Carrying capacity in sensitive cultural sites
Recently, there has been a rapid tourism growth in various destinations across the EU Member States. However, with this dramatic growth there has also been challenges for sensitive cultural sites and the preservation of intangible cultural heritage. The most common challenge is overtourism which can lead to overcrowding, destruction of cultural heritage, environmental degradation, visitor and local resident’s dissatisfaction. Overtourism is also closely linked to the concept of carrying capacity of a specific geographic area. This concept, in turn, finds its origins in studies on the preservation of natural habitats of wild animals. However, the findings of said studies are nonetheless applicable to cultural heritage and intangible cultural heritage sites nowadays. Carrying capacity concerns the maximum number of tourists which can be accommodated within a specific site and challenges related to this are often tackled through capacity planning. The planning of the carrying capacity of a geographic area includes considerations for the maximum amount of visitors that can make use of the site without impacting/endangering the environment or causing dissatisfaction among local residents and other visitors.
The focus of carrying capacity studies has changed throughout the years. Initially, these took into consideration the environmental and infrastructural capacities of areas, while later on the social component was included. In the late 20th century new carrying capacity models focused more on the acceptable limits of changes caused by tourism in certain areas, as opposed to the maximum number of visitors. This led to a greater significance of participatory planning – planning in cooperation with local communities and other tourism development stakeholders. Recently, carrying capacity models have aligned with the sustainable tourism development discourse, which focuses on meeting the needs of the current generations without compromising those of future generations.
This report outlines different carrying capacity models used throughout the years within the pillars of sustainable development in tourism – the economic, socio-cultural and environmental. The various models vary from the environmental carrying capacity approach of the 1970s to the most recent model of managing overtourism in urban destinations.
These can further be divided in two main groups – diagnostic models and implementation models. The former relates to identifying the acceptable limits of usage of a specific tourism area (e.g. national park, cultural heritage site, etc.), while the latter is based on qualitative and quantitative indicators for planning and managing tourism.
The general overview of the concept of carrying capacity, different models and their development throughout time is followed by examples of cases of sensitive cultural heritage sites. The Historic Centre of Bruges (Belgium), which is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, has become one of the most visited tourist destinations in Flanders and has been faced with growing number of tourists arriving in recent years. Consequently, all of the implications of overtourism have led to the necessity to adopt measures which mainly relate to the efficient management, regulation and limitation of supply or demand. The report discusses in detail the specific measures taken. Cinque Terre (Italy) is another cultural heritage site faced with overtourism issues due to its popularity amongst tourists.
Moreover, the report provides two examples of intangible cultural heritage cases. Intangible cultural heritage such as oral traditions, social practices, rituals, and many more are of great significance for preserving and maintaining cultural diversity in the face of globalization. In Belgium, shrimp fishing on a horseback is a form of traditional craftsmanship closely connected with nature. This craft is passed on within families from generation to generation and this is why there have been efforts to preserve these practices. In Finland, the Finnish Sámi Parliament adopted guidelines for Culturally Responsible Sámi Tourism. The reason behind this measure is that often tourism stakeholders with no connection to the Sámi community and culture utilise different elements from it.
In order for cultural heritage sites and intangible cultural heritage to be preserved, problems relating to carrying capacity have to be diagnosed. This can be done using objective quantitative data on acceptable carrying capacity limits and subjective qualitative data which is based on local and tourist perceptions or value judgements on such limits. In this report, we have identified that the optimal approach in diagnostics is to use both objective data and subjective perception and aligning these to the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environment. Within the economic pillar the two most important indicators to be included are growth indicators and seasonality indicators. The most relevant diagnostics within the social pillar include the concentration of demand and supply and the satisfaction of both local residents and tourists. Lastly, within the environmental pillar diagnostics should evaluate indicators such as the quality of the environment, air quality, waste management and transportation. Furthermore, in addition to the three pillars of sustainability, consideration should also be given to the political participatory pillar due to its increasing importance in recent overtourism and anti-tourism debates. Indicators to be analysed within this pillar include participation of the local population, political support for development and media perception.
The report is concluded by a recommendations and implementation chapter. While implementation actions would be different in accordance with the specific characteristics of each site, in this report implementation measures are summarised in several groups:
- Implementation measures for improving awareness and communication with different stakeholders;
- Implementation measures in the field of efficient management;
- Implementation measures related to development of infrastructure;
- Implementation of regulation measures related to conservation and protection;
- Implementation measures for limitation of supply or demand.
Within the first set of measures, potential actions include: raising awareness, promotion of lesser known sites, etc. Regarding efficient management, measures could include improving the quality of services, redistribution of visitor flows, entrance fees and/or additional charges, and so on. Implementation measures relating to development of infrastructure are highly important and would involve the improvement of waste management and destination transport accessibility, introduction of sustainable transportation infrastructure, etc. Regulation measures would focus on the active collaboration between sensitive cultural site management and policy makers. Lastly, for example, limitation of the number of organised tours at sensitive cultural sites could be implemented as a measure for the limitation of supply or demand.