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

Detailed information for first quarter 2000





Record number:


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

Data release - August 28, 2000


The Mail-back Questionnaires and Air Exit Survey (AES) are components of the International Travel Survey Program (ITS, see the "Statistical activity" section below) together with the Frontier Counts (record number 5005).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, including detailed characteristics of their trips such as expenditures, activities, places visited and length of stay. The annual data are released one year after the end of the reference year; see "The Daily" in the sidebar menu.

The Frontier Counts survey component is an ongoing 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. It is these data provided by CBSA that are used as the control totals for weighting the questionnaires returned by international travellers entering/re-entering Canada.

The questionnaire part of this survey covers both Canadian residents returning from trips outside Canada and international travellers to 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 and a number of private sector industries. The information is also used for reporting to international organizations such as the World Tourism Organization (WTO), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Pacific-Asia Travel Association (PATA).

The AES 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.

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; for Canadian travellers, the quarter of return from a trip outside the country; for foreign travellers, the quarter of arrival in Canada.


  • International travel
  • Travel and tourism

Data sources and methodology

Target population

The mail-back questionnaire component targets all Canadian residents who return to Canada and all U.S. and overseas residents entering Canada except for crews, diplomats and their dependants, refugees, landed immigrants, military and former Canadian residents.

The AES component targets all 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 AES questionnaire, 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.


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

The Questionnaire survey is used to secure quarterly information on international travel expenditures and characteristics of international travellers. This is a sample survey, where questionnaires are distributed only to part of the traveller population. The questionnaires are handed out to the travel party on entry by Canada Customs officials according to pre-arranged schedules.

A subset of international travellers from the target population is selected by directing the survey to international travellers who use popular modes of transportation to enter Canada and who enter through ports with a significant amount of traveller traffic. This subset of travellers constitutes the survey population for the Mail-back Questionnaires survey.

Accordingly, 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 any one of these modes of transportation. Questionnaires are distributed at 150 ports. These questionnaires survey ports constitute about 44 % of all Canadian ports but account for nearly 100 % of all international travellers who enter Canada.

A stint distribution system has been developed to survey international travellers based on previous year's traffic. A stint consists of a selected period of several days during which questionnaires are to be distributed to eligible travellers. Each port involved in this scheme receives, for each of its stints, a specific quantity of numbered questionnaires and a date when to start the distribution. On the start date, the officers hand out the questionnaires on a continuous basis to the appropriate travelling population until they have all been distributed. The questionnaire is then completed by a member of the travelling party and returned by mail to Statistics Canada. Only those questionnaires acceptable to the edit system are subsequently used in estimation. In order to produce quarterly estimates, the responses are weighted using the frontier counts to represent the whole travelling population.

In 2000, the AES was added to gather information on international travellers that leave Canada by direct flights to overseas destinations. 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 (Dorval and Mirabel) Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.

The targeted countries in 2000 were the United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Brazil, Israel, Mexico, Hong Kong, Belgium, Taiwan and South Korea. The sample selected represents less than 1 % of the targeted overseas population who in turn covers 79 % of the total overseas direct travellers to Canada.

Data sources

Responding to this survey is voluntary.

Data are collected directly from survey respondents.

For the mail-back questionnaire survey, each port involved in this scheme receives for each of its stints, a specific quantity of numbered questionnaires and a date when to start the distribution. On the start date, the CBSA officers hand out the questionnaires on a continuous basis to the appropriate travelling population until they have all been distributed. The respondents (one for each travelling party) are asked to return the completed questionnaires by mail to Canada (for Canadian and overseas residents) or to the United States (for American travellers).

For the AES, interviews are conducted each month in designated Canadian airports and the collection period lasts 5 to 7 days. The data collection is not done in each designated airport each month. The Statistics Canada interviewers personally interview overseas travellers that are returning home by direct flight. Before the first call for boarding, interviewers question travellers that are waiting for the chosen flights in order to identify travellers from overseas countries. All overseas 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. 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 are manually 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.


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 that represent some identical key characteristics as 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 52 Canadian PFGs and 71 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 out-of-scope PFGs, the characteristics of travellers are estimated, using imputed questionnaires. These imputed questionnaires are duplicates of questionnaires that were obtained in 1990 for the same quarter and same PFGs. These imputed questionnaires accounted for only 3.2% of all U.S. travellers to Canada and 1.7 % of Canadian residents travelling outside Canada. 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. In these instances, all the questionnaires from the same quarter of the previous year that belong to the PFG are brought forward and added to the sample of that PFG for the reference quarter.


For estimation purposes, the responses obtained through the questionnaire surveys must be treated as a simple random sample from the total traffic in each stratum. The stratums are composed of three elements: (1) port or group of ports of entry, (2) type of entry formed by combinations of mode of transportation used (car or not) and length of stay (same-day or overnight) 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 handout 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 correct this problem. The adjustment is done by using information obtained from the custom declaration forms for the entire travelling population. A distribution of the population is obtained for the trips by trip purpose (personal or business) and by length of trip; short (a week or less), medium (one to three weeks) and long (more than three weeks). This distribution is used to adjust the estimation results.

Responses are disaggregated by known travel population characteristics into homogeneous groups called port factor groups (PFG) and weighted to the total travel population of each of the groups which is determined by the Frontier Counts Survey. Using the calculated weights, estimates can be obtained for a variety of trip and traveller characteristics. These estimates take the form of totals, averages and percentages, and can be obtained at different geographical levels.

Quality evaluation

Data are compared to those of the same quarter of the previous year in order to detect abnormal variations. Also, some variables such as length of stay and trip purpose are revised in consideration of the data given by the Frontier Counts Survey. 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

The reliability of the data has been questioned because of the low return rate. The significance of the non-response bias has never been determined. However, sampling reliability estimates are calculated each year for visitors and Canadians and it has been established at C (1.1 % - 2.5 %) for person-nights and expenditures of both non-resident visitors and Canadians returning from abroad.

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