Tourism carrying capacity

Tourism carrying capacity is an empirical indicator of the number of beds available for visitors to stay in, both in commercial and non-commercial settings. However, it has evolved to also indicate the maximum number of visitors a site can handle without negatively impacting the site’s qualities, and is therefore not solely based on objective facts but also takes into account subjective and political considerations.

A problematic capacity assessment

The concept of capacity, as defined by Roger Brunet, is the amount of matter or people that can be produced, contained, or transported by a machine, factory, route, or current. However, when applied to the accommodation of tourists, it is not as simple as just counting the number of beds available, and is not the same as accommodation capacity. A circular from October 22, 1992, stated that tourism carrying capacity was derived from “an assessment of the possibilities of urbanisation of territorial units” (Pinault, 1997). This approach is similar to the standards for public facilities, where the number of people that can be accommodated is determined by the size of the space and its intended use, see Guide pratique du DST).

Evaluating tourism carrying capacity remains a challenging task. The law does not provide a clear definition of carrying capacity, and the criteria for assessment are poorly defined. This concept, which is officially mentioned in the French Coastal Law (Loi Littoral), is the subject of few cross-sectional studies that simultaneously assess the costs in terms of development, community facilities, additional public services and activities (Pottier et al., 2007). The idea of determining tourism carrying capacity has been around for some time, and it was already being considered by engineers in the 1960s when determining the size of large infrastructure (Falque, 1969).

One of the main challenges is determining tourist numbers, since this information is derived from infrequent surveys or rough estimates (see Statistics). Another challenge is that non-commercial accommodations can become commercial and vice versa, at the discretion of the owners, which makes it difficult to track the different categories. Additionally, informal accommodations are also difficult to take into account (Ill. 1).

Ill. 1. Informal accommodations are the most difficult to determine, such as wild camping (shown here: car camping near a picnic area and tent camping on a cycling trip, both in Saint-Jean-de-Monts), recreational boats, staying with family and friends, etc. (photo by Philippe Violier)

A program to help understand the concept of tourism carrying capacity in urban planning documents was initiated by the GIP Littoral in 2021, using jurisprudence as a guide (see the announcement of the program).

An indicator designed to assess urban tourism

In order to overcome these difficulties, tourism carrying capacity is determined based on a desirable level of tourist attendance, in accordance with the circular of October 22, 1992. The stakeholders involved in the co-construction of the assessment see as part of the regional management process rather than as a sector-based strategy (Pottier et al., 2009; Chadenas et al., 2009).

The concept of tourism carrying capacity is now included in regional urban planning and development, in terms of environmental protection, public infrastructure and services, and public safety and health. The goal is to provide essential services, in particular for new housing, according to standards that differ from country to country (Joardar, 1998).

International legislation has established more precise criteria to better define the new standards, for example the Protocol on Integrated Coastal Zone Management in the Mediterranean. In the 2000s, the term “carrying capacity” was established to describe the limit of a tourist destination’s ability to handle visitors without being negatively impacted. This term, taken from physics, compares a tourist destination to a solid material that can be damaged over time by excessive pressure. However, the concept of carrying capacity is not solely based on objective facts but also takes into account subjective and political considerations.

Johan Vincent and Philippe Violier


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