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.

Factors that influence beach visitors' use of bathing waters

This part of the literature review responds to SRQ2.1: what importance do people put on information (signs and signage) about bathing water quality as a factor influencing beach visit decisions? (see Table 2.1). Within the scope of our review (see Part 2), we can conclude that there is only a small literature dealing explicitly with the nature / type of information influencing peoples' beach choice decisions (Tudor and Williams, 2006; Phillips and House, 2009; McKenna et al., 2011; Shepherd, 2014). Further, only two of the sources reviewed deal explicitly with signage (eftec, 2002; Oliver et al., 2016); this has been addressed in Part 6 of the review. Accordingly, the question addressed in this part of the review has been broadened to consider the relative importance of BWQ in the context of various other factors that can influence beach visit decisions. We also consider how the importance of these factors can vary between different beach users and the undertaking of different activities on the beach or in designated bathing waters.

The importance of information influencing choice of beach

Explicit or implicit information about a beach and its associated bathing water quality can influence the decision to visit a beach. Explicit information can include rBWD electronic or manual signage on BWQ, forecasts and abnormal events (Oliver et al., 2016). These aspects are dealt with in Part 6 of the review. Other types of explicit information include beach awards as proxies of various specific indicators of beach quality (McKenna et al., 2011). Implicit information relates to beach user perceptions of the attributes / characteristics / factors of different types of beach (Morgan, 1999; Vaz et al., 2009). For example, there is a perception that urban beaches have more facilities and amenities, such as car parking, cafes, lifeguards etc (Vaz et al., 2009), which can be attractive features for some user groups ( e.g. families).

Relatively recent empirical studies (survey and case study research) from the UK (Wales) and northwest Europe (Ireland) suggest that beach awards, such as the Blue Flag Award [25] and the Good Beach Guide [26] , are not strong motivating factors behind beach visit choices (Tudor and Williams, 2006; Phillips and House, 2009; McKenna et al., 2011). In effect, beach awards per se are not valued as a source of information determining beach choice. There appear to be several reasons for this. Firstly, in relation to BWQ and the wider cleanliness of the beach as an important factor influencing beach choice (see below), Tudor and Williams (2006) note that there is no strong link between beach awards and beach cleanliness (no beach investigated in their study was free of sewage-related debris). Secondly, specific indicators / factors assessed as part of the beach award process, including the cleanliness of water and sand, are very important to beach users rather than the award per se (McKenna et al., 2011). Finally, practical factors such as proximity / access and less tangible influences such as family tradition and individual experience of a beach are considered more important than information of official ratings or awards (ibid). Conversely, it has been suggested that foreign visitors may be more influenced by beach awards though this is identified as an area for future research (ibid).

Beach typology provides implicit information on the type of characteristics, attributes, features etc that might be expected at a given beach (Morgan, 1999; Vaz et al., 2009). For example, beaches within a category of 'rural and remote' are likely to offer few facilities (Vaz et al., 2009) and appeal more to those who "enjoy what might be termed the 'natural attributes' of a beach" (Morgan, 1999 p.62). The opposite is likely to be true of resort / urban beaches which may hold greater appeal to users who prefer the facilities and amenities provided by more traditional beach resort qualities (ibid). As such, beach typology can provide an initial albeit broad-brush source of information influencing beach choice for different user groups.

eftec et al. (2014) developed a database of beach characteristics and tested whether some of these influence the frequency of visits to the beach, via the estimation of a 'trip-generating function'. Different specifications of the trip-generating function included variables for beach type ( i.e. sand, shingle, pebbles) to test whether they were statistically significant in explaining the variation in visits to beaches. For example, the 'best fit' model, which presents the highest explanatory power ( i.e. explains the most variation in frequency of visits) shows that beaches with sand are less visited than beaches with shingle, rocks and pebbles.

