International Travel Survey (ITS)

Detailed information for fourth quarter 2017





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 - May 28, 2018; July 24, 2018 (preliminary annual); July 30, 2019 (final annual)


The electronic questionnaires (e-questionnaires) and Air Exit Survey (AES) are components of the International Travel Survey (ITS) 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 (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.

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), Destination Canada, 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 started in the year 2000 for overseas visitors and in the year 2011 for U.S. visitors. The primary objective of the AES is to improve the quality and reliability of trip and traveller estimates for foreign air travellers to Canada, from major and emerging markets.

The e-questionnaire component of the survey began in 2013, with the distribution of invitation cards to travellers (Canadian, American, and Overseas) who have entered at one of 137 designated Canadian ports of entry. The mail-back questionnaires were last used in 2014.

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 Residents, it is the quarter when the traveller returns to Canada from a trip outside the country. For foreign travellers, it is the quarter when the traveller arrives in Canada.

Collection period: Brief collection periods, known as stints, occur at air and land ports of entry across Canada 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 Air Exit Survey, it also targets American and overseas travellers returning directly to the USA or to selected overseas countries. The targeted countries are those from which we attract the most travellers.

The population observed by the e-questionnaire survey differs slightly from the target population. The questionnaires 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, invitation cards for the e-questionnaire are distributed at 137 designated ports of entry. These ports of entry constitute approximately 53% of all Canadian ports but account for the vast majority of international travellers who enter Canada or Canadian residents who return to Canada. Invitation Cards 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). In 2016, nearly 97% of all international travellers enter Canada using these modes of transportation. For each port involved, a sample proportional to the number of travellers who crossed the border the previous year is created, using data from the Frontier Counts.

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 (until December 2013 for Calgary). In February 2012, it was extended to Halifax airport.

In 2017, 24,604 records from non-resident travellers and 35,213 records from resident travellers were used to produce estimates, including ITS e-questionnaires and paper Air Exit Survey questionnaires. In October 2017, the AES was expanded to five additional airports (Quebec, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Victoria).

In 2017, pilot tests were conducted to assess the effectiveness of contacting international travellers, not just at borders, but at other key points of interest, including national galleries and museums, information centers and other touristic sites. 262 of the ITS e-questionnaires received from non-resident travellers are from these tourist sites.

Instrument design

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. A team of four interviewers approached travelers and administered the questionnaire to non-Canadian residents. Respondents were also asked a few follow-up probing questions once the questionnaire was completed to gauge their understanding. The use of tablets for collection of the AES data was tested in January 2017 in Toronto Pearson and Ottawa.

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. The mail-back questionnaires were last used in 2014.

The e-questionnaire version of the paper questionnaire was thoroughly tested by members of the project team before implementation. 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 International Travel Survey is a sample survey that targets all Canadian residents who return to Canada and all American and overseas residents entering Canada (with the exceptions mentioned previously). Information about the travellers entering Canada is based on historical data extracted from the Frontier Count system. This system provides detailed information about the number of travellers that came to Canada by the ports of entry (land ports, airports, seaports). It is at this level of the ports of entry that the distribution of the electronic questionnaires or the Air Exit Survey interviews can take place.

Data sources

Responding to this survey is voluntary.

Data are collected directly from survey respondents.

The questionnaires are used to secure quarterly information on the characteristics of international travellers and trips. These details include purpose of trip, size of travelling party, places visited, activities participated in during the trip, length of trip and trip spending. These components of the survey are used to update the Canadian Balance of International Payments. In addition, the federal and provincial governments, the tourism industry, businesses and the general public use quarterly and annual estimates of international trip and traveller characteristics.

The questionnaires are obtained via two methods: the electronic questionnaire surveys submitted on-line by travellers who received an invitation card and the Air Exit Survey of Visitors to Canada completed on electronic tablets by Statistics Canada interviewers at select Canadian airports. Under certain circumstances paper questionnaires were used in 2017. Before 2017, only paper questionnaires were used.

