Unsustainable tourism and carrying capacity

By Matt Burdett, 23 January 2018

On this page, we look at the consequences of unsustainable touristic growth in rural and urban tourism hotspots, as well as the concept of carrying capacity in relation to tourism.

  • Note: ‘touristic’ is a contested word in English. In most situations, ‘touristic’ can be altered to ‘tourist’ or ‘tourism’.

  • The Taj Mahal, Agra, India: Some visitors find the beauty of the Taj Mahal is marred by the overwhelming number of tourists, despite a limited-entry ticket system. Is this number of visitors sustainable?

What is ‘unsustainable’ about tourism?

Sustainable tourism can be defined as:

“Tourism that conserves primary tourist resources and supports the livelihoods and culture of local people.” (IBO, 2009)

Therefore unsustainable tourism refers to tourism that fails to conserve tourist resources, and/or does not support the lives and culture of local people. In addition, unsustainable tourism can also refer to environmental sustainability, because there are so many opportunities for an increase in resource consumption coupled with an increase in waste. For example:

  • More flights means more consumption of fuel, and more gas emissions that cause air pollution
  • More flights means more airports, which means more consumption of land
  • More flights means more consumption of disposable products (such as plastic meal trays and cups) which means more plastic waste

This links closely to the concept of the ecological footprint, which is measured in ‘biohectares’ which links to the amount of land required to create the resources and sequester the waste.

There are two further key issues with tourism:

  1. The resources consumed in tourism are frequently produced very far away from the point of consumption. Therefore, it’s hard to measure the real environmental impact of tourism.

Tourism is a huge and complex industry. The number of variations within it make it hard to identify the true levels of consumption and waste and therefore the level of unsustainability.

Carrying capacity

Carrying capacity is a key geographical concept. The idea originally comes from farming: the carrying capacity is the maximum number of people that can be fed on the food produced in an area. Over time, the concept of carrying capacity has been expanded into other areas, such as tourism. There are three main types of carrying capacity that apply to tourism: physical, perceptual and environmental. These can be explored through the example of hiking a trail in a mountain area.

Physical carrying capacity

The physical carrying capacity refers to the maximum number of people who can use a space for the purposes of tourism.

An example is the number of people that can fit onto a hiking trail. Mowforth and Munt (2015) suggest that a person needs one meter of trail length in order to walk freely (assuming the trail is 1m wide), which means the physical carrying capacity would be 1000 people per 1000 metres of trail. However, they also recognise that to truly work out the physical carrying capacity, there would be need to be some spare space, and that to work out the maximum number of people who could use the trail we would need to know the time it took for each person to walk. Their calculations are shown below:

“For one of the trails, Sendero Los Cantarillos, other relevant assumptions made are:

• visitors follow the trails in groups of no more than 25 (each group with a guide);

• a distance of at least 100 metres is maintained between groups;

• the trail has a length of 1,100 metres;

• an average time of 1 hour is required for a visitor to complete this trail;

• the monument and trail are open to the public for 7 hours per day and 360 days per year.

Physical Carrying Capacity = length × visitors/metre × daily duration (hrs/day)

=1,100×1×7=7,700 visits per day

=7,700×360=2,772,000 visits per year” (Mowforth and Munt, 2015)

Perceptual carrying capacity

Perceptual carrying capacity is to do with the perception of people. It can be defined as:

“The level reached when local residents of an area no longer want tourists because they are destroying the environment, damaging the local culture or crowding them out of local activities.” (Mowforth and Munt, 2015.)

It can also apply to tourists themselves. For example, one group of people hiking the trail may be happy with a large number of people alongside them. But others might avoid the trail because it is too busy. Their perception is that a busy trail has too many people, i.e. their perception of the carrying capacity has been reached.

Environmental carrying capacity

Environmental carrying capacity is also known as the ecological carrying capacity. It is reached when the environment can’t cope with the number of people using it. It can be defined as:

“The level of tourist development or recreational activity beyond which the environment as previously experienced is degraded or compromised.” (Mowforth and Munt, 2015)

The Butler Model: Consequences of unsustainable tourism growth

In 1980, Richard Butler published an influential paper called “The Concept Of A Tourist Area Cycle Of Evolution: Implications For Management Of Resources”. He argued that the development of tourism in an area would eventually exceed carrying capacity and cause problems, and that the tourist destination would need to rethink its approach to tourism or it would become unsustainable. His model is shown below. If the tourism area successfully adapts, it can enter a period of sustainable tourism called ‘rejuvenation’. If not, unsustainable tourism will lead to a period of ‘decline’.

  • Butler, 1980. A Tourism Area Cycle of Evolution.

The model suggests:

  • Six stages reflect the changes in a tourist destination.
  • Closely linked to carrying capacity and sustainability.
  • Suggests that destinations carry the seeds of their own destruction i.e. they are too popular for their own good.
  • In the original model there were five variations for Stage 6 “Decline”, with the most negative being a catastrophe such as war or disease.
  • Originally focused on ‘sea and sand’ tourism e.g. in Spanish seaside resorts, but was accepted for many alternative destinations.

And one more thing…“leakage”

“[Leakage] is the most frequently cited issue: although tourism can be a great form of wealth distribution, often as little as 5-10% of the money tourists spend remains in the destinations they visit.” (Mullis, 2017)

Leakage is the way that money spent by a tourist on their trip does not go to the destination. The money ‘leaks’ away from the destination through complex processes as shown in the diagram below:


Brazier, 2008. Problems in paradise. Graphic originally sourced from: Tourism Concern/Leeds DEC, cited in Pamela Novicka, No-Nonsense Guide to Tourism, NI 2007. https://newint.org/features/2008/03/01/mainstream-tourism Accessed 23 January 2018.

Butler, R.W. (1980). The Concept Of A Tourist Area Cycle Of Evolution: Implications For Management Of Resources. Canadian Geographer, 24, pp. 5-12. Available at http://www.numptynerd.net/uploads/1/2/0/6/12061984/butler_model_1980.pdf Accessed 20 January 2018.

IBO [International Baccalaureate Organisation], 2009. Geography guide First examinations 2011. IBO, Cardiff.

Mullis, 2017. The growth paradox: can tourism ever be sustainable? https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/08/the-growth-paradox-can-tourism-ever-be-sustainable/ Accessed 23 January 2018.

Mowforth, M. and Munt, I., 2015. Tourism and sustainability; Development and new tourism in the third world, Routledge, London Available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/3277849/tourism_and_sustainability.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1516533584&Signature=0jVZC4p4O%2Fzgr0SqnFO9oEi5nG4%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DTourism_and_sustainability_Development_g.pdf Accessed 20 January 2018.

Unsustainable tourism and carrying capacity: Learning activities


  1. Define ‘unsustainable’. [2]
  2. Explain why tourism can often risk being a highly unsustainable activity. [3]
  3. What does ‘carrying capacity’ mean? [2]
  4. Distinguish between environmental, perceptual and physical carrying capacity. [6]
  5. The Butler Model outlines six stages that tourist areas go through as they develop. Name all six and briefly describe the features of each stage in terms of the number of tourists visiting. [6]
  6. Suggest why some locations enter a decline while others rejuvenate. [4]

Other tasks

Look carefully at the Butler model below. Using research and your own knowledge, suggest at least one tourist destination that applies to each of the six stages. For the sixth stage, explain how the tourism area responded to the challenges of stagnation and how that led to either rejuvenation or decline.

Find one picture from each location and annotate it to show the evidence for its position at that stage of tourism.