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Article · January 2016

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-01384-8_24



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This is the accepted version of Kennell, J., 2016. Carrying capacity. In Encyclopedia of Tourism (pp. 133-135). Springer International Publishing.

Carrying capacity, tourism

Carrying capacity is a concept that has been widely applied in tourism and recreation studies since the 1960s, although some authors trace its emergence to as far back as 1930. Although it can be viewed as an important concept in the eventual emergence of sustainable tourism discourse, it has become less popular in recent years as sustainable tourism and its associated concepts such as Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC), Visitor Impact Management (VIM), Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) and Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) have come to dominate discussions of the management of tourism and its impacts.

Measurements of carrying capacity were first used as a way of deciding optimum stocking rates in agriculture. In addition, measurements of carrying capacity have been utilised in fields such as ecology, biology and population studies. In livestock studies, carrying capacity was defined as the maximum number of grazing animals that could make use of a defined area and this natural-resource based tradition (Saarninen 2006) of carrying capacity has informed many studies in tourism, which have sought to arrive at a single, ideal number of tourists who can make use of a tourism resource at any given point, using a variety of ‘scientific’ methods.

Carrying capacity was one of the earliest attempts to define the limits of tourism growth, as concerns over the impacts of the tourism industry emerged in academia and policy communities. In contrast to sustainable tourism, which actively seeks to draw links between the local and the global, measurements of carrying capacity concentrate on local factors when evaluating the limits to tourism development or tourism usage of a resource, whether this is a destination, attraction, or any other spatially defined unit of the tourism industry.

The United World Tourism Organisation defines carrying capacity as ‘the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, socio-cultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality if visitors’ satisfaction’ (UNWTO 1981: 4). Mathieson & Wall (1982: 184) define it as “the maximum number of people who can use a recreational environment and without an unacceptable decline in the quality of the recreational experience.” Saveriades (2000:147) links the concept of carrying capacity directly to sustainability and tourism in a concise definition: “the sustainability of a specific level of tourist development and use within a specified region.”

Measures of carrying capacity

There is not one simple measure of carrying capacity that can be evenly and equally applied to all destinations and attractions because they are not homogeneous in their morphology and structure. In fact, it is most commonly split into at least four elements, and sometimes more. Getz (1983), splits carrying capacity into six categories: physical, economic, perceptual, social, ecological and political. The physical carrying capacity of a tourist resource is the maximum use of the resource that can take place by tourists, before the resource begins to be unacceptably degraded. The economic carrying capacity of a tourist resource is the maximum use of the resource that can take place by tourists before leading to an unacceptable level of economic dependency on tourism in the area of the resource. Perceptual carrying capacity is a measurement of tourist’s perceived level of carrying capacity in a tourist resource, beyond which tourists perceive the resource as over-crowded. Social carrying capacity refers to the maximum use of a tourist resource that can take place, without causing unacceptable levels

of local negative feeling towards tourism. The ecological carrying capacity of a tourist resource is the maximum use level that can take place without causing unacceptable damage to the natural environment of the resource. Finally, political carrying capacity refers to the maximum use that can take place of a tourist resource without causing political instability, for example, conflicts over land-rights or control of the incomes from tourism. The carrying capacity approach, in all these cases, attempts to quantify these concepts in terms of numbers of tourists.

All measurements of carrying capacity, including those set out above, are dependant on firstly setting out the variable that is to measured and then, secondly, defining what level of change in that variable is acceptable. Taking this approach inevitably leads to a proliferation of carrying capacities for any given tourism resource and associated problems of what is acceptable in terms of change in that area, and to whom. Whilst quantitative carrying capacity measures aspire to provide objective scientific measurements, in practice they are reliant on a number of subjective judgements. One possible approach may to broaden the concept of carrying capacity from number of tourists to tourism types and their activity patterns.

The implementation of measures of carrying capacity in the management of a tourism destination can involve visitor management techniques such as improving signage and managing tourism flows on a site, as well as using reservation and booking systems. It can also be implemented at more strategic levels through policy and regulations that relate to tourism development.

Acceptable change

The multiplication of measures and perspectives that are generated in the application of carrying capacity has led to the development of alternative methodologies that similarly respond to the need to measure the growth of tourism and moderate its negative effects. Prominent amongst these is the Limits of Acceptable Change model (McCool 1994), which in common with many post-carrying capacity approaches, is framed as a management technique in which key tourism stakeholders are consulted on the management of a resource in order to agree the values and techniques that will be used to manage it. In this consultative process, stakeholders agree the key indicators to be used in managing the tourism resource and the thresholds beyond which change in these indicators would be unacceptable. In contrast to carrying capacity approaches, these techniques set limits in terms of the changes in key indicators, rather than in absolute numbers of tourists.

Recently, Singh (2006) and others have argued that carrying capacity was a concept that was of limited utility in the period when it was introduced to tourism studies, due to difficulties in collecting and measuring data and conceptual difficulties in integrating it into emerging tourism studies discourses that privileged narratives of postmodernism and post-structuralism. It is possible that, as the possibilities for the collection of large data sets on a wide range of indicators, both quantitative and qualitative, are embraced in the management of tourism as part of the move towards ‘big data’ and ‘smart cities’, carrying capacity and later variants of this approach may demonstrate greater utility in the interests of developing more sustainable tourism.

See also

Sustainable Tourism Destination Life Cycle Constraints, tourism

Development, tourism


Getz, D. (1983) ‘Capacity to absorb tourism: Concepts and implications for strategic planning’ in Annals of Tourism Research, 10:2, pp.239-263

Mathieson, A. & Wall, G. (1982) Tourism: Economic, Physical and Social Impacts, New York:


McCool, S. F., (1994) ‘Planning for sustainable nature dependent tourism development: the Limits of Acceptable Change system’ in Tourism Recreation Research, 19:2, pp.51-55

Saarinen, J. (2006) ‘Traditions of Sustainability in Tourism Studies’ in Annals of Tourism Research,33:

4, pp.1121-1140

Saveriades, A. (2000) ‘Establishing the social tourism carrying capacity for the tourist resorts of the east coast of the Republic of Cyprus’ in Tourism Management, 21, pp.147-156

Singh, S. (2006) ‘What’s Wrong With Carrying Capacity For Tourism?’ in Tourism Recreation Research, 31:2, pp.67-72

UNWTO (1981), Saturation of Tourist Destinations: Report of the Secretary General, World Tourism Organisation, Madrid.

James Kennell University of Greenwich United Kingdom j.s.kennell@gre.ac.uk