Spanish destinations Urdaibai and Sitges measuring their carrying capacity during COVID-19 to enhance planning

Spanish destinations Urdaibai and Sitges measuring their carrying capacity during COVID-19 to enhance planning

Transforming Vision into Action - Policy and Governance

16 December 2020


Many destinations entered COVID-19 pandemic having suffered issues related to tension or friction between residents and visitors’ volume or attitudes, to environmental damage or overcrowding, or other forms of mild or severe overtourism. Despite the damaging reduction of flows of visitors due to COVID-19, some destinations are taking the opportunity to redefine their vision towards sustainability.

In the case of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Urdaibai, the aim was to find out those areas where more attention should be paid for tourism to be developed sustainably. The reserve is inhabited, the activities that are allowed are firmly regulated, it receives excursionists and tourists mostly in summer, and any sunny weekend in spring and autumn. These floating population, plus second home dwellers and residents conduct activities on the water and beach, move around the reserve by car mostly, and at times there is overcrowding of vehicles and people at different spots. The study identified areas for improvement and issued recommendations on how to strengthen the governance and tourism businesses productive chain, to count with a coordinated offer for balancing flows, and focusing on segments more aligned with the sustainable inherent nature of the reserve.

“The possibility of being able to have a study of the carrying capacity of the biosphere reserve at the regional scale has allowed us to identify certain critical points that we had not been able to distinguish during the elaboration of the diagnosis for the sustainable tourism strategy. Thus, the carrying capacity study, through its approach to sustainability from five dimensions (governance, economic, social, environmental and territorial) has allowed us to weigh the importance of the effective carrying capacity and assess the need to strengthen the management and governance model of this territory.”
Jon Asua Aberasturi. Architect, Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, Basque Country Government, Spain.

In Sitges, particulary in the Fragatta Beach and Ribera Walk that hosts most of the many events the destination celebrates, some are popular, traditional festivals, and others are LGBTIQ+, culture, music, sports related. In sum, these events, plus the beach activity, and night clubbing activity affect always the same neighbours. The study identified areas for improvement specially on the social and territorial dimensions. It recommended to draw and commit to a public & private holistically sustainable vision for Sitges and proposed a criteria to decide which actions contribute to reaching that vision to act accordingly.

“Accomplishing the carrying capacity study of the most emblematic area of our destination has been very enriching. Especially because we started from the analysis of a certain area of the destination and we expanded to the full municipality, we have managed to go from the concrete to the global. It was like having some matrioshkas and as we uncovered concepts of analysis, the project was expanding until at the end we have achieved the image of the current reality of the destination from five main aspects of sustainability: governance, economic, social, environmental and territorial. The result will allow us to work in a transversal and coordinated way with the different agents that intervene in the tourism management of the municipality to correct errors and draw up improvement actions in order to be an exemplary sustainable tourism destination.”
Sira Puig. Tourism Manager, Sitges City Council, Catalonia, Spain.

“The phenomenon of tourism saturation does not only materialize in urban tourism. Certain areas of the coastline of the Barcelona coast also show seasonal symptoms of local density; and we are also beginning to detect indoor spaces with excessive tourist pressure in environments of great environmental, cultural and social fragility, even before the arrival of the pandemic. The catalog of resources that the Provincial Council of Barcelona makes available to the town councils of the province, includes studies of tourism planning and management. The demand of Sitges city council to study the tourism carrying capacity of La Fragata beach has allowed us to better understand its carrying capacity and has opened up the possibility of applying the methodology, not only on the coast or in cities, but also in towns and inland areas with the aim of improving the management of our destinations.”
Xavier Font Urgell. Chair of the Technical Office of Tourism, Barcelona Provincial Council, Geography PhD (Territorial Planning and Environmental Management) by Barcelona University.

This article for Transforming One Planet Vision into Action has been brought to you by the research and consultancy firm in2destination, which developed the carrying capacity methodology these destinations and many others have implemented. The methodology results on a system of alerts. It indicates areas where the destination needs to urgently act or areas for improvement. These can be governance issues quite often, social tension with the host community, or environmental threats, among others. For more information visit Tourism Carrying Capacity website