Big Travel Data – Can Google Trends predict our travel choices?

Big Data Travel TrendsWhilst some of the less tech-knowledgeable amongst us will be all too happy to admit that they we have never even heard of Google Trends, let alone acknowledged its potential ability to make accurate predictions about future events, those in the know, say that this has been proven to be the case.  Lots of us in all sorts of fields would benefit from a data-charged crystal ball to allow us a glimpse into possible future trends, and to use these insights to plan, prepare and get ahead of the game.

Google Trends (for the uninitiated) is a free public web facility which allows you to input a search term and you are presented with a graph that shows how often a search term is entered, relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world.

Basically, all of the information available in Google Trends, allows everybody with all sorts of interests to find out what people are (and have been over the years) searching for, and all of this “big data” can be very helpful in looking for patterns in people’s behaviour and to use these observations as a basis for making predictions for things that repeat in the future.  This of course, has lots of implications for the deployment of resources and informed decision-making, using yesterday’s data to inform current and future decision-making.

These insights have been used to accurately make predictions in areas as diverse as movements in the stock market and house prices and how many people are suffering from the flu worldwide.

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As travel insurers, we wondered if the information available in Google Trends may be able to shed any light on future trends relating to which countries travellers opt to go to, which will have potentially huge uses for those in the travel and tourism industry.  Google Trends also provides an interesting look back at the waxing or waning of public interest in a country, and often provides useful information about the seasonality of consumer’s interest in certain countries.

I looked into this by inputting the name of a country into the ‘search term’ field and changed the region to ‘United Kingdom’ so that searches from this country were graphed.  I then had a look at the general trend of the graph, as well as looking for any notable down or upturns, as well as thinking about what could have caused them.  Here are the countries that I looked at:

Spain

Spain is a perennial holiday destination with us Brits, travelling for the guaranteed fun in the sun.  However, there has also been the relatively recent economic struggles, which may have either deterred tourists or encouraged bargain hunters. There has been a general downward trend in UK based searches from 2004 till the present time, and what is very noticeable is that there is a clear seasonality to the searches – there are regular dips in November and December, mirrored by regular highs in June and July, seemingly reflecting the times that tourists to the country are either researching or booking their Spanish holiday.  Especially high peaks in the searches are related to national news or sport e.g. the highest point in the graph in June 2004 correlates to the Spain bombings, and the most recent surge in June 2012 corresponds to a football match where Spain beat Ireland 4-0.

Cyprus


Cyprus is an interesting country to have a look at because of its well-documented financial woes, did the lack of tourism cause these financial problems? Or has tourism dropped off in the wake of the ensuing upheaval and uncertainty?

Once again, there are seasonal peaks and troughs relating to searches, with seasonal dips in the Winter of November and December, and highs in June and July, which is what you’d expect for a country that is a popular tourist destination for Brits wanting a sunny Summer holiday.  There is an unexpected high in March 2013, sparked by the levels of interest in the EU bailout of the crisis-hit Cypriot banks .  There is a general downward trend of tourists visiting Cyprus, perhaps in response to a perceived lack of customer service (something which is a common forum complaint), or perhaps because of the relative decline of the infamous party-spot of Ayia Napa, which was a favourite haunt in the garage hey-days of the late 1990’s.

Brazil

Brazil is a country that has been highlighted recently due to two exciting prospects in the future.  Firstly, there is the upcoming FIFA World Cup in 2014, swiftly followed by the Rio Olympics in 2016.  Will the spotlight on Brazil result in higher visitor numbers from the UK? Is there an increased interest in the Google searches already?  Searches are generally at a steadily low level from 2004 until the present.  There aren’t the seasonal peaks and troughs of the Summer holiday favourites Cyprus and Spain, but there are some stand-out summits of search activity that are of interest.  Unsurprisingly, for a country blessed with a highly skilful and highly successful football team, many of these peaks are related to the beautiful game.  One of the most dramatic peaks falls in June 2006, where Brazil won their group in the 2006 World Cup (but didn’t make the final).  Another high is four years later in June 2010, but this time probably caused by a natural disaster, when Brazil suffered widespread flooding and devastation, as well as the team’s performance in the 2010 World Cup. The most recent surge of searching happened in August 2012, when Brazil competed in the 2012 London Olympics, which turned out to be their most successful competition to date, and a great forerunner to Rio 2016.

