herself:

At the beginning of 2019, the Ghana Tourist Authority (GTA) projected that they were expecting 150, 000 more tourists from the African diaspora, thus making 2019 tourist number 500,000 compared to 350,000 of 2018. They estimated total spending by tourists to be about $925m.

Then in September 2019, with arrival data, the actual number was calculated at over 750,000, surpassing the 500,000. Based on the rate of arrivals, and the peaking of activities in December, they estimated 1 million tourists by year end. Note that due to the doubling of the numbers, the expected spending by tourists, also doubled to $1.9bn.

Recall that my argument was very simple:

  1. In 2018, international arrivals were about 984,000.
  2. In 2019, the most optimistic projection suggests 1 million arrivals.
  3. The most optimistic allotment of any increase in arrivals due to the Year of Return cannot thus exceed 15,000 extra visitors in 2019.
  4. Because we have a reasonably strong estimate of average spending per visitor (about $1800 in 2018), we can confidently project an additional measurable revenue gain of $30 million if we use average spending of $2000 per visitor. This of course does not account for any qualitative gains, which are almost impossible to measure in this case due to paucity of data.
  5. Based on both the mean rate of arrivals for the last decade and the mean rate of projected arrivals for the decade after 2017, we have no evidence that the Year of Return has boosted arrival numbers beyond anything other than the mere increase in arrivals in 2019 over the figure recorded in 2018. And even that boost is only to the extent that the growth rate exceeds the average growth rate in visits over the last couple of years, which, sadly, it does not.

The counter-argument being canvassed in the Facebook thread is that we need to use figures preferred by the Ghana Tourism authorities and that if we do we shall record 650,000 extra or additional visitors in 2019 over the 2018 figure. Presumably, the interlocutor has no objection to the use of a spend-per-tourist figure closer to the $2000 number, which should give us $1.3 billion extra yield supposedly attributable to the Year of Return. Still, no $1.9 billion in sight though.

Except that all of this seeming “analysis” is actually empty of both research value and statistical fidelity. The process of determining whether an intervention has had an “effect” is a very elementary one, taught to everyone who has ever taken the most elementary of introductory courses in statistics. It is standard “hypothesis testing”. In a situation such as this one where the means and variances are all so well known due to near-complete historical data, there is hardly any need for the kind of quibbling seen on that thread. Which brings us to the central point: data integrity and validity.

If indeed the tourist subset is about a third of the set of total arrivals, such that we had 350,000 tourists out of the 984,000 arrivals in 2018, then one can only expect 2019 to record total arrivals in excess of 3 million for the tourist component alone to hit the 1 million mark, as canvassed by our Facebook commentator. A completely absurd projection that is at variance with several Government projections.

In fact, there is no logic in holding that the arrivals data I used is the superset and that the Tourism authorities in Ghana have higher-resolution subset data that can be used to hone in on tourist numbers with better precision. Simply because such a supposition was both superfluous and easily verified to be false.

Here is the Tourism Ministry’s own set of data available from page 22 of its latest strategic plan:

Min_Tourism_International_Arrivals_2017-2019

This data is actually lower resolution, and includes land border arrivals that are very difficult to process due to the high translocalism of intra-African borders. My decision to focus on data that can be corroborated and triangulated using international aviation stats was driven by this very fact. That data pays as much attention as possible to pruning non-visitor noise wherever possible.

But all that is besides the point really. The most important point here is that this data does not in anyway vindicate any of the strange and statistically perverse claims made by our interlocutor on the Facebook thread. The Ministry’s tourist arrivals figure for 2016, the most recent year for which it had an actual tally is 1,202,200. Its projected figure for 2018 is 1,454,700.

Average visitor spend, according to the Ministry, for 2016, the latest year for which it had complete data, was $1,890, virtually identical to the Ministry of Finance estimate of $1,800 for 2018.

It is important to bear in mind that this average spending amount is comprehensive. To focus solely on spending on tourism activities, strictly speaking, would be to considerably shrink tourism receipt numbers since direct spending on pure tourism in Ghana is incredibly low. According to the Ghana Statistical Service’s “Trends in the Tourism Market in Ghana 2005 – 2014” report (page 15), visitor spending adjusted for inflation has actually been falling for some time:

Visitor arrivals to selected major tourist sites rose from 381,600 to 592,300 over the decade. Real revenue also rose marginally from GHȼ490,000 to GHȼ492,000 over the same period with average spend per arrival falling from 1.3 GH¢ to 0.8 GH¢. Both arrivals and real revenue grew positively in the first half of the period, at an annual average growth rate of 10.7% and 6.1% respectively, while during the second half, both categories fell every year on average by -1% and -3.3% respectively.

We are seriously talking about total earnings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the whole country here, and average spending in tourist sites of about a dollar and cents over the course of a full decade. One has to employ a broader definition of visitor spending for tourism revenues to make any sort of statistical sense, which points to the absurdity of trying to use a lower-resolution spec for defining “tourist arrivals”.

So, where did our commentator on Facebook find his numbers? Surely not from the Tourism Authorities, despite purporting to be filtering out tourism data. How did he construct his hypothesis that the “tourist arrivals” number used by the authorities is lower than the “international arrivals” number widely used by global observers and by the Ministry of Finance to compute tourism revenues in Ghana? Surely not from any reputable or defensible data source.

But even if we are to use the lower-resolution, looser, dataset employed by the Tourism Ministry for strategic planning, the fact remains that there is no mechanism to “extract” this strange $1.9 billion figure from any statistical manipulation known to the science.

For instance, we can use the 1.45 million arrivals projection for 2018 (as made by the Tourism Ministry in 2017 in the table reproduced above) and also use the most aggressive projection for arrivals in 2019, which is 1.5 million, and we will still only be able to come up with $100 million as the level of tourist receipts in 2019 in excess of the figure recorded in 2018. But we would then need to address the hurdle of this “increase” being lower than previous year-on-year increases. For example, the last three years has seen arrivals growth rates in the magnitude of about 10% per annum. The apparent increase in numbers in 2019 compared to 2018,  would however, if we are to benchmark against the Ministry’s data, be less than 7%, suggesting lower growth in 2019 compared to the trend over the last couple of years.

In short, rather than contribute to the debate in a sincere effort of enhancing policymaking in Ghana through a promotion of facts, figures, data and analysis, the Facebook thread I referred to earlier was primarily concerned with pushing a partisan agenda, and a partisan agenda alone.

From what I can see on social media, many Ghanaians are now completely tired of this inability of politically engaged people to rise above petty partisan squabbling. I share in this frustration.

source:brightsimons.com

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