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Recreation Ready or Tourism Ready: What Carrying Capacity Has To Do With It.

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

By: Kelsey Johansen

A Busy Photo Stop Along a Popular Hiking Trail

Recently, a number of tools and guidelines have been released that aim to help trail operators determine whether their trails are “tourism-ready”. One crucial element is missing from most of these toolkits, and it centres around the idea of trail carrying capacity.

What is carry capacity?

The term carrying capacity was first coined in the natural sciences, and used to calculate and describe the total maximum population size of a given species (e.g., deer) that an ecosystem can support given the available resources (e.g., food, shelter, water, mates, etc.). Since the 1980s, the term has been applied to leisure settings to determine how many people is too many people for a particular site or destination to handle. Broadly in a recreation or tourism contexts,

Carrying capacity refers to the maximum number of people that may visit a destination or site at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, socio-cultural environment and without causing an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors’ satisfaction.

Importantly, carrying capacity has five key domains: the physical, the environment, the economy, the social, and the cultural. The physical domain refers to the physical space or the built environment (e.g., infrastructure and superstructure) of and supporting a site or destination. The environmental domain refers to the ecosystem in which the recreation or tourism site operates or the destination resides. The economy refers to economic domain or local, regional, or national economic context in which a recreation or tourism site operates / services are provided. The social and cultural domain are often spoken of interchangeable, however, the social domain refers to the quality of life of local residents, the community’s receptivity towards recreation and tourism development, and the user’s social experiences of accessing the recreational site or tourism destination whereas the cultural domain refers to the cultural context of the host community, including both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Looked at from the perspective of each domain, domain-based carrying capacities for trails can be understood as:

  • Physical Carrying Capacity – The maximum number of users and user types a trail is able to support without degradation to the trail or its associated amenities.

  • Ecological Carrying Capacity – The maximum number of users and user types a trail is able to support without degradation to the natural environment and without giving rise to adverse ecosystem changes while also ensuring that the trail and associated greenway provides valuable ecosystem services.

  • Social Carrying Capacity – The maximum number of users and user types a trail and its surrounding communities are able to support without an unacceptable decline in the quality of the visitor experience, without intra-user group conflict, and without an unacceptable negative impact on the communities surrounding the trail, including the quality of life of local residents.

  • Cultural Carrying Capacity – The maximum number of users and user types a trail and its surrounding communities are able to support without unacceptable changes in the culture of the host population(s) of the local community.

  • Economic Carrying Capacity – The maximum number of users and user types a trail and its surrounding communities are able to support before economic growth associated with the trail begins to interfere with other economic activities including obstructing other forms of economic development and before the community becomes economically dependent on a set level of tourist expenditures per year without which the local economy will collapse.

The overarching carrying capacity of a trail is therefore a function of the intersection of the physical, ecological, socio-cultural, and economic carrying capacities of the trail and its surrounding communities.

Challenges with Existing Tourism Ready Guidelines

Existing trail tourism ready guidelines in Canada tend to focus on the quality of the visitor experience (e.g., desirable setting / scenic beauty, clearly defined difficulty levels and articulated acceptable use(s), availability of trip planning resources, presence of wayfinding signage / interpretative programming, availability of support services / amenities, creation of associated tour / experience packages), and whether or not a trail has a sufficient marketing strategy and promotion plan. Additional criteria may include accessibility of the trail – which typically relates to whether or not the trail meets the needs of users with diverse mobility needs (e.g., wheelchair users, persons who require well-spaced benches or other rest stops, and / or whether the trail can accommodate families with young children who may use strollers).

While this approach provides strong criteria for assessing and determining whether the supporting destination management and marketing elements are in place for a given trail and provides insights into the user experience, it falls short in determining the physical, social, cultural, economic and ecological carrying capacity of the trail.

Other trail tourism strategies have focused on business integration, trail awareness among local business operators, and trail-friendly business criteria (e.g., adoption of Ontario by Bike’s Bike Friendly Business Program). This approach is most closely aligned with the Trail Town model which first emerged in the United States and has recently been gaining traction in areas of Canada. According to this approach,

A trail town is a community through which a trail passes that supports trail users with services, promotes the Trail and embraces the Trail as a resource to be protected and celebrated based on an integrated and supportive relationship between a town, the Trail, and its volunteers.

While this approach goes a long way to addressing the economic carrying capacity of a trail and promoting a culture of hospitality within the host community, its falls short in several domains – namely the physical, social, cultural and ecological carrying capacity of the trail.

