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Counting MOA's International Visitors

Counting MOA's International Visitors

The mall says 3 million people visit each year. How do they determine that number?

For many tourists visiting Minnesota, the Mall of America tops the bucket list. It’s long been described by its operators as the most popular destination in the Midwest, responsible for 40 million visitors per year, more than double the number who visit Disneyland, for example. If that stat boggles the mind, consider that the mall says it supports nearly six times the overseas visitation of the state of Minnesota. Huh?

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Survey of International Air Travelers, 311,000 international travelers visited the state in 2015 (excluding Canadians). MOA counts 1.8 million overseas visits in 2015, the last year for which data was available. Add in Canada and Mexico and the number is 2.8 million, according to MOA’s Doug Killian.

If the federal data is accurate (it is not a hard count, but a survey of outbound air travelers whose data is then extrapolated), and half of Minnesota’s international visitors go to MOA, they would need to visit between 11 and 12 times to reach 1.8 million visits. If all international tourists visit the Mall, they’d need to average nearly six trips per person.

Can that even be possible? In context, the numbers make somewhat more sense. MOA’s stats are based on demographic data from credit card sales at five MOA-owned stores, plus info from consumer research firm OgilvyRed. More significantly, the mall counts visits, not visitors, according to its vice-president of communications, Dan Jasper.

Confused by the dissonance, TCB turned to an expert. “Counting international visitors at particular sites is difficult to do,” says Bill Gartner, professor of applied economics and a fellow at the University of Minnesota’s International Academy for the Study of Tourism. “What we find is that methods outside of primary data collection (i.e. interviews) can be subject to error. But they sometimes provide site managers with [data about] customer origin.” Gartner stressed he could not comment on MOA’s data without first-hand access to the mall’s process.

If MOA’s estimates could be proven reliable, one thing is clear: Don’t be offended when a foreign tourist bumps into you there. Odds are they are exhausted. —Emily Sweeney