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At first glance when you look at the numbers of visitors released by American cities earlier this year, Philly is in great shape. We’re only a few million behind New York. And we’re way ahead of Washington, D.C.

Break out the champagne! East Coast supremacy is within our reach!

But there’s a catch.

And the catch is Philadelphia is only on the heels of New York if you consider “Greater Philadelphia.” The actual City of Philadelphia is trailing New York by a lot. Not to mention Seattle, also by… a lot. And some of the millions of visitors we’re seeing might just be swinging up from Oxford, Hopewell or some other tiny burg in southwestern Chester County.

Welcome to the odd world of visitor numbers. Every big city in the country has a marketing arm tabulating and promoting its annual visitors and for Philadelphia, it’s Visit Philly. The group’s latest estimate touted “Greater Philadelphia” as having seen a record 41 million domestic visitors in 2015.

So is 41 million good? And how did Visit Philly get that number? Billy Penn decided to zoom in.

Not quite 41 million for Philly

First thing to know: That 41 million people is for “Greater Philadelphia.” That area, according to Visit Philly, consists of Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties. The number for Philadelphia proper in 2015 was 25.9 million.  

Credit: Visit Philly

The 25.9 million visitors includes overnight visitors and daytime visitors. This is where we get into the southwest Chester County conundrum.

A daytime visitor is defined as somebody who travels more than 50 miles one way to a destination within the five-county area for business or pleasure and is not part of the normal routine. That means somebody who comes to Philly from far north Bucks County or far southwest Chester County is a visitor. And for Greater Philadelphia’s 41 million count, someone who comes from Philadelphia to upper Bucks County would count.

Why does Visit Philly focus and promote Greater Philadelphia rather than the city of Philadelphia? It’s actually state law, according to the group. Visit Philly was designated by Act 174 of 1998 to be the region’s tourism agency.

Visit Philly has found it likely that many of Philly’s daytime visitors are from the major population centers like New York and DC and, to a lesser extent, Harrisburg.    

The data for these counts come from surveys of hundreds of thousands of people and is then compared to other indicators like visits at hotels or major landmarks, and estimated against year over year info. Visit Philly uses numerous firms to tabulate the total, including Longwoods International and Econsult Solutions. 

For Greater Philadelphia, the split between daytime and overnight visitors is basically 60-40, respectively. Visit Philly doesn’t have that data for Philadelphia alone. But let’s say a similar rate applies. If that were the case, Philadelphia in 2015 would have welcomed about 15.5 million day-trippers and 11.4 million overnight guests.

The other cities

Forty-one million would be an amazing feat, placing Philadelphia within striking distance of New York for top visitor location on the East Coast. But that’s not a fair comparison to make, because many other cities gauge only visitors who visit the respective city.

Take New York City for example. NYC & Company counts overnight visitors and day-trippers, too, using the same 50-mile or farther metric for daytime guests, but keeps its data to the five boroughs. In 2015, its total for domestic visitors was 46 million.

Unlike Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. doesn’t count day-trippers in its methodology. It only counts overnight visitors. And in 2015 DC saw 19.3 million domestic visitors. That would put the city a few million behind Philadelphia but likely well ahead of it if we considered only the city of Philadelphia’s overnight guests.  

Chicago beats out Philadelphia, as well as New York and DC (!), with 51 million domestic visitors in 2015, according to Choose Chicago (Representatives for Choose Chicago did not respond to a request for comment). And so does Seattle. Using the same formulas as Philly, it had 35 million visitors in 2015.   

Who does Philly beat? Taking into account other big cities known for tourism, we’re ahead of San Francisco (24.6 million), Miami and its nearby beachy cities (15 million) and New Orleans (9.8 million).   

Regardless of Philly’s rank among its peer cities, visits for tourism and business have been booming compared to years past, and hotel occupancy rates have been hitting record highs. Even though events like the pope visit have brought a flood of visitors to Philadelphia for a short time, these increases are expected to continue.

As Philadelphia continues to boast of itself as a world city and tourist attraction, it should perhaps also be concerned with getting more an economic impact from its visitors. Other cities are getting fewer visitors to spend more than people do in Philadelphia.  

According to Visit Philly, the 41 million visitors to the five county Greater Philadelphia area spent $6.7B. Washington DC saw $7.1B in spending from its 21 million visitors. San Francisco saw $8.5B from its 24.6 million visitors.  

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...