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Assessing carrying capacity

The analysis of the carrying capacity is used in environmental planning to guide decisions about land use allocation. It is a basic technique, widely used to define the capability of an area to endure the maximum level of development from tourism, agriculture, industry and infrastructure. As there are differences between the activities, it is appropriate to define carrying capacity according to the specific uses. In this respect carrying capacity is site specific and use specific.



Components of Tourism Carrying Capacity

Carrying capacity considerations revolve around three basic components or dimensions: physical-ecological, socio-demographic and political-economic. These dimensions also reflect the range of issues considered in practice. Obviously, when considering carrying capacity the three components should be considered with different weights (of importance) in different destinations. These differences stem from the type (characteristics/particularities) of the place, the type(s) of tourism present (coastal, protected, rural, mountain, historical) and the tourism/environment interface. However, the three components are interrelated to some extent (EC, 2002).

Examples of the level of capacity for the physical-ecological component (EC, 2002)

  1. Acceptable level of congestion or density in key areas/spatial units such as parks,museums, city streets, etc.
  2. Maximum acceptable loss of natural resources (i.e. water or land) without significant degradation of ecosystem functions or biodiversity or the loss of species
  3. Acceptable level of air, water and noise pollution on the basis of tolerance or the assimilative capacity of local ecosystems
  4. Intensity of use of transport infrastructure, facilities and services
  5. Use and congestion of utility facilities and services of water supply, electric power, waste management of sewage and solid waste collection, treatment and disposal and telecommunications
  6. Adequate availability of other community facilities and services such as those related to public health and safety, housing, community services, etc.
A. Physical-ecological component

The physical-ecological set comprises all fixed and flexible components of the natural and cultural environment as well as infrastructure. The fixed components refers to the capacity of natural systems. Occasionally, it is expressed as ecological capacity, assimilative capacity, etc. The components cannot be manipulated easily by human interference. The limits can be estimated, they should be carefully observed and respected as such. The flexible components refer primarily to infrastructure systems like water supply, sewerage, electricity, transportation, social amenities such as postal and telecommunication services, health services, law and order services, banks, shops and other services. The capacity limits of the infrastructure components can rise through investments in infrastructure, taxes, Organizational -regulatory measures, etc. For this reason their values cannot be used as a basis for determining carrying capacity but rather as a framework for orientation and decision-making on management action options.


B. Socio-demographic component

The socio-demographic set refers to those social aspects which are important to local communities. They relate to the presence and growth of tourism. Social and demographic issues, such as available manpower or trained personnel, etc. Also including socio-cultural issues such as the sense of identity of the local community or the tourist experience etc. Some of these can be expressed in quantitative terms but most require suitable socio-psychological research. Social capacity thresholds are perhaps the most difficult to evaluate as opposed to physical-ecological and economic ones since they depend to a great extent on value judgements. Political and economic decisions may affect some of the socio-demographic parameters such as, for example migration policies. Social carrying capacity is used as a generic term to include both the levels of tolerance of the host population as well as the quality of the experience of visitors of the area.

Examples of the level of capacity for the socio-demographic component (EC, 2002)

  1. Number of tourists and tourist/recreation activity types which can be absorbed without affecting the sense of identity, life style, social patterns and activities of host communities
  2. Level and type of tourism which does not significantly alter local culture in direct or indirect ways in terms of arts, crafts, religion, ceremonies, customs and traditions
  3. Level of tourism that will not be resented by a local population or pre-empt their use of services and amenities
  4. Level of tourism (number of visitors and compatibility of types of activities) in an area without unacceptable decline of experience of visitors
C. Political-economic component

The political-economic set refers to the impacts of tourism on the local economic structure, activities, etc. , including competition to other sectors. Institutional issues are also included to the extent that they involve local capacities to manage the presence of tourism. Considerations of political-economic parameters may also be necessary to express divergence in values and attitudes within the local community with regard to tourism.

Examples of the level of capacity for the political-economic component (EC, 2002)

  1. Level of specialization in tourism
  2. Loss of human labour in other sectors due to tourism attraction
  3. Revenue from tourism distribution issues at local level
  4. Level of tourism employment in relation to local human resources


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