International Travel Survey: Mail-back and E-Questionnaires and Air Exit Survey (ITS)

Detailed information for third quarter 2015





Record number:


The primary objective of the International Travel Survey (ITS) is to provide statistics on travellers, to and from Canada, their characteristics of travel and spending levels.

Data release - February 25, 2016


The Mail-back and E-Questionnaires and Air Exit Survey (AES) are components of the International Travel Survey Program (ITS) together with the Frontier Counts (record number 5005, see the "Additional documentation" link that follows the "Statistical activity" section). It is an ongoing survey conducted by Statistics Canada since 1972 to meet the requirements of the Balance of Payments (BOP) of the Canadian System of National Accounts. The survey provides a full range of statistics on international travellers (visitors to Canada and Canadian residents returning to Canada), including detailed characteristics of their trips such as expenditures, activities, places visited and length of stay.

The Frontier Counts survey component is an ongoing monthly survey conducted at all ports of entry into Canada. Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) supplies Statistics Canada with administrative data on all international travellers who have been cleared for entry or re-entry into Canada.

In addition to fulfilling BOP requirements, the information collected in the questionnaires is used by the Tourism Satellite Account (TSA), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC), provincial tourism agencies, the United States Department of Commerce, the OECD, banks, investment companies, other private sector industries and independent researchers. The information is also used for reporting to international organizations such as the World Tourism Organization (WTO), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Pacific-Asia Travel Association (PATA).

The AES for overseas visitors started in the year 2000, and has as primary objective to improve the quality and reliability of trip and traveller estimates for overseas air travellers to Canada, from major and emerging markets.

The E-Questionnaire commenced in 2013 and is available to all travellers (Canadian, American, Overseas) who have entered at one of 17 selected Canadian ports of entry.

Statistical activity

The survey is currently administered as part of the International Travel Survey (ITS) Program. The program has been conducted by Statistics Canada since the 1920s to meet the requirements of the Canadian System of National Accounts (Balance of Payments (BOP)). Through the years, the need for detailed characteristics of travellers for market research and tourism industry planning was gradually incorporated in the ITS program. Today, the ITS provides a full range of statistics on the volume of international travellers and detailed characteristics of their trips such as expenditures, activities, places visited and length of stay.

Reference period: The quarter in which the traveller crossed the border; which for Canadian travellers, is the quarter of return from a trip outside the country; while for foreign travellers, is the quarter of arrival in Canada.

Collection period: Brief periods, known as stints, occur at all air and land ports of entry every month of each quarter.


  • International travel
  • Travel and tourism

Data sources and methodology

Target population

The International Travel Survey targets all Canadian residents who return to Canada and all American and overseas residents entering Canada, except diplomats and their dependents, refugees, landed immigrants, military, crew and former Canadian residents. With the AES, it also targets overseas travellers returning directly to selected overseas countries. The targeted countries are those from which we attract the most travellers.

Instrument design

A major review of the mail-back questionnaire was conducted in 1990. However, in 2001 the list of recreational/entertainment activities was revised. Some activities were either grouped together or removed while new activities were added.

In August 1999, during the development of the Air Exit Survey for overseas visitors, some testing occurred in different airports. The main points observed during the testing were the time required to conduct the interviews, the quality of the data obtained from the distribution of the questionnaire by Statistics Canada interviewers versus personal interviews, the potential response rate as well as logistics required to conduct the interviews. As a result, personal interviews were chosen over the distribution of questionnaires. Data collection for the AES started in January 2000.

Testing of the AES for American visitors occurred in 2011, which consisted of informal, face-to-face interviews with respondents awaiting their flight at Ottawa International Airport (YOW). A team of four interviewers approached travelers and administered the questionnaire to non-Canadian residents. A consultant from the Questionnaire Design Resource Centre (QDRC) observed the interviews and asked respondents a few follow-up probing questions once the questionnaire was completed.

