Load capacity and sustainability in today’s tourism industry – the path to smart tourism
82 million international tourists visited Spain last year, making it the second-most popular tourist destination in the world. This figure is even more amazing if we consider that the population of Spain itself is about 46 million.
With this data in mind, we could also wonder how different Spanish tourist destinations deal with this avalanche of tourists. Today, I’d like to present a tourism load capacity analysis to ensure sustainability across time and in form, as well as sustainable models of development and management.
Firstly, the concept of load capacity comes from cattle breeding to indicate and assess a permissible level of exploitation. In other words, the first studies into load capacity took place in the area of ecology and biology to attempt to estimate how many heads of cattle could be present in an ecosystem without damaging it. In other words, it aimed to find out about exploitation potential without causing the related ecosystem to be compromised. The idea was later applied to finding out the limits of potential in the tourism sector.
Once you understand the origin of the concept, it’s easy to understand what impact tourism load capacity has on the measurement of the maximum number of people that can be hosted in a given area without any negative consequences. The impact we’re talking about isn’t just environmental, it’s also social as load capacity effects the levels of harmony between visiting and resident populations. The impact on the local economy is also determined by efficient monetary investment, which is in turn helped by sustainable modelling in time and form.
In this regard, the relationship between load capacity and the three pillars of sustainability (economic, social, and environmental) is clear. It’s also clear how ensuring sustainability minimises the adverse effects of tourism that have given rise to the concept of tourism-phobia.
Referring to the start of this post, where I mentioned figures regarding tourism in Spain, I would like to mention that the most popular Spanish tourist destinations are the Balearic and Canary Islands, respectively. This prompts me to think of other aspects, like population capacity on the islands that receive the most massive flow of tourists. The unequal distribution of the tourist population gives rise not only to environmental problems, like high water and electricity consumption, but also structural issues, like services saturation.
Other specific tourist destinations, like Andalusia and the Canaries, are improving load capacity using regulation and study. Looking to the future is the path towards “Smart Tourism Destinations”, as outlined in the Spanish National Smart Cities Plan 2012 – 2015 and UNE standard 17850, which imagines a tourism model that incorporates past experience to overcome the challenges presented by the current situation where sustainability is a key element.
The goal? An innovative tourism destination built on a cutting-edge technological infrastructure which guarantees the sustainable development of the tourism sector, promotes universal accessibility, facilitates the visitor’s interaction and integration into the destination, and simultaneously improves tourists’ experience and residents’ quality of life.
Given Spain’s leading position as a global tourism destination, if we want to continue being competitive in an increasingly global and complex market, it will become increasingly necessary to support new tourism management models that can better serve the major changes and challenges of our times. These challenges include the globalisation of tourism, the appearance of new competitor markets (social and economic improvements in many “developing” nations (now known as emerging markets) have improved country “brand” and increased attractiveness as holiday destinations), changes in the habits and interests of visitors (which are now central to the value chain), the inversion of the demographic pyramid (the baby boom generation in our main outbound markets – the UK, Germany, France and Italy – are now at retiring age), the challenges of seasonality, the increasing importance of sustainability in tourism development and, above all, the change towards a society that is increasingly focussed on information technology.
In essence, smart tourism destinations refer to a very broad concept, the main objective of which is to transform traditional tourism models into smart ones, aligned with a knowledge society and a digital economy. This is a necessary process to maintain and even strengthen Spain’s tourism leadership and its competitiveness on the global stage.