A recent survey based study undertaken in Poole (southern England) considered the sources of BWQ information used by beach users at four locations across Poole beaches (Shepherd, 2014). The survey asked questions relating to: (1) the information sources that were used most frequently to inform bathing; and (2) ranking questions to assess the quality of the information, based on criteria relating to relevance, accuracy / reliability and how up-to-date the information is. The findings provide a valuable insight into the importance / quality beach users attach to different sources of BWQ information, albeit for a limited sample (n=125) from one study site only (Poole beaches). Although the Environment Agency was the most commonly used source of information (80%) of respondents, it was ranked fourth in terms of the quality criteria assessed. Surfers Against Sewage, the RNLI and the Blue Flag Scheme were considered to provide higher quality information overall. Interestingly, this conflicts with other sources reviewed (Tudor and Williams, 2006; Phillips and House, 2009; McKenna et al., 2011) which suggest that beach awards are less valued / important influencing beach choice relative to other factors (see above).

Key factors influencing choice of beach

As mentioned above, there is little literature that specifically considers how BWQ information (signs and signage) influences beach choice ( e.g. Oliver et al., 2016). However, several studies have used survey based methodologies to identify and rank the multiplicity of factors that can influence beach choices. These are addressed in this sub-section.

Morgan (1999) identified 50 individual factors for 'beach user prioritisation'. These were clustered into four major 'beach facets' that were used in a survey of beach users at 23 study sites in Wales:

  • Facilities – e.g. washing / drinking water, toilet provision;
  • Bathing and swimming safety – e.g. strong currents, lifeguard provision, dangerous animals in water;
  • Sand and water quality – e.g. sewage debris, water quality, litter; and
  • Access and parking – road access, car park location and access onto beach by path.

Morgan's survey results provide a useful historic reference point of the relative importance of different factors influencing overall beach user priority levels ( i.e. the factors that determine choice of beach). Interestingly, water quality was identified as the third most important (3.12%) though there are a cluster of five other factors with similar (2.97-3.04%) priority scores, three of which are also from the 'sand and water quality' category (sewage debris, litter, oil on beach). Landscape quality (11.3%) and beach safety (8.28%) were the first and second most important factors respectively and, importantly, both had much higher priority scores (by at least a factor of 2.6) than the next nearest factor (water quality at 3.12%). Around the same period, Wilson et al. (1995) explored the impact of visual cues of deterioration on people's preferences. Preference ratings (of liking a site and finding it appealing for recreational activities) showed that people downrated waterscapes with rubbish, algal bloom, surface foam, a health warning sign, or an industrial backdrop (Wilson et al.,1995). While these results may be expected, the authors note that in the absence of visual cues of deterioration, other considerations may in fact become more important.

More recent studies identify similar priorities though in many cases water quality (along with wider notions of 'beach cleanliness') have moved up in priority. Beach cleanliness provides a broad proxy of BWQ and other 'sand and water quality' aspects, as per Morgan (ibid). This highlights how members of the public may have different definitions and interpretations of BWQ as well as information and signage on BWQ. For example, although the rBWD defines BWQ in terms of E coli concentrations (cfu/100ml), 'wider notions of beach cleanliness' (Morgan, 1999) are likely to include a range of additional factors such as litter in the water, odor and aesthetic appearance (all of which have no bearing on BWQ in terms of the rBWD). Although a rather different context to Scotland / UK, an empirical study (survey design) from Ballance et al. (2000) in South Africa identified 'cleanliness' as the most important 'attribute' for beach visitors. Results from the large survey (n=2,306) undertaken by Tudor and Williams (2006) across 19 beach sites in Wales identified clean, litter-free sand followed by clean water as the most important aspects of a beach. Vaz et al. (2009) is closely aligned to this; surveys in Wales and Portugal identified beach litter and water quality as the first and second most important issues respectively. In McKenna et al. (2011), survey results showed that beach cleanliness was the most important factor in the Welsh cases followed by beach safety. However, for Ireland, beach cleanliness was identified as less critical (fifth out of 18 factors overall / identified by 16% of respondents) behind the general attraction of the beach (41%) and scenery (40%) (ibid). Cited in McKenna et al. (ibid), an extensive study of 37 UK beaches in Duck et al. (2009) found that beach users place a high value on litter free sediment and clean seawater. In his survey of beach users in Poole (n=125), Shepherd (2014) found water quality as the second most important factor. In their assessment of seven beaches in Wales, Phillips and House (2009) structured their criteria under three separate categories (physical, biological, human use). The biological category, which includes factors relating to water quality aspects ( e.g. floating / suspended material, presence of sewage), was consistently identified as the most important factor across all study sites. Hanley et al. (2003) showed how in areas where beaches had failed to meet water quality standards, improvements in BWQ would lead to increased visits. More recent work by eftec et al. (2014) also investigates the influence of visitor and site characteristics on the frequency of visits to beaches (see Part 4 above).