South Africa


South Africa is a country that is a tourist favourite due to the enticing prospect of witnessing the Big 5 on a safari, visiting the stunning scenery or travelling for a sporting event amongst other attributes.  There is a slight downward trend generally speaking from 2004 to 2013, but the most noticeable thing is a huge high in June 2010, due undoubtedly to the 2010 FIFA World Cup which was held in South Africa.  A worldwide sporting event of this magnitude attracts attention from around the globe, in particular, from the football-loving UK (even if they had a disappointing campaign).

China

China has been a steadily popular search term from 2004 until 2013, with relatively few dramatic climbs or plunges.  There are two noticeable spikes – both of them in 2008.  The first one in May 2008 is linked to the Sichuan earthquake (which was the 21st deadliest earthquake of all time) and the second in August 2008 coincides with China hosting the Olympics, where they dominated the rankings and won 51 Gold medals.  

USA  

There is a steady decline generally in the number of searches from 2004 till 2013 and there is one noticeable spike – in June 2010.  It is unclear what prompted this extra surge in interest in America, but it could possibly be linked to the US football team competing in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  The general downward trend could be linked to the recession, when longhaul trips to the USA became less affordable for many.  As a tourist destination it has many assets to draw visitors, including natural wonders, cities, historic landmarks and entertainment venues, which will no doubt aid a resurgence of travel to the land of Walt Disney, Las Vegas and the shopping heaven of New York.

New Zealand

New Zealand is another country that has got a downward trend overall in the search graph.  I wondered if there would be any evidence of the “Lord of the Rings” effect, where the spectacular scenery is shown off at its most dramatic.  However, the series was released prior to the start of the graph, so I can’t really gauge the impact of the highly-successful series of films.  The recent prequel ‘The Hobbit’ was released in December 2012, and in fact there was a mini-peak in this month.  More dramatic peaks occurred in February 2011 (the devastating Christchurch earthquake) and October 2011, when there was another disaster, this time when there was a massive oil spill from the 775ft Rena.

Thailand


Looking at the graph for Thailand, there is a slightly downward trend in general from 2004 till now.  There is a very notable peak in December 2004, which coincides with the momentously devastating Boxing Day tsunami, where the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean was recorded as the third largest ever earthquake and the worst single tsunami in history.  The countries affected were Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, which is reflected in this uncharacteristic high, as the world clamoured for news about this unprecedented event.  As well as this, it is noticeable that there are regular much smaller peaks in January.  After looking into this, I discovered that January to March is in fact the peak tourist season in Thailand due to humidity being at its lowest, and temperatures are slightly lower than normal.

Canada


Canada is another country that has a general downward trend in terms of search volume, but the unusual thing about this graph is that there are no lofty peaks of search interest generated by a worldwide news story or sporting event of worldwide magnitude, they seem to have been lucky enough to escape a national disaster that turns the eyes of the world in their direction, but neither have they attracted more positive scrutiny in terms of hosting an event of worldwide stature, that would then possibly have a positive impact on visitor numbers.

 

To enable a comparison between the amount of Google searches for a country and the actual amount of British visitors going to the country, we have plotted the graphs below.  The data is not wholly compatible because the Google Search data is plotted per week, and the visitor data is applied for a whole year so is less granular (hence why the red lines in the graphs are much blockier and with less variation, than the much more fluid blue line) but they do allow for rough comparisons.  The figures have been converted to a % scale whereby the year with most visitors is represented by ‘100’ whilst a year with only 60% of the visitors of the peak year would be represented by 60 on the scale.

Interestingly, there does seem to be a general correlation between the volume of Google searches from the UK and the level of visitor numbers from the UK.  Any particularly big spikes of Google search interest, seem to be linked to the big news stories detailed in the country summaries previously, and would not necessarily be reflected in increased visitor numbers.  Interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be a decrease in visitor numbers following a natural disaster such as the tsunami – for Thailand at least, there was actually an increase in visitor numbers in the following years indicating a concerted recovery effort by the Thai Government.  Notwithstanding these spikes of global interest, there does seem to be a link between people searching for a particular country, and then the amount of visitors actually heading to this country.  Sometimes the amount of visitors can be delayed from the initial search interest, to show up as an actual increase in visitor numbers, so the next year after interest in a country for a special event e.g. the Olympics may happen in one year, the spotlight is placed onto a country, and this may culminate in elevated visitor numbers in the following year.  For instance, the domestic outlook for UK tourism is likely to be positive for 2013, in the positive aftermath of the Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee. Many overseas visitors are expected to come and enjoy the beautiful English countryside or enjoy a royal-related visited, in the excitement of the much-anticipated Royal baby.