The electronic questionnaire is a sample survey where invitation cards are distributed only to part of the international traveller population. Canada Border Services officials hand out an invitation card to travel parties on entry or re-entry to Canada. The cards are distributed to residents of United States or overseas countries visiting Canada and Canadian residents returning from trips outside Canada.

The recipients of the invitation card are asked to fill out the electronic questionnaire on-line after the trip is complete, using the web address provided on the card.

A stint distribution system has been developed to survey international travellers based on the previous year's traffic. A stint consists of a selected period of several days during which invitation cards are distributed to all eligible travellers as defined above. Each port of entry involved in this scheme receives, for each of its stints, a specific quantity of cards and a date to start the distribution. On the start date, the officers hand out the cards on a continuous basis to the appropriate travelling population until all cards have been distributed. The number of invitation cards sent to CBSA for distribution in 2017 was about 400,000 for all Canadian and overseas travellers.

Additional questionnaires are also obtained from U.S. and overseas travellers returning directly to their country of origin by commercial air (the Air Exit Survey of Visitors to Canada (AES)).

Countries from which we attract the most visitors are targeted by the AES. These countries include the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Australia as well as a number of emerging markets, such as China, Japan, India and South Korea. Statistics Canada interviewers conduct personal interviews with overseas travellers while they await their return flights to these targeted overseas countries. These interviews are conducted each month at the international airports in seven cities (Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver) during a collection period lasting 5 to 7 days. In 2017, about 7,800 interviews were completed. The interviewing team consists of interviewers of different language skills, enabling interviews to be conducted in the native language of the travellers where possible. The questionnaire is available in 10 languages. In March 2017, the AES implemented data collection via tablets, using paper questionnaires only as a backup.

United States air commercial travellers complete the AES at the international airports in eleven cities (Halifax, Québec, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto Pearson, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria) In 2017, about 2,800 interviews were conducted.

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

Error detection

Survey processing serves to make the data suitable for tabulation and producing estimates through data editing, coding, and imputation. All reported data on electronic and AES questionnaires are captured, coded and verified.

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

Some errors occur in the data capture process such as an incorrectly recorded field, or missing data on the questionnaire. These errors must be located and corrected. Edit rules are designed to ensure the data are consistent with known characteristics, and that questionnaire entries are valid responses given the question.

For example, some ports of entry can only permit certain modes of entry. If an automobile is recorded in a response as a traveller's mode of entry into an airport, then the data entry is corrected. To make this correction the instance is investigated and either the port is changed, or the mode of entry is changed accordingly.

In addition, if all transportation costs are included in a package cost, but are also included in the entries for fare to enter Canada and fare to leave Canada, then the entries are corrected to remove the duplication of reported expenditures.

A number of variables have been derived on the data file by combining items from the questionnaire in order to facilitate data analysis. For example, expenses reported on package tours must be broken down into spending components and reported data for trips that involved multiple entries into Canada must be separated.

The ITS also asks respondents for information on any packages or inclusive trips purchased. This purchase is not reported in the expenditure section on spending while in Canada. Consequently, packages are separated according to the components covered within the collective package cost, and added to the relevant expenditure categories.

From the ITS definition of a trip, any exit from Canada marks the end of a trip. Respondents might report several trips under this definition within their completed questionnaire. These trips must be separated to allow for consistent analysis.

Finally, all variables that are required in further analysis are created and calculated.


A certain amount of data imputation is performed in the ITS whenever fields are missing within a questionnaire, or when an insufficient number of questionnaires are received to meet the ITS objectives.

In the International Travel Survey, the target population (international travellers) are partitioned into imputation groups, based on port of entry and on selected traveller characteristics, such as country of residence, mode of entry and duration of stay. Total imputation (i.e. imputation of entire questionnaires) is performed for any imputation group, also called Port Factor Group (PFG), for which we have received an insufficient number of questionnaires for a given quarter.

Estimates are generated by PFG, and thus a minimum number of questionnaires must be used to provide quality estimates for the PFG. In instances where the minimum number is not met by received questionnaires from the current quarter, a sufficient number of questionnaires, selected amongst questionnaires from the same quarter of the five previous years belonging to the PFG are added to the current year's sample of that PFG for the reference quarter. For 2017, rates of total imputation are as follows: Canadian residents 98.8%, United States residents 85.5% and overseas residents 13.3%.

