Carrying capacity: Mission Impossible (Ι)

(Published in 13.02.2024, in greek)

The term “carrying capacity of tourism destinations” has been used for many years in the academic world, but has only recently appeared in the public debate on tourism. It is true, it sounds nicer and less boring than seasonality and extension of the season, and it also has a certain scientific “flavour”. However, both the definition of carrying capacity and, above all, its measurement and quantitative value are quite difficult exercises.

So, what is the “carrying capacity” and how is it calculated? 

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the carrying capacity of a tourism destination is "the maximum number of tourists that a destination can accommodate without causing degradation of the natural, economic and socio-cultural environment and a decline in the quality of services offered and guest satisfaction"[1].

Three (3) indicators are widely used: the Tourism Function Index, the Tourism Intensity Index and the Tourism Density Index. The variables associated with these indicators include the total number of beds of all types of accommodation, the resident population and the number of tourists/visitors in each tourism destination.

A prerequisite for the evaluation of the carrying capacity is that the tourism destinations of a country are clearly defined. Next, we need to calculate the total number of beds of all types of accommodation. We do have the hotel beds count. However, we do not know, not even the approximate number, of the other types of accommodation (rented rooms/apartments, Airbnb style, villas, etc.). Next, we need to calculate the permanent population of the destination. This includes those who are permanent residents of the destination and the imported labour force (data provided by the Statistical Authority and the Municipalities are questionable...). Finally, actual tourist arrivals/overnight stays need to be calculated along with daily visits to each destination, which is quite a challenge. 

Things will be very complicated in the case that every Municipality sets up a DMMO and tries to determine the carrying capacity of its territory. On the mainland, it is very tough, as defining destinations is not an easy task. On the islands - which seems less difficult in theory - we have cases of two (2) and three (3) Municipalities on the same island, such as Samos, Corfu, Kefalonia, etc. The lack of historical data makes the effort even more challenging.  

Next, we are reaching the most difficult part: who - and mostly how - measures, evaluates and decides where the destruction of the natural, economic and socio-cultural environment begins in each destination? As spatial planning for tourism has been a lifelong request on behalf of the business community, then it will probably take ages for the carrying capacity exercise.  

On the other hand, studying the international literature on carrying capacity, it is concluded that the same formula cannot be applied to different types of destinations. Continental destinations are quite different compared to island destinations, i.e. Epirus compared to Crete, while Crete is also quite different from Santorini.   

In addition to the data and figures related to tourism, other data are also needed in order to calculate the carrying capacity. Those data include indicatively and not restrictively, built area data, electricity and water consumption data, waste collection data, sewage data, traffic flows and more. If we assume that we know the built area data, the other data about energy consumption, waste and traffic are directly related to the number of tourists and especially their overnight stays (which we cannot measure precisely at the individual destination). All these, of course, assuming that we have agreed on the definition, the population and the boundaries of the country's tourism destinations.

Conclusion: Calculating the carrying capacity of our country's tourism destinations, for the moment, seems to be a "Mission Impossible".  


George Drakopoulos



[1] UNWTO, 2018. “’Overtourism’? Understanding and Managing Urban Tourism Growth beyond Perceptions”.