It is the biggest and most famous arts festival in the world - but has Edinburgh now reached 'Peak Fringe?'

This year's Fringe programme, while still voluminous, has less shows that last year, and fewer venues, bringing to an apparent halt the formerly constant expansion of the festival in the city.

Shona McCarthy, the new chief executive of the Fringe, unveiling the Fringe programme for 2016, conceded she did not know whether the festival had reached its maximum possible size or 'Peak Fringe.'

This year there will be 50,266 performances of 3,269 shows across Edinburgh.

The number of shows in the programme is down from 3,314 in 2015, and 50,459 performances.

The drop in shows is primarily due to the Fringe removing the Fringe Central events, which are not shows but workshops and other industry-related events, from the programme: if they were included the programme would be two shows up on last year.

The number of venues is down from 313: this is being put down to a downturn in the amount of "site specific" shows.

There are more than 1100 comedy shows in the programme, 872 theatre shows, 478 music shows and 169 children's shows.

Ms McCarthy, asked whether the festival had reached its peak size, said: "I have no idea, I don't think any of us have any idea, apparently this question has been asked since 10 years into the Fringe.

"As soon as you call a festival 'open access', you are responding to the number of performers who want to perform and the number of venues who want to host them.

"To me, this is why the figures are not that important, because we could be another 100 venues up next year or 200 performers up, or 200 less, but what I think is interesting is who is participating and who isn't, what countries are participating and what countries aren't, are there barriers participating.

"So it Peak Fringe? Who knows.

"Something radical could happen next year and that is the nature of this beast, that things can change."

On the decline in venues, she said: "It is hard for me to say. I would love to see new venues cropping up, and we do see them this year.

"We have the loss of the more site specific venues from last year."

Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance, said: "The Fringe is the largest cultural gathering in the World, but most significantly the greatest.

"The success of the festival cannot be measured by its size, but by its artistic and cultural constituents. There is no other festival anywhere on the planet that comes close to the Fringe in terms of its astonishing programme.

"It cannot expand exponentially forever but there is little to indicate at this stage whether or not it will in fact grow again next year and into the future.”

This year there are 643 free shows, 164 pay 'what you want' shows, and overall 1731 premieres.

Karen Koren, director of the Gilded Balloon, said: "What's great about the Fringe is that it's always been an organic Festival.

"Some years there are many venues and other years the number drops slightly.

"The same also happens with the number and size of the shows. I think that the Fringe can, and will, keep evolving as long as it has the support of this great city of ours and people want to be entertained and ?discover new performers and innovation."

Sam Gough, the general manager of Summerhall, which has quickly become a major feature of the Fringe, said: "The number of shows isn’t as important as the number of great shows and as long as we increase audiences at our venue Summerhall - and of course - across the festival that’s what matters.

"Summerhall 2016 will achieve this by working with the best musicians, theatre makers and artists from across Scotland and around the world."

Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam, directors of the major Underbelly venues, said: "Size isn’t everything.

"The quality of the work continues to grow and to astound, to educate and to inspire an audience from around the world and we remain the greatest arts festival in the world.

"Underbelly's delighted to be part of it".