Information about the graphs: The Google Trends search data was taken from the data available online.  The visitor number data was extracted from ONS Travel Trends 2008 and ONS Travel Trends 2012,

 

Cyprus Insight

cyprus

As you can clearly see, there are the aforementioned seasonal peaks and troughs as UK residents search for their Summer holiday in the sun, and also the reverse in the Winter months when interest drops off.  The general downturn in Google search interest is also replicated in the downturn in the  amount of visitor numbers from the UK. There are signs of green shoots for the Cypriot tourism industry, as the amount of Google searches are increasing at the end of 2012, which could well herald a return of British visitors to sunny Cyprus, as consumers are reassured that the effects of the economic crisis have not had any long-term effects to the country as a tourist destination.  The ABTA Travel Trends Report 2013 cites Cyprus as a holiday destination that will be popular this year, as we search for guaranteed sun and good value.

USA Insight

usa

Looking at the graph for the USA, it is interesting that the amount of Google search interest has declined at a steady rate before remaining fairly stable, but the actual visitor numbers remained steady up until 2009, when it decreased from 4003 in 2008 to 3187 in 2009, and it has remained at this lower level since then.  The US Travel and Tourism Industry have stated that 2009 was a very difficult year for US travel and tourism, the worst since the downturn following the tragic terrorist attacks of 2001.  The rapid decline in 2009 and beyond has been attributed to the impact of the global economic downturn, when UK residents simply couldn’t afford a long-haul trip to the USA as a holiday destination, and neither could holidaymakers from around the world.

Thailand Insight

thailand

The graph charting the interest and fortunes of Thailand, very clearly show the huge spike of Google search interest generated by the catastrophic tsunami, and the level of Google interest being very stable other than this unprecedented peak.  As stated previously, it is interesting that visitor numbers actually increased following this tragic event, perhaps holidaymakers reasoned that the kind of natural disaster on this scale is unlikely to be repeated, so it didn’t deter people from visiting.  Visitor numbers have dropped off again in 2009 and have returned to the kind of levels evident in 2004 and 2005.

 

South Africa Insight

South Africa

As you can see from the graph, the amount of Google search activity has not changed dramatically over time, with the marked exception of the Summer of 2010, when the country hosted the FIFA World Cup.  Following this memorable event, there was a slight upturn in the amount of visitors to South Africa, but in general, there has been a steady decline.  Part of the reason for this downturn could be attributed to the increases in Airline Passenger Duty, which has more of a marked effect on more expensive longhaul flights.  There is also recession, where more expensive holidays to further afield were shunted off the priority list, but allied to this are the more specific problems faced by South Africa, in terms of the perception of tourists that the country is not a safe place to visit.  These perceptions are not without a basis in reality, as the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) advises British tourists that there are very high levels of crime and variable driving standards, that tourists do need to be wary of.

New Zealand Insight

New Zealand

The graph clearly illustrates that New Zealand has declined generally in search terms since 2004 to 2012, with the striking exception of the pinnacle of interest in the aftermath of the tragic and catastrophic Christchurch earthquake.  Visitor numbers have also declined over the eight years graphed, with the steepest decline from 2008 to 2009.  The New Zealand tourism board puts this down to the sluggish UK economic recovery and a preference from British holidaymakers for closer, warmer and cheaper destinations, with Turkey and other sunny destinations on the edge of the Eurozone experiencing strong growth, rather than a much pricier holiday to countries such as New Zealand (although UK tourists still ranked the 3rd biggest incoming market in 2011). Encouragingly though, there is evidence that the increased Google search interest in New Zealand at the tail end of 2012, following the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (the prequel to the Lord of the Rings series of films) is being converted into actual visitor numbers from the UK to NZ.  This article in the Telegraph identifies the “Hobbit effect” as having had a positive impact in inbound tourism, as visitor numbers from the UK have risen by 10% for the first four months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.  8.5% of visitors cited “The Hobbit” as a reason for coming, and 13% took part in an activity related to the film, such as visiting a film set.  New Zealand was also named ‘Favourite Worldwide Country’ in the Telegraph Travel Awards.  So in this instance, increased Google search activity did indeed herald a renaissance for tourism emanating from the UK.

Australia Insight

Australia

The graph for Australia shows a correlation between search interest and actual visitor numbers, with a general downward trend for both, with a few notable peaks in search interest, which can be attributed to a number of natural disasters over the years monitored, and documented previously. Many holidaymakers to Australia are surprised by the high cost of living in Australia in comparison the UK (they are currently experiencing an economic boom) and this may deter cash-strapped Brits from a long-haul trip downunder at the present time.  It is interesting to note that there was an increased level of interest at the end of 2012, which could precede a renaissance in visitor numbers in 2013 – if the ‘Google Trends’ theory of increased-search-volume-followed-by-increased-visitors actually works!