A redesign of the ITS survey commenced in 2011 and was implemented in 2013, with a reduction in paper questionnaires from five to two and the introduction of the e-questionnaire. All aspects of the survey from capture to processing to tabulations are being updated using common and generic tools. An e-questionnaire version of our paper questionnaire was produced with the aid of the following divisions:
- Collection, Planning and Management Division (CPMD) which coordinated the development process
- Collection, Systems and Infrastructure Division (CSID) which developed and tested the application
- Operations and Integration Division (OID) which rendered and tested the e-processing.
- Communications Division (COM) which designed and printed the invitation card
- Client Services Division (CSD) which was responsible for the help-line

The e-questionnaire application was tested by members of the project team. The first phase consisted of specially-prepared test cases to verify specific functionality. In the second phase, data corresponding to actual trips was entered, to test both the performance and user-friendliness of the tool. Cognitive testing of the e-questionnaire was conducted by Statistics Canada's Questionnaire Design Resource Centre (QDRC) in both Ottawa and Montreal. A pilot test was carried out between March 26 and March 31, 2012. The goals of the pilot test were to test operational procedures and the on-line response application, and to estimate the take-up rate.


This is a sample survey with a cross-sectional design.

The population observed by the mail-back and e-questionnaire survey differs slightly from the target population. The surveys are directed at international travellers who use popular modes of transportation to enter Canada and who enter through ports with a significant amount of traveller traffic. Accordingly, questionnaires are distributed at 144 designated ports of entry. These ports of entry constitute approximately 42% of all Canadian ports but account for almost 100% of all international travellers who enter Canada or Canadian residents who return to Canada. Questionnaires are actively distributed to travellers who enter Canada by one of the following modes of transportation: automobile, commercial plane, commercial bus or commercial boat (Vancouver Seaport only). Nearly 98% of all international travellers enter Canada using these modes of transportation. For each port involved, a sample proportional to the number of travellers who have crossed the border the previous year is created.

In 2000, the AES was added to gather information on non-resident international travellers who leave Canada on direct flights to countries other than the United States. The number of interviews targeted at each airport for a particular month and a particular overseas country is approximately proportional to the square root of the number of travellers from that country who cleared customs through the port during the same month of the previous year. Based on the targeted sample sizes by port, month and country of residence, the commercial flight schedules are consulted in order to choose a representative sample of flights; balancing as best as possible Canadian versus foreign carriers, chartered versus non-chartered flights, and days of departure. The airports surveyed are: Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.

In August 2011, the AES was extended to the United States air commercial travellers in the United States waiting areas of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal airports. In January 2012, it was extended to Ottawa and Calgary airports. In February 2012, it was extended to Halifax airport.

In 2013, 24,900 questionnaires from non-resident travellers and 38,700 questionnaires from resident travellers were used to produce estimates.

Data sources

Responding to this survey is voluntary.

Data are collected directly from survey respondents.

The questionnaire part of this survey covers both Canadian residents returning from trips outside Canada and international travellers to Canada.

Information is collected using three questionnaires.

ITS mail-back questionnaires cover either Canadian residents returning from trips outside Canada or international travellers to Canada.

The primary objective of the Air Exit Survey (AES), a questionnaire used since 2000 (for overseas travellers), and 2011 (for American travellers) is to improve the quality and reliability of trip characteristics for air travellers to Canada, from major and emerging markets.

The E-Questionnaire commenced in 2013 and is available to all travellers (Canadian, American, Overseas) at one of 17 selected Canadian ports of entry.

For the mail-back questionnaire and E-questionnaire, each port involved receives for each of its stints, a specific quantity of numbered questionnaires and a date to start the distribution. On the start date, the CBSA officers hand out the appropriate questionnaire on a continuous basis to each travelling party until they have all been distributed.

The respondents (one questionnaire for each travelling party) to the mail-back questionnaire are asked to return the completed questionnaires by mail to Canada. For the e-questionnaire, respondents receive an invitation card to access the e-questionnaire on-line to complete and submit to Statistics Canada. For both the mail-back and electronic questionnaires, there is no follow-up with respondents, given that their identity from the initial contact is unknown.

For the AES, interviews are conducted each month in designated Canadian airports and the collection period lasts three to seven days for overseas travellers and a three-hour period selected based on flight schedules for US visitors. The Statistics Canada interviewers personally interview overseas and US travellers who are returning home. Before the first call for boarding, interviewers question travellers who are waiting for the chosen flights in order to identify travellers from overseas countries and the United States. All overseas and American visitors are interviewed, even if they do not come from the target country. To help achieve a good response rate, the questionnaire is available in 10 languages for overseas travellers. Also, the interview team is composed of interviewers with various linguistic abilities.

View the Questionnaire(s) and reporting guide(s).

Error detection

As in all Statistics Canada surveys, the ITS includes many steps of data processing. All questionnaires returned by mail or via internet and AES questionnaires are reviewed in order to determine if they are complete and coherent. Data are then captured, coded and verified. Electronic verifications are also made to identify any outliers and to correct them. Validity and consistency controls are also done during this process.