The Current Status of Trails Post-COVID

Oftentimes, trails begin their life as a community-based vision for enhanced outdoor recreation opportunities and access to nature / the outdoors. As such, they are designed to accommodate the needs of the projected percentage of the community (or local market segment) interested in trail-based outdoor recreation. As we saw during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many trails in Canada and around the world experienced unprecedented visitation and use. This included many trail users who were trying trail-based activities for the first time, many of whom were unfamiliar with the outdoors.

Typical user complaints during the pandemic centred around human and dog waste on the trail, overflowing garbage cans at trailheads, dirty bathrooms or a lack of bathroom facilities / other amenities, insufficient parking, lack of passing space on the trail, amongst others.

Overflow Parking Along a Highway near a Popular Hiking Trail

Other challenges involved experienced trail users feeling “crowded out” of favourite sites, and going “off trail” to seek new experiences, or asking trail groups to expand existing trail networks to separate advanced and novice trail users. Other trail systems experienced increases in the number and severity of intra-user group conflicts.

In turn, this posed numerous challenges for trail organizations, including the need for enhanced wayfinding signage and trail user education / communication strategies, spanning and surpassing typical social media campaigns, rack cards, and trailhead signage. It also placed a greater burden on volunteer and non-profit trail groups – particularly for trail maintenance, grooming and amenity upkeep / servicing leading to volunteer burnout and attrition.

As communities look to recover economically in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are seeking to expand their tourism offerings including marketing existing trails to non-locals. The challenge with this is that many of those trails, and the trail organizations that steward them, are trying to recover from the overuse experienced during the peak of the pandemic, a process that (due to lack of funding, forest fires, flooding, limited volunteer labour, etc.) is likely to take two or more trail seasons to accomplish.

In lights of this, if a destination employs one of the existing “tourism ready” guidelines discussed above to evaluate the potential for trail tourism in their region, they are likely to get an unrealistic picture of how “ready” they are.

Why Integrating Carry Capacity is Essential in Determining Tourism Readiness

By using one of the existing Canadian guidelines, a destination or organization may fail to account for:

  • the current condition of the trail and its amenities;

  • whether or not the trail organization that stewards the trail or section of the trail has the resources (financial and human) to get it “tourism ready”;

  • whether or not the trail organization that stewards the trail or section of the trail has sufficient insurance coverage for use by non-members / tourists or other trail uses;

  • whether the ecosystem surrounding the trail has had sufficient time to recover from existing visitor impacts and natural events (e.g., forest fires, winter weather events, and spring flooding);

  • whether or not the trail can physically or environmentally support more users and / or user types that it already does;

  • whether existing community businesses have the capacity to support increased tourist demand (e.g., providing food and lodging) due to the global labour shortage in hospitality and tourism; and,

  • whether local communities have the capacity and desire to absorb (support and make welcome) trail tourists at this time.

Left with a false sense of preparedness for trail tourists, a trail (organization), trail town, and its host community may begin to welcome trail tourists before actually being prepared to do so. Whether its insufficient resources to support more trail users, or insufficient community and / or business support for trail-based tourism, this can lead to tensions between trail tourists and locals, and within the local population.

Prior to the pandemic, many destinations were experiencing “overtourism”.

Overtourism refers to a state where the impacts of tourism on a destination, or parts of a destination, including overcrowding and congestion, are perceived to negatively impact the quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitor experiences often leading to conflict between tourists and locals, between groups of locals, and / or between types of tourists.

This in turn has negative implications for the trail and trail town’s reputation and their future viability as tourism destinations. To combat this, trail organizations and potential trail tourism destinations, need to work together.

Preparing for Trail Tourism

Preparing for trail tourism needs to be a multi-stakeholder conversation that includes, among others, trail organization representatives, destination marketing organizations, business improvement area and / or chamber of commerce representatives, and locals, and that centres on defining the trail and associated trail towns’ carrying capacity. This assessment needs to be based on a current status inventory, which includes establishing baseline metrics for all five (5) carrying capacity domains to identify areas for pre-tourism readiness improvements and to assist in determining whether levels of acceptable change are being surpassed within and across any of the domains in subsequent inventory years.

Get In Touch

If you have questions about how to determine your trails’ carrying capacity and / or tourism readiness, including how to undertake community consultation around trail tourism development, please reach out to us at:

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