Carrying capacity analysis

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This article provides an introduction to the concept of 'Carrying capacity' in so far as human activities can be sustained without adverse consequences for the environment. It encompases the notion that if breached the goods and services provided by the natural environment may be compromised.

The notion of carrying capacity

The concept of carrying capacity is rooted in a notion of “limits to growth”. The notion of carrying capacity or sustainability yield has become a basic criterion of sustainability. Ecosystems and populations have a limited capacity to cope with environmental stress; above a certain amount of stress there may be detrimental effects for the ecosystems. Carrying capacity is defined as “the growth limits an area can accommodate without violating environmental capacity goals” (Ortolano, 1984)[1]. Policies to regulate human activities and for anticipating environmental impacts can assist in attaining carrying capacity limits. For this it is necessary to translate an ecosystem’s limits into anthropogenic limitations and controls.

The notion of “limits” has several conceptual problems (ecosystem complexity, lack of data, gaps in science or bias of the scientists, etc.). Limits are, above all, conceptual constructs. It is therefore questionable whether it is possible to identify the geographical boundaries or area limits of natural ecosystems, much less to assess an ecosystem’s growth limits. Things become more complicated when moving from limits to certain parameters or resources to carrying capacity limits for a whole area, as in the case of tourism carrying capacity. Limitations for critical ecological resources like water need to be defined while stress due to tourism, agriculture, industry, etc. need to be considered. To achieve the above task of carrying capacity analysis a significant mobilization of resources (scientific, technological, financial, etc.) is required.

Figure 1: Beach tourism that may exceed local ecological limits

Tourism carrying capacity

It seems that there is a relationship between the exceedance of carrying capacity limits and the natural/physical deterioration of an area’s ability to support recreation, which could be different from the actual natural/physical deterioration of an area. Tourism carrying capacity is determined not only in terms of ecology and the general deterioration of an area but it also needs to incorporate the visitors’ experiences, and thus human values. Different types of capacity or different components of carrying capacity such as the physical-ecological, socio-cultural, political-economic suggest the existence of different types of limits which do not necessarily coincide. Usually the most limiting factors provide the basis for decision making. The use of the carrying capacity notion in planning for tourism development has undergone significant criticism due to limitations during implementation such as the lack of scientific objectivity; the failure to take into account relationships between use and impact; and the futility of trying to arrive at a desirable unique number. (Coccossis and Mexa, 2004[2]).

Lately emphasis has been placed on management policies that meet visitor expectations and preferences rather than on determining limits to use. Alternative concepts have been suggested reflecting Management–by-Objectives approaches such as Visitor Impact Management, Limits of Acceptable Change, Visitor Experience and Resource Protection.

Carrying capacity as part of a planning process for coastal areas

The measurement, assessment and implementation of carrying capacity may be considered as a process within a process for planning in coastal areas. The technique of defining carrying capacity requires the definition of goals and objectives and policy measures, as well as the elaboration of a vision about local development. The process is cyclical and repetitive comprising various steps (identification of issues, definition of critical factors, indicators, thresholds and desired levels, formulation of goals and objectives, elaboration of alternative courses of action, impact assessment, etc). The assessment of carrying capacity needs to be considered in the context of a democratic community strategic planning, which requires participation of all major actors (Coccossis and Mexa, 2004[2].

Monitoring–the use of indicators

Monitoring is an essential component of carrying capacity analysis which may help site planning and development, policy–making and the review process of management performance. Monitoring indicators provide significant opportunities for defining and implementing carrying capacity. A core set of indicators reflecting pressures and state of key factors (e.g. water, sea pollution) may be used to identify the violation of the capacity limits.

See also

Multifunctionality and Valuation in coastal zones: concepts, approaches, tools and case studies
Multifunctionality and Valuation in coastal zones: introduction
Resilience and resistance


  1. Ortolano, L. (1984), Environmental Planning and Decision Making, John Wiley and Sons, New York
  2. 2.0 2.1 Coccossis, H. and Mexa, A. (eds) (2004), The Challenge of Tourism Carrying Capacity Assessment: Theory and Practice, Ashgate, Aldershot

The main author of this article is Mexa, Alexandra
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Mexa, Alexandra (2020): Carrying capacity analysis. Available from [accessed on 14-07-2024]