Beaches are highly valuable tourist resources; therefore determining their carrying capacity is an essential factor for their sensible use and management. The study synthetically presented in this paper is focused on the SW coast of Portugal, during the summer of 1998 and 1999. It explores the concepts of physical carrying capacity (number of individuals a beach can physically accommodate) and social carrying capacity (concentration of individuals above which beach users become uncomfortable – crowding perception).
Two distinct methods of data collection were used. Measurements on georeferenced digitised aerial photography were used for the physical carrying capacity evaluation. For the social carrying capacity, several user counts, video images and more than 200 interviews were conducted at five different beaches, exploring landscape perception, landscape evaluation and behaviour.
The results achieved enable the understanding of fundamental differences between the two carrying capacity types and how to link and integrate them within management plans. The results also illustrate the difficulties in producing a universal carrying capacity formula, which can be applied in any beach indiscriminately. Nevertheless, the limitations encountered do not question the validity of these studies, as they are evidently of great importance for beach management and thus should be used in a flexible way, fully adapted to the existing specific site conditions.