As part of the International Travel Survey modernization initiative, a new editing system has been developed with a greater focus on automation. Data will be captured, edited and coded and manual intervention will only be used when data fail edits and an automated resolution is not available.


In the ITS, some data are imputed. Missing transportation fares and/or total travel expenses are imputed when the other fields of the questionnaire are valid. The imputed values for such a questionnaire are calculated from the mean of the corresponding fields of the other questionnaires with some identical key characteristics as within the given questionnaire.

In the International Travel Survey, the target populations (American, Overseas and Canadian international travellers) are partitioned into Port Factor Groups, based on selected traveller characteristics, such as country of residence, mode of entry and duration of stay. Total imputation (i.e. imputation of complete questionnaires) is carried out for all Port Factor Groups (PFGs) or strata that are outside the scope of questionnaire distribution. There are 120 Canadian and American PFGs for which Statistics Canada never receives questionnaires. These PFGs refer to modes of entry that are not targeted by the questionnaire distribution (by train, private plane or boat, motorcycle, bicycle, foot, etc.) or to ports of entry that do not participate in the distribution of questionnaires. For these non-targeted out-of-scope PFGs, the characteristics of travellers are estimated, using imputed questionnaires. These imputed questionnaires are duplicates of questionnaires that were obtained in as early as 1990 for the same quarter and same PFGs. Imputation of questionnaires is required only for Canadian and U.S. travellers.

Total imputation is also performed for any in-scope PFG for which we have received an insufficient number of questionnaires for the quarter. As of 2013, an improved imputation method has been initiated. A set of imputation principles were developed. They include not using any donor record that is more than five years old, only the required number of donor records will be used, preference shall be given to donor records of a more recent vintage and in cases when shortages of donor records exist, donor records from adjacent ports will be used, when possible.

If necessary, total imputation is also performed for U.S. car travellers by state of origin to meet minimum requirements (combination of minimum number of questionnaires and maximum weight) based on the frontier counts.

For 2013, rates of total imputation areas follows; Canadian residents 67%, United States residents 29% and Overseas residents 7%.


For estimation purposes, the responses obtained through the questionnaire surveys are treated as a simple random sample from the total traffic in each stratum although the sample selection methodology is typically stint sampling. A stint is a predetermined time period during which sampling activity is taking place. The strata are defined by three elements: (1) port or group of ports of entry, (2) type of entry formed by combinations of mode of transportation used (car, air or other modes), length of stay (same-day or overnight), route of entry to Canada (direct from the USA, direct from overseas of from overseas via the USA) and (3) the quarter of the trip. The data may in fact be subject to some degree of "distribution bias" due to the fact that not all categories of travellers are represented in the questionnaire distribution or to a non-response bias due to the fact that the individuals replying may not be representative of the travelling population.

Also, because it is known that travellers who conduct long trips have a tendency to respond less than travellers on shorter trips, an adjustment called the "bias adjustment" is made to address this for certain US and Canadian commercial air travellers. The adjustment is done by using information obtained from the E311 Customs Declaration forms, completed by all travellers entering by commercial air. A distribution of the travellers is obtained by trip purpose (personal or business) and by length of trip; short (a week or less), medium (one to two weeks) and long (more than two weeks). This distribution is used to adjust survey estimates such that they align better with E311 Customs Declaration cards' data (population data).

For the United States travellers coming to Canada by car through the largest land ports equipped with the Integrated Primary Inspection Line (IPIL) system, another bias adjustment is performed. Referred to as the state bias adjustment, it is based on the vehicle state registration information obtained from the IPIL system. This adjustment is done so that ITS survey estimates better reflect the distribution of travellers by state of residence, especially those from the states that provide the largest volume of travellers.

From 2013 onward, a generalized variant of the raking-ratio is used for weighting adjustment of overseas travellers. This method, based on linear programming, ensures exact matching to constraints defined by country of residence, purpose-duration groups, and combinations of region and mode of entry. Region of entry is included since the majority of overseas travellers arrive at a small number of airports. Prior to 2013, overseas weighting adjustment was done using a raking ratio approach, which ensured only approximate matching to categories defined by region and mode of entry.

Frontier Count data provided by CBSA to Statistics Canada are used as the control totals for weighting the questionnaires returned by international travellers entering/re-entering Canada.

