Wednesday 20 November 2013

Visits and Visitors

I don't know about you, but I find it hard to accept that the canals get millions of visitors every year. I have cruised many miles and hardly seen anyone other than the odd bird watcher, rambler, dog walker or fisherman. Is the canal a place that 'Joe Public' would really want to bring his family to visit. With the myriad of other places I imagine that Joe sees the local canal to be used more as a dumping ground for rubbish than as a visitor attraction.

I am interested in how popular the canals are becoming, as it would be a good indicator to the future. Because Joe Public is going to be asked to dig deep and support the canals by charitable donations. The Trust are going to be hard pressed to operate in a charitable market. Especially at a time when a significant natural disaster has taken place. One such as in the Philippines that is unfolding as I write. Its easy speculation as to which collecting tin the donation is going to go into.

The trusts website has the following claim to make. "Record numbers of people have made a trip to the nation’s canals and rivers this summer. During August, 5.4 million people visited a canal or river over our busiest fortnight, breaking previous visitor records as people took advantage of the good weather to come down to the waterside."

While visitor numbers might give some sort of feel for the take up of interest in our canals and rivers. I would want to qualify that number with people who made what I would consider to be - a genuine leisure visit by being attracted to the canal. Lets suppose that part of your commute into work each day was alongside a city centre towpath. Could you honestly call that a visit or visitor to the canals.

The UK has 63.7 million head of population. With a sample of 1000 people asked if they paid a visit to the Canal and River Trust managed waterways. This gives a representative figure of just one 1 for every 63,700 head of population.

I have a friend from my days of working in higher education. He headed up a team who conducted surveys and he highlighted for me some of the pitfalls that can skew the results. If for instance someone says that they have visited the canal. What might seem to be the next logical question is who was with you. Which gets the response the wife and two kids. This single call then represents 254,800 visits to the canal.

So it seemed prudent to ask CaRT for some background information on how the visitor numbers are calculated. Typically the methodology used. CaRT volunteered the following information which they said fell outside the requirements of the FoI Act. Maybe this is an early sign of the transparency and openness that Richard Parry recently revealed.

"You may find the following explanation helpful. You are indeed correct that the use of the term ‘visitor’ is often used in the leisure sector to refer to the number of visits people make as well as the number of people who actually visit. The Canal & River Trust monitors both visitors (people) and visits (occasions) through our Inland Waterways Visitor Survey (IWVS). The IWVS was established in 2003 and is currently conducted by independent market research agency BDRC Continental. The IWVS is a telephone survey that runs continuously through the year, interviewing almost 12,000 people annually.

A nationally representative sample of just under 1,000 adults is interviewed each month. Data is weighted on a monthly basis to the national GB population profile in terms of region, sex and age. A Random Digit Dialling (RDD) approach is used. This is a system which offers a totally geographically unclustered sample; vital since an individual’s usage of waterways is determined in part by their proximity to waterways (either living or working).

The visitor figure referred to, of around 10 million is based on the number of people who say they have visited a canal in the last year. Some will only have visited once, perhaps to a canal side pub for Sunday lunch; others may be visiting everyday as their route to work or to walk the dog. We know asking about behaviour over the last year presents some problems – some people may think back beyond a year, others will have forgotten their visit. We feel however, that this measure gives us a reasonable overview of visitor behaviour on an annual basis.

We also measure total visit occasions, and although there is obviously varies from year to year, depending on the weather, external events as well as our own marketing and communications. It is usually around 300 million visits.

The total visits figure is gathered by first asking people if they have visited one of our waterways in the last two weeks. Why two weeks? Two weeks is used as it is short enough to accurately remember more detailed information about their visit, but gives a larger and more robust sample than just asking about visits in the last week. Some people may have only visited once; others may have visited lots, doing different activities on different occasions. By counting all these different occasions we can monitor the number of visits made each month and in total over the year." 

Allan Richards left an annotation to my FoI request.

"I would suggest that the requester asks for clarification regarding the word 'canal' in the response. In particular, ask if 'canal' means the Trust's canal's, all the Trust's waterways (i.e. canals,rivers, reservoirs etc), or does it include non-trust waterways? To further inform the requester, this figure is used as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) to ensure that the Trust meets it's obligations under its Funding Agreement with Defra. I would suggest reading pages 27 & 28 of the Trusts first annual report. The KPI was set at >11m (set in the Trust's Operating Plan although not recorded in the annual report) and CaRT's achievement against KPI being 9.9m.

Other visitor number figures in the annual report are:-
Total visits 297m
Average visitors during a two week period 3.2m
The more I thought about the content of Allan's annotation the more I came to realise. That to get a more complete understanding. It would be useful to know if the figures are based upon visits/visitors to any waterway or if the figures apply only to visits to the trusts waterways.
The trust replied unequivocally "The figures are based only on visits/visitors to any of the Trust's waterways, no others."
So how does CaRT stack up against other waterways authorities?
Research by 'Tourism South East' estimates that in the whole of 2011 there were 3,399,000 staying visitors in the Norfolk broads area, staying a total of 14,470,000 nights. The total number of day visitors to the whole of the Norfolk area including coastal resorts was estimated at 31,228,000. Tourism is the largest sector industry in Norfolk, supporting more than 54,000 people and contributing approaching £2.8 billion to the local economy.

By comparison the Canal and River Trust had from their own figures 2 million more visitors in just the two week period in August than the Norfolk broads.  The headline here is that The Canal and River Trust has more visitors in just two weeks in August than the whole of the Norfolk Broads has in a whole year.

The Environment Agency unfortunately does not gather any records of visitor numbers to their waterways. The only visitor numbers recorded are at 5 spot locations on the  River Thames and the recording of boats who visit their waterways.

The Cam Conservators do not collect visitor figures other than for boat numbers for their waterways. However, they did say in a FoI request that "the unpopularity of the current licensing arrangements has significantly reduced the number of visiting craft since 2011. I estimate the reduction may be as much as 50% although we have not undertaken a formal analysis of boat observations."

Another claim made by CaRT was based around the number of boats moving on the waterways. "The Trust also measures the number of boats using its canals and rivers. While definitive figures for summer 2013 will be available in the New Year, early indications are that there were more boaters out taking advantage of the sunshine compared with 2012."

After all 2012 was the wettest year on record. I would imagine that its was not to much of a challenge to improve on that. We were out during 2012 and covered about 1500 miles of the rivers and canals. The thing I remember most was the almost total lack of boaters on the move. We never had a problem finding a visitor mooring. I put that down to the abysmal weather. This year we were out at Easter and we had a second cruise in the summer school holiday period. Once again, just as in 2012 the lack of boats on the move was very noticeable. But as the number of boats has fallen from a high of over 35 thousand to 32 thousand. This reduction in the overall number of boats must have had an effect. Or maybe it was just something peculiar to the northern waterways.

The wet weather in summer 2012 cost rural Britain at least £1 billion, according to an investigation by BBC One's Countryfile. Costs to farmers in lost output amounted to £600 million, while visitor numbers fell by 12%, costing the tourism industry an estimated £478 million.

But its the claim that 'there were more boaters out' in 2013 that I find most surprising. It suggests that the boaters were cruising the system rather than off their moorings. If so, for how many days weeks and months did the boats cruise and how far did the boats travel. I look forward to seeing the 'definitive figures' for summer 2013.

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