Value of bathing waters and influence of bathing water quality: literature review

Research aimed to provide socio-economic understanding of the value of Scottish bathing waters and the influence of bathing water quality (BWQ) to bathers, beach users and to the national and local economies.

Executive Summary


Collingwood Environmental Planning Limited ( CEP) in association with Economics for the Environment Consultancy (eftec) have been commissioned by the Scottish Government to undertake a research project to improve the empirical knowledge base concerning the value of bathing waters in Scotland and the influence of bathing water quality ( BWQ) on this.

As part of the early stages of the research, a literature review has been undertaken to identify existing knowledge, research and practice concerning bathing water values and valuation in Scotland, the wider UK and other similar contexts ( e.g. northwest Europe), the influence of BWQ and other issues including the range of benefits ( e.g. economic, health and wellbeing) derived from bathing waters, the factors that can influence peoples' choice of bathing water and the influence of BWQ signs and signage on these choices.

Approach to the review

The overall scope of the review was defined by a suite of research questions, based on the Scottish Government's overall research objectives for the project. These are shown in Table E-1 below.

Table E-1: Research questions addressed in the literature review

Research questions

RQ1: What are the range of benefits (economic, health, social and cultural) of bathing waters at the local and national levels and how can these be measured?

RQ2: What value do people put on information about bathing water quality (signs and signage), how do they understand that information (particularly information about changes in classification) and how does it influence beach visit decisions?

RQ3: How can the benefits (or costs) of an improvement (or deterioration) in bathing water quality classification be assessed, taking account of effects on the national as well as local economies and both short- and long-term effects?

RQ4: What learning can be derived from the evidence about the management and assessment of designated bathing water sites and the overall value of bathing water quality in Scotland?

Sources for the review were identified using a dual-track approach. Firstly, experts on the project team listed key sources that would be helpful and relevant to the review. Secondly, structured searches were undertaken across six key electronic databases, using a prescribed search string, to identify additional sources. Inclusion / exclusion criteria were then used to screen out sources ( e.g. studies in languages other than English were excluded).

Using this approach, 97 sources were identified as being potentially relevant. These were reviewed and prioritised as either 'key' or 'secondary', depending on their relevance to the research questions and their robustness. This prioritisation exercise drew on expert input from key members of the project team Following prioritisation, 29 sources were taken forward to the detailed review stage..

Summary of key findings from the review

The benefits of bathing waters

This part of the review identified what is known about the range and type of benefits provided by bathing waters at local and national levels. Key findings include:

  • There is no single framework used across the literature reviewed for the classification of benefits from bathing waters. Example frameworks used include ecosystem services and total economic value ( TEV);
  • The review identified various benefits of bathing waters that can be organised under the following categories: economic; health and wellbeing; and social and cultural;
  • Bathing waters sites are important assets for local, regional and national economies. By way of example, a recent (2016) survey in Scotland showed that domestic visits alone to Scottish seaside locations generate an average of 1.5 million trips and £323M in expenditure per annum;
  • The literature reviewed identified various physical and psychological benefits derived by visiting or being close to coastal environments (including bathing waters). These include improvements in: mood and cognitive attention; self-reported health and quality of life; physical health (reduced blood pressure); and reduced stress;
  • Social and cultural benefits cover a range of aspects including the way in which high quality bathing waters can contribute to a sense of ownership and pride of place for local residents and communities. Beaches also offer an ideal environment for children and adults to learn about coastal environments, giving rise to educational benefits.

Methods and approaches for measuring the benefits of bathing waters

This part of the review brought together evidence relating to methods and approaches for measuring the benefits of bathing waters and the implications of changes in BWQ for local and national economies. Key findings include:

  • Studies tend to use a combination of economic methods incorporating questions that identify current and intended use but also capturing the emotional response to beaches and coastal environments;
  • There is limited literature on the impacts of a change in bathing water classification on the benefits provided by bathing waters. Quantitative measures that have been used include changes in the 'number of visitors' and 'frequency of trips' to bathing water sites due to an improvement or deterioration in BWQ. There is also some evidence suggesting that changes in BWQ would have a greater economic impact than loss of Blue Flag status (a UK-wide beach award scheme); and
  • Three possible approaches for assessing the local economic impact of Scotland's bathing waters have been identified in the review. On balance, it is felt that the Cambridge Model, adapted for use in Scotland, will be the most appropriate approach for use in this project.

Factors that influence beach visitors' use of bathing waters

This part of the review identified what is known concerning the importance people put on information (signs and signage) about BWQ as a factor influencing beach visit decisions. Key findings include:

  • From the sources reviewed, there is only a small literature addressing the nature / type of information that influences peoples' beach choice decisions. Further, only two sources in our review dealt explicitly with signage;
  • Explicit and implicit information about a beach and its associated bathing water / BWQ influences beach choice decisions. Implicit information relates to beach user perceptions concerning the attributes, characteristics and features of different types of beach ( e.g. remote rural vs urban);
  • There are a wide variety of factors that can influence beach choice decisions, over and above BWQ. These can be categorised in terms of: (i) facilities; (ii) bathing and swimming safety; (iii) sand and water quality – includes BWQ; and (iv) access and parking;
  • Water quality along with wider notions of 'beach cleanliness' is frequently cited as one of the top three factors influencing beach choice decisions. However, it is unclear how members of the public define and understand these factors.

Awareness, understanding and influence of beach signs

This part of the review identified what is known about how / what people understand about the information presented on BWQ signs and signage, particularly in terms of information concerning changes in classification. Key findings include:

  • From the sources reviewed, there is very limited evidence against this question, specifically empirical evidence. Only two sources deal specifically with peoples' understanding of BWQ signs and signage and mainly in terms of setting the research agenda
  • The effectiveness of different means of communicating BWQ information is poorly understood ( e.g. in terms of what types of information is presented and how). Accordingly, further research is needed to better understand this aspect, informing the design of effective signs and signage;
  • Empirical evidence from a Scottish study (Ayrshire coast) showed that the majority of survey respondents were not confident in making judgements on water quality. Further, 60% said they know very little about the issue; and
  • It has been suggested that the symbols used on existing statutory signage under the revised Bathing Water Directive ( rBWD) provides little useful information on what the different classifications might mean in terms of health risks.

Recommendations for bathing water / beach management in Scotland

This part of the review used the available evidence to identify recommendations for bathing water / beach management in Scotland. These initial recommendations will be elaborated following the empirical stages of the wider bathing waters research project that this literature review is part of. Key findings include:

  • Information on bathing water / beach values ( e.g. economic, socio-cultural) can play a key role informing management decisions ( e.g. planning facilities, determining access and transport capacity). It is also important to bear in mind that some more rural / remote sites can be highly valued precisely because they have few amenities and facilities;
  • Information on the type and range of recreational user groups that make use of a particular bathing water / beach can be useful for informing management decisions e.g. practical concerns over safety whereby investment to improve BWQ could be targeted towards sites of high use in terms of immersion and on-water recreational activities;
  • There may be scope to improve existing beach / BWQ signage by: (i) making signs more interactive, especially for children; (ii) increasing the space on beach signs allocated to BWQ issues; and (iii) better use of social media to communicate information on BWQ issues.


Back to top