Exploring Carrying Capacity – Navigating visitor management in Protected Areas

Managing visitors in Protected Areas is becoming more and more complex. Across Europe, Parks and Protected Areas are receiving an increasing amount of visitors. These natural spaces need to support a range of recreational activities and outdoor sports, which in turn affects local communities, the natural environment, and visitors’ experiences. Protected Area managers are tasked with balancing these, often competing, demands. To do so, the carrying capacity of an area needs to be considered.

Over the past 50 years, multiple methods and frameworks have addressed this complex issue. Although these methods are not always comparable, as they start from different premises, they share common objectives, such as limiting the number of visitors, or defining maximum limits of acceptable changes to species, habitats, local communities, etc. Furthermore, these approaches need to be efficiently translated into operational data so that Protected Area managers can apply and manage visitation and recreational uses in the short/medium term. However, the data collection to inform these decisions is typically done over a longer period of time.

So, how can we turn this challenge into an opportunity? 

During this online dialogue, two experts on carrying capacity, Ricardo M. Nogueira Mendes and Carlos Pereira da Silva, shared their experiences of calculating carrying capacities for beaches, two trails (one in Natural Park of Arrábida and another in the Natural Park of Sant Llorenç del Munt i de l’Obac), an island (Berlengas Natural Reserve) and species-focused (dolphin watching at Sado Estuary). Participants were then invited to ask questions and engage in an open discussion to help share new light on this complex topic.

Some main take-away messages include:

  • Carrying capacity depends on management goals. These are in turn connected to the area’s mission and objectives.
  • Characterization of the space and visitors is crucial. It is not only how many, but also who they are.
  • Monitoring is key. Carrying capacity is an interactive process. It needs to be monitored, especially after it has been decided!
  • It is not management by itself but a piece of the management puzzle
  • It is never a magic number!

Get the presentation here

Further interesting reading

Get to know the speakers

This online event was moderated by Teresa Pastor Ramos, EUROPARC Policy and Project Manager.

Ricardo M. Nogueira Mendes is a biologist with a post-graduation in nature tourism, an advanced studies diploma in geography and regional planning, and a PhD in sports sciences from the University of Lleida, Catalonia, Spain. He has over twenty years of work experience on issues related to the management, use, and visitation of Protected Areas. He currently teaches Ecotourism at the Master Programme in Ecology and Environmental Management from the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, and he is also an integrated researcher at MARE – Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre / ULisboa.

Carlos Pereira da Silva is a Geographer, lecturer at the Department of Geography and Regional Planning and Researcher at CICS.NOVA, Interdisciplinary Centre of Social Sciences, both at Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, NOVA University of Lisbon, Portugal. He has been working on using the concept of Carrying Capacity in coastal and Protected Areas for the last 30 years, through applied research and collaboration with local and regional authorities.