Quality evaluation

Supplementary distribution of the International Travel Survey began in January 2010 at high volume land ports such as Fort Erie, Niagara Rainbow, Windsor, Sarnia and Sault Ste-Marie in Ontario, Lacolle in Québec, as well as Douglas and Pacific Highway in British Columbia. As a result, a significantly increased number of questionnaires of the International Travel Survey were filled and returned by the travellers.

This has resulted in better estimates of the characteristics and spending of international travellers at these border crossings that affect their comparability with estimates of previous years. Given their importance, caution should be exercised in time series analyses for the implicated provinces and at the national level.

The extension, in August 2011, of the Air Exit Survey to include United States commercial air travellers has improved the quality of current estimates concerning United States commercial air travel to Canada as compared to historical estimates. Consequently, use caution when comparing current and historical estimates for this flow of travellers.

Some variables, such as length of stay and trip purpose are revised in consideration of the data given by the Frontier Counts Survey. In this context, "revised" refers to the bias adjustment that is made in the production of weights. The weights are adjusted to reflect benchmarks obtained from the administrative data which are used to produce frontier counts. Since additional information is obtained for some portion of the population, (such as; purpose and duration of trips for a sub-population of air travellers or state of origin of US Visitors coming to Canada by automobile), an adjustment of the estimates can be made to reflect these categories. This can help in addressing potential bias present in the samples of questionnaires.

Under the present operational conditions, the size of these samples is adequate to permit quarterly estimation of expenditures at the national level, and annual estimates for certain provinces, provided that the assumption of negligible bias is not violated. However, some data for lower levels of aggregation and cross-tabulations are not sufficiently reliable to be published on a regular basis.

Disclosure control

Statistics Canada is prohibited by law from releasing any information it collects which could identify any person, business, or organization, unless consent has been given by the respondent or as permitted by the Statistics Act. Various confidentiality rules are applied to all data that are released or published to prevent the publication or disclosure of any information deemed confidential. If necessary, data are suppressed to prevent direct or residual disclosure of identifiable data.

In order to protect respondents' identity, some variables are excluded from the public files.

Revisions and seasonal adjustment

For each period of study, the previous period's data are revised. These revisions are due to supplemental questionnaires received after the initial cut-off date.

Seasonally-adjusted data are unavailable.

Data accuracy

Because Statistics Canada does not control the distribution of the questionnaires or invitation cards by CBSA border service officers, response rates cannot be calculated for the ITS. It is known that distribution, particularly at high volume ports, can be poor. In 2000, the survey had 54,600 returned and completed questionnaires as a result of CBSA distribution; this number dropped to 14,000 in 2012. As a result, in the corresponding period the number of imputed records has increased from 39,900 in 2000, to 57,200 in 2012. This is less of a problem on the overseas residents' file where the Overseas Air Exit Survey supplies many questionnaires. It is also less of a problem for US travellers because of the AES (US) and supplementary distribution. Imputation is proportionately higher on the Canadian residents' file. Initial trend analysis on the United States file has shown that much of the imputation is of short duration trips and the trend, in terms of spending, is not changed much by the imputation. Statistics Canada is working with CBSA to improve questionnaire distribution and is looking into developing alternative methods of imputation.

It is not possible to determine the scope of the non-response bias. However, the low return rate of mail-back questionnaires has led the ITS to question the reliability of some of the data. In the mail-back questionnaire component, almost 1,000,000 questionnaires were sent in 2008 to Canada Border Services Agency for distribution, while the sample included approximately 36,600 returned questionnaires, including the AES. The AES is an addition to the mail-back questionnaires component and obtains a cooperation rate superior to 95%. In 2012, 400,000 questionnaires were sent to CSBA for distribution, 161,000 questionnaires were distributed by Statistics Canada's interviewers as a supplementary distribution and 10,000 questionnaires were sent for the AES. 40,000 were completed and returned to Statistics Canada.

Because of the complex nature of the weighting procedures of the ITS, simple calculations of the variance using standard methods tend to underestimate it. Consequently, Statistics Canada uses the "bootstrap" method for estimating the ITS variance. Under this method, the sample units are sub-sampled and re-weighted many times over (at the moment, the ITS uses 200 bootstrap subsamples). From these sub-samples, an estimated variance is obtained to calculate the estimated coefficient of variation (C.V.). The coefficients of variation are less than 5% for the main variables at the Canada level, however, the presence of imputed records may lead to systematic underestimation of variance.

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