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

Detailed information for first quarter 2010





Record number:


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

Data release - August 26, 2010


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 population observed by the mail-back 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 targetted 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 targetted 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 2010, 36,700 questionnaires from non-resident travellers and 50,000 questionnaires completed by resident travellers were used to produce estimates.

Data sources

Responding to this survey is voluntary.

Data are collected directly from survey respondents.

For the mail-back questionnaire, each port involved in this nitiative 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 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 3 to 7 days. The data collection is not done in each designated airport each month. The Statistics Canada interviewers personally interview overseas travellers who are returning home by direct flight. Before the first call for boarding, interviewers question travellers who 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 with 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 120 Canadian and American PFGs for which Statistics Canada never receives questionnaires. These PFGs refer to modes of entry that are not targetted 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 4.4% of all U.S. travellers to Canada and 1.2 % 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.

If necessary, additional 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 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 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 the estimation results.

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 to better reflect the distribution of travellers from the states that provide the largest volume of travellers.

In addition, a supplementary adjustment, called the regional weighting adjustment, is done to the overseas questionnaires to take into account the region of entry of the travellers. Using the raking-ratio statistical technique, this adjustment ensures that the derived estimates of the number of travellers from the questionnaires closely match the frontier counts at the region of entry level (by type of entry), while maintaining an exact match at the country of residence level. However, the raking-ratio technique does not guarantee an exact match when the country of residence as well as the region of entry or type of entry are considered. The provincial composition of the five regions used in the process is as follows: Atlantic (Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick), Quebec, Ontario, Prairies (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta) and British Columbia (including Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut). In general, this adjustment allows for the production of more consistent and more reliable estimates on the characteristics of overseas travellers at the regional level.

Quality evaluation

In the first quarter of 2010, a significantly increased number of questionnaires of the International Travel Survey were filled and returned by the travellers at the following border crossings: Fort Erie and Niagara Rainbow in Ontario, Lacolle in Québec, as well as Douglas and Pacific Highway in British Columbia.

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

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

Because Statistics Canada does not control the distribution of the questionnaires 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 29,400 in 2008. As a result, in the corresponding period the number of imputed records has increased from 39,900 in 2000 to 61,500 in 2008. This is less of a problem on the overseas residents' file where the Overseas Air Exit Survey supplies many questionnaires. Imputation is proportionately higher on the United States residents' file and 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.

Methodologists have been unsuccessful in determining the importance of the non-response bias. However, the low return rate of mail-back questionnaires has pushed the methodologists to question the reliability of some of the data. In the mail-back questionnaire component, almost 1,000,000 questionnaires were distributed in 2008 to the Canada Border Services Agency, 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 response rate superior to 95%.

Given the complex nature of the weighting procedures of the ITS, simple calculations of the variance using standard methods tend to underestimate it. Consequently, for the ITS, Statistics Canada uses the "bootstrap" method for estimating the 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.

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