With the exception of the Irish results in McKenna et al. (2011), the sources reviewed here show clearly how water quality / beach cleanliness is consistently one of the top three factors influencing choice of beach from studies in the UK, other parts of northwest Europe and one example from South Africa. This includes results from a recent (2014) study in southern England.

Clearly there are a number of other factors that influence beach choice. Morgan (1999) provides an exhaustive list of the full range of possible factors. Wind direction / force and water temperature can be important factors ( e.g. top five) determining levels of comfort on the beach for certain activities such as relaxing or sunbathing (Ballance et al., 2000; Coombes and Jones, 2010; Shepherd, 2014). Coombes and Jones (ibid) showed how climate change will affect these factors for two case study beaches in Norfolk (England), with both positive and negative implications; e.g. sea level rise causing narrowing of beaches / less capacity, hotter summer temperatures increasing demand for bathing waters. McKenna et al. (2011) also undertook surveys at beaches in the US and Turkey. In both of these cases, beach proximity / travel distance was seen as the most important factor followed by clean water and sand. Scenery / scenic setting and general ambience are also important factors (ibid), especially for rural beaches where Tudor and Williams (2006) showed this to be the most important factor followed by beach tranquillity. More generally, access to facilities and lifeguard services are identified as much less important for rural beaches (Morgan, 1999; Tudor and Williams, 2006).

Hipp and Ogunseitan (2011) assessed the psychological restorativeness of coastal parks in California ( US). They used attention restoration theory ( ART) to define the aspects / characteristics of coastal parks that can contribute to this benefit (the section above on the benefits of bathing waters introduces the various 'factors' within ART which are: being away; fascination; compatibility; and extent). The study findings suggests that the ART factors may influence peoples' beach choices, particularly where psychological restorativeness is a purpose of the visit, either implicitly or explicitly.

Beach choice preferences of different types of user / activity

In addition to the consideration of factors influencing beach choice in a general sense ( i.e. where each factor is 'weighted' equally), there are situations where factors may be more / less important. This section considers evidence of how the importance of different factors can change for different categories of beach user ( e.g. families, surfers). This issue is also relevant for people undertaking different activities at the beach (Ballance et al., 2000; Coombes and Jones, 2010) though this crosses over extensively with different user categories ( e.g. active recreationalists are likely to participate in surfing and therefore have similar beach preferences). Also, the characteristics of individuals and groups ( e.g. socio-economic background) can influence the relative importance of different factors ( GESAMP, 2015). For example, Shepherd, (2014) reviewing the BWQ and the impact it had on people's perceptions revealed that the influence of BWQ decreases with increasing age.

In terms of different categories of beach user, Ballance et al. (2000) in their empirical study from South Africa showed how tourists (domestic and foreign) spent more time on beaches that were considered clean or acceptable. This echoes evidence above where water quality / beach cleanliness is identified as one of the most critical factors determining beach choice. Hynes et al. (2013) in their empirical Irish study (survey and choice experiment) showed how the user category 'active recreationalists' place more emphasis on weather and surf conditions (physical factors) and are less sensitive to water quality and associated health risks. This is interesting given that this group is likely to undertake immersive activities ( e.g. surfing), thereby increasing the health risks associated with poor BWQ. However, Ravenscroft and Church (2011) suggest that recreationalists involved in immersion and on water non-immersion activities make continuous assessments of water quality, which could be a mitigating factor. Similarly, Phillips and House's (2009) theoretical assessment of seven case study beaches in Wales from the perspective of different user groups identified physical factors ( e.g. beach width, size of breaking waves, number of waves / width of breaker zone) as the most important aspect for surfer 'interests'. Unsurprisingly, biological factors ( e.g. wildlife, floating / suspended human material) were assessed as the most critical factors for conservation interests and human use factors ( e.g. trash and litter, safety record, access) for families (ibid).


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