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Carrying capacity analysis

Figure 1: Beach tourism that may exceed local ecological limits

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.
  1. Ortolano, L. (1984), Environmental Planning and Decision Making, John Wiley and Sons, New York