China Insight

China

This graph shows that levels of search interest focused on China have remained fairly steady, excluding the peaks explained previously.  The visitor numbers have been more up and down, with the numbers remaining steadily high since 2011.  The country seems to be bucking the trend for long-haul countries, as most have declining visitor numbers, and visitors to China have increased from 2004 to 2012.    Many of these visitors may be visiting for business reasons, not purely for pleasure, as China cements its position as a world economic force. It seems that as well as the increase in the numbers of wealthy tourists departing from China both to the UK as well as other destinations, there is also an increase in the number of UK visitors heading to China.

Canada Insight

Canada

The statistics for Canada are unremarkable generally in the respect that there is a general downward trend in search volume, in common with many other places.  What is more remarkable is the fact that nothing overly remarkable has happened in Canada from 2004 to 2012 (sweeping statement I know!).  Unusually, there are no particularly big and spiky surges of interest from the UK in response to a natural (or other disaster) or a world sporting event, Canada has somehow gone under the radar! In fact, Canada was the host nation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which registers a respectable spike when looking at worldwide searches, but it only registers a minimal jump on UK searches.  The UK is not renowned as a nation that excels in Winter sports (and very often struggles – think Eddie the Eagle Edwards) so it is unsurprising that we didn’t get over-excited about these Games.  In terms of visitor numbers they have fallen, in line with other long-haul destinations, as we continue to try and escape the country’s recession.  They were rising until 2007, from when the downward trend commenced, with the steepest yearly drop registered from 2008 to 2009, from which point they have effectively levelled off.

Brazil Insight

Brazil

This Brazil graph is very striking in terms of the massive drop in visitor numbers from 2008 till 2009, one reason for the fact that it is so noticeable is because the Brazil timeline only runs from 2008 to 2012, as the figures were unavailable before this (from the ONS) as they were previously included in the ‘South America’ figures.  Even so, there is still a significant drop, albeit one which is hard to explain or pin to any obvious reasons.  Visitor numbers have recovered since then, and are climbing back to what they were in 2008.  Brazil is one of the ‘destinations to watch in 2013’ in ABTA’s Travel Trends Report 2013, as it prepares to host the football World Cup in 2014 and the next Olympics in 2016.  Some travellers will want to get in there early and visit before these events kick off, a destination with a buzz about it like Brazil, will often reap the rewards from increased visitor numbers (even when it’s a longhaul destination).

Spain Insight

Spain

One look at the Spain graph shows you the seasonality of the searches for Spain amongst us Brits, as we begin to think of planning our Summer holiday in sunnier climes, and interest drops off as Winter descends – the peaks in 2010, 2011 and 2012 are even more pronounced.  The visitor numbers stayed steady until 2009, when they began to reduce in number, and have plateaued in recent years.  The omens for the perennial British favourite remain good however due to the pronounced spike of Google interest in 2012, and, despite the decrease in numbers, it remains the Number One overseas holiday destination for us sun, sangria and savings-seeking Brits.  It is identified as one of the hot (in all senses of the word) destinations to watch this year, and conversely, Spain’s financial problems represent good value  in bars and restaurants for visitors.  Spain’s popularity with us Brits is so enduring that over half the visitors to Span have been to the country ten or more times and 90% are on at least their second visit.

 

Overall, although there is not an infallible link between a decreasing/increasing amount of Google searches and a corresponding decrease/increase in visitor numbers in following years, it is often the case.  Obviously, if the Google searches are in response to an unusual and newsworthy disaster or big news story, it doesn’t necessarily translate into increased visitor numbers, but if the spike is caused by something positive such as the Olympics or football World Cup, then the media attention and buzz created by the event can then stimulate visitor numbers in the following year.  When an event of worldwide interest e.g. the release of the Hobbit displays the landscape and natural beauty of a destination, as it does New Zealand, it is often capitalised upon by tourism bosses who use the positive publicity to their advantage, and create entire ad campaigns to entice tourists who are fans of the film to visit the actual location that they were filmed.

The overall lesson for tourist chiefs seems to be to maximise the worldwide attention generated by these events, and for the policy-makers in the countries themselves, it seems to be an endorsement to support these events both financially and through prolonged and clever publicity, as the country can potentially then reap the rewards in terms of visitor numbers and tourist spend in the positive legacy that these events create.

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