Total imputation is also carried out for several PFGs or strata that are outside the scope of the questionnaire distribution. These PFGs refer to modes of entry that are not targeted by the questionnaire distribution (train, private plane or boat, motorcycle, bicycle, foot, etc.) or to ports of entry that do not distribute questionnaires. There are 52 PFGs for which Statistics Canada does not receive any questionnaires. These represent less than 3% of the target population. For these out of scope PFGs, the characteristics of travellers are estimated using total imputation.

These imputed questionnaires are duplicates of questionnaires that were obtained in 1990 for the same quarter and same PFGs. When total imputation has been used in this manner, the quality of the subsequent estimates may be compromised due to limitations in available questionnaires that can be brought forward to the current quarter's sample. For example, if there are very few questionnaires available in past quarters, the current quarter's estimates may be of poor quality.


For estimation purposes, the responses obtained through the questionnaires 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 calibration groups (or post-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 U.S., direct from overseas of from overseas via the U.S.) 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, a calibration, also known as "bias adjustment", is made to address this for certain U.S. 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 from the Frontier Counts). The progressive implementation of the Primary Inspection Kiosk (PIK) by the Canadian Border Services Agency, which started in March 2017, will bring changes to the way the bias adjustment is done.

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 calibration is performed and is related to the state of residence. 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.

The following tables (see Additional documentation link, below) provide for the Canadian Residents, for the American Visitors and for the Overseas Visitors, the calibration groups (or post-strata) that are used for estimation purposes. There are 153 calibration groups for the Canadian Residents, 154 calibration groups for the American Visitors, and 81 calibration groups for the Overseas Visitors.

For each of the stratum (or calibration groups), also referred to as Person Factor Group, it is possible to obtain the number of travellers arriving to Canada from the Frontier Counts system. These control totals are used for weighting the questionnaires returned by international travellers entering/re-entering Canada.

In the case of the key points pilot tests, there was a distribution bias because not all visitors to Canada had the possibility of receiving an invitation card. In order to compensate for it, the questionnaires that were received from the key points' distribution had to be weighted separately against the visitor counts at each specific location.

After the weights from each specific site were obtained, these weighted questionnaires were integrated in the ITS global weighting in order to maintain consistency with the Frontier Counts. The current weighting system used for ITS already enables the use of specific weights for given questionnaires.

Quality evaluation

Supplementary distribution of the International Travel Survey took place from January 2010 to August 2013 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 travellers during this time period.

This resulted in better estimates of the characteristics and spending of international travellers at these border crossings that affect their comparability with estimates of previous and subsequent years. 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.

Data quality is systematically evaluated every quarter. Statistical tables required for analysis are produced and compared with related data sources. A set of indicators is also produced. They are used to determine whether general tourism trends reflect those of the ITS. Furthermore, Statistics Canada works in close cooperation with Destination Canada and the provincial tourism departments who provide additional viewpoints and information sources to help evaluate the data quality at a more refined geographic level.

Disclosure control

Statistics Canada is prohibited by law from releasing any information it collects that 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.

For this reason, identifiers are not included on the public user micro-data file (PUMF), as well as some socio-demographic and geographic variables which could have been used to identify respondents. Other variables that are on the PUMF have been grouped into broad categories. Before the official disclosure of microdata for ITS, its content will need to be assessed and approved by Statistics Canada's Microdata Release Sub-committee.

Revisions and seasonal adjustment

The quarterly preliminary results for ITS will be revised when the Frontier Counts revisions for 2017 are completed. Final annual estimates for 2017 are expected to be made available in mid-2019.

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.

In 2017, 400,000 invitation cards to complete the survey on-line were provided to CBSA to distribute to everyone crossing the border during a one-week stint each month. The number of completed questionnaires received back were less than 1,000, requiring heavy reliance on the approximately 9,000 AES questionnaires returned as well as the use of questionnaires from previous years in the weighting strategy.

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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