Value of bathing waters and influence of bathing water quality: research findings

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.

Summary of key findings

Main activities undertaken at bathing water sites. Walking, relaxing, dog walking and socialising / spending time with friends and family were the main activities undertaken by both the onsite and online surveys. Water based immersive and non-immersive activities were also identified in both surveys but less frequently.

Bathing waters as economic assets. The local economic impact analysis based on the onsite survey data estimated total local economic benefits across the five case study sites as follows: (i) £19.4M local business turnover supported; (ii) 263 Full Time Equivalent ( FTE) jobs related to visitor spend; and (iii) £8.8M in Gross Value Added ( GVA).

Restorative benefits of bathing waters. Results from the onsite and online surveys revealed that the majority of respondents find beaches and bathing waters to be beneficial in terms of physical and psychological restorativeness (e.g. in terms of making visitors feel revitalised, calm and refreshed).

Focus groups reveal the multiple benefits of bathing waters. Evidence from the focus groups revealed how the local beach and the sea is integral to the recreational, social, wellbeing, community and economic benefits that local communities (and businesses) enjoy. Most of the participants visit their local beach at least a few times a week.

Limited awareness of rBWD designation and BWQ status. Results from the onsite survey revealed that the majority of respondents (60%) were not aware that the beach they were visiting was a designated bathing water. Of the 40% that did know, there was limited and / or incorrect awareness of the site’s BWQ status (most respondents overestimated BWQ).

Awareness / use of rBWD signage. Responses to both surveys and discussions at the focus groups suggest that beach users do not pay much attention to rBWD signage (electronic or otherwise). For example, a high proportion (72%) of online survey respondents said that they hadn’t seen / don’t remember seeing any signs and, crucially, that they didn’t look for them.

Behavioural response to ‘permanent advice’ against bathing suggests limited concern about BWQ. The surveys showed that the majority of respondents would not change their decision to visit the relevant beach and the frequency of visits in future if they saw a ‘permanent advice’ sign against bathing. From this, it is reasonable to assume that permanent advice against bathing would have a somewhat minimal effect on recreational opportunities and visit patterns at Scotland’s bathing water sites.

Deterioration in BWQ impacts the quality of visits if not the quantity. Statistical analysis of the onsite and online survey data revealed that perceived BWQ was found to be a key predictor (statistically significant) of wellbeing outcomes linked to the restorativeness benefits of bathing waters. This means that although respondents do not expect to visit significantly less often due to permanent advice against bathing, the quality of the visit would be diminished as the perceived restorative benefits received would be less.

Limited concern about health impacts of BWQ among focus group participants though appetite for more / better BWQ information. Evidence from the focus groups showed that most participants who went into the water or who used the beach recreationally in areas where the BWQ was ‘poor’ were not concerned that current BWQ could potentially impact their health. However, there was also a general perception that existing BWQ information is poor. This was linked to an appetite for more / better information, particularly for those participating in water-based activities (e.g. wild swimming).

Welfare benefits of visits to the five case study bathing waters can be expressed in monetary terms. The estimated average willingness to pay ( WTP) (all sites) was £8.90 per person per visit. On average, onsite survey respondents make around 40 visits to the bathing water per year meaning an annual expenditure of £356 per respondent. Across the five sites, this equates to a total annual estimated recreational value of £12.7M. These represent conservative proxies for the per person trip / annual and total annual monetary values of the recreational and access benefits enjoyed by visitors to the five case study sites considered in this research.

Reduction in visits and loss of recreational value in the event of advisory against bathing. The results suggest that around 5% of onsite respondents and 29% of online survey respondents would visit less often, resulting in reductions in annual visits of 22,436 and 358,567, respectively. This equates to an estimated loss of recreational value of between £0.2M (onsite) and £3.19M (online) per year (applying the estimated WTP per visit of £8.90). These values can be interpreted as the benefits of meeting ‘sufficient’ status (i.e. not displaying permanent advice against bathing).

Amount households are willing to pay for BWQ improvements. Average WTP per household for a 1% reduction in the number of Scottish beaches failing to meet BWQ standards were estimated at £0.93 per household per year or £2M per year for all households in Scotland. This can be interpreted as the value of the benefits associated with this level of improvement in BWQ standards.

Households value improved levels of BWQ. The online survey shows that the higher the bathing water status of the most visited beach, the higher respondents are willing to pay to maintain it. The greatest value is attached to ensuring bathing waters that meet ‘excellent’ status. Respondents are indifferent to improvements at lower levels of bathing water quality but have significant WTP for moving from ‘poor for 5 years’ to ‘excellent’ of approximately £85 per household per year. This implies that in future, while achieving ‘good’ quality may become a policy objective, the additional benefits associated with this change may be small.

Focus group participants were more affected by a change in BWQ than survey respondents. Results from the onsite and online surveys suggest that there will be a small decline in the number of visits due to deteriorationin BWQ and hence a relatively small cost. However, the quality of the visits made may decline further on the basis of the strength of feeling expressed in the focus groups in response to the possibility of permanent advice against bathing.


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