You can sense it, feel it, see it.
It’s glorious summer and the height of tourism season — the perfect time for the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association to release the Regional Visitor Highlights report that shows tourism is a blockbuster industry in the region that will only get bigger.
In 2018, there were 9.6 million overnight stays by tourists.
That number does not include residents of the Thompson Okanagan who might have stayed overnight elsewhere in the region while travelling.
Overnight stays is exactly that — a precise count of the number of nights tourists spent in the region.
Other association statistics show the actual number of visitors to the Thompson Okanagan is about 3.5 million a year who spend $2 billion.
That means most tourists to the region stay an average of 2.7 nights.
Of those 9.6 million overnight stays, 84%, or 8.1 million, are people from within Canada.
Of those 8.1 million, 56% are from elsewhere in B.C., 27% are from Alberta and 5% are from each Saskatchewan and Ontario.
That means 1.5 million of the overnight stays, or 16%, are international tourists.
Of those, 65% are American, 7% are Australian, 5% are German and 4% are Chinese.
The figures were compiled using the latest technology from Telus Insights.
Telus aggregates cellphone tower data and provides raw information to the association’s research group.
Such cellphone data pinpoints where people are, how long they stay and what area of B.C. or what province in Canada they are from based on what postal code the phone bill goes to.
The data can also determine what country the cellphone owner is from.
While Telus is one of many cell companies, it can collect data from all cellphones because all phones ping all towers.
If such big data use sounds a bit Big Brotherish, it’s because it is.
However, Telus recognizes big data comes with big responsibility to protect the privacy of individuals.
Therefore, Telus makes sure the information gathered is de-identified, which means it cannot be traced back to an individual.
Aggregation into large data pools also ensures privacy.
“This kind of research and data has been used by the transportation and health-care industries for years, but it’s new for tourism,” said Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association CEO Glenn Mandziuk.
“Before, we based numbers on hotel occupancy rates. Now, thanks to cellphone tower data, we get a broader understanding because visitors staying overnight with friends and relatives are counted, too.”
With 3.5 million visitors a year spending $2 billion, tourism is one of the region’s biggest economic engines, if not the biggest.
High tech estimates its impact at $1.7 billion a year, and construction-real estate, retail-trade and health care usually round out the top-five list.
The data shows there’s been steady growth in international tourists, up between five and 10% over the past couple of years.
“While international visitors are small in numbers, they spend the most,” said Mandziuk.
“Over the same period, we’ve had a small decline — maybe 2% — in domestic visitors. That’s because the Alberta economy is soft and because of the smoke we had in the air the last two Augusts. As a result, some people may not be visiting or they are booking last minute. That’s why we’re hoping for a good summer to change that trend.”
As recently as a decade ago, 80% of tourism revenues in the Thompson Okanagan were earned in over 45 days in high summer.
That’s now stretched to 110 days as the shoulder seasons of spring and fall attract more tourists.
“Definitely, wine and culinary tourism has been a big part of that,” said Mandziuk.
“So has outdoor adventure, festivals and hotels. Our Biosphere designation for environmental and cultural sustainability is attracting international tourists, and people are very interested in Aboriginal tourism, too.”
While the tourism sector continues to diversify, the Thompson Okanagan’s four tourism cornerstones still tend to be summer/lakes/beaches, wine, golf and skiing.