The Galapagos Islands is a place that makes you think differently about our planet. It's home to some of the most diverse and endangered wildlife in the world. The island's isolated setting 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador has created an ecosystem that has taken on mythical status as an example of biodiversity.

It's no surprise that people want to visit these islands, where the landscape looks more like the moon than a typical tropical paradise, and creatures like the giant tortoise watch you indifferently. But should they? Tourism to the Galapagos has almost doubled in the last ten years with over a quarter of a million people setting foot on the islands in 2017.

This boom has led to more hotels, more development and more pollution, putting the very survival of this fragile place at risk. In this podcast, we speak to Jim Lutz, president of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, about the challenges facing the islands and how you can make the right decisions to ensure your trip to the Galapagos is as sustainable as possible.

Listen to the episode above or read our transcript of the interview below.

[00:01:26.820] - Horizon Guides

Jim. Welcome to this Horizon podcast. You have visited most of the Islands many times yourself. So what attracted you to the Islands in the first place and why are they so special to you?

[00:01:38.680] - Jim Lutz

Nice to talk to you. The first time I visited the Galapagos was in 1992 when I was living in Ecuador for a couple of years after I graduated from college. I didn't really know much about them at the time. I got out there when my parents came down and visited and took me out there on a cruise. Little did I know at the time I would get into the travel business. I had a law career first and left that behind to start a travel business focused on South America.

[00:02:12.130] - Jim Lutz

Now I've been back many times and we send a lot of people to the Galapagos. It's our biggest destination. The Galapagos is a remarkable place for many reasons. First and foremost, it's known for having a very high number of unique animal species that you can't find anywhere else in the world. And it's also just a spectacularly beautiful place. It's an archipelago that's 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and it's one of the most active volcanic regions in the world.

[00:02:47.020] - Jim Lutz

It's become this place of remarkable biological diversity and unique animal species. The marine area around it is also a fantastic place for snorkelling and diving and so it's a unique and really magnificent place.

010 Galapagos Sea Lions

[00:03:22.310] - Horizon Guides

How has tourism to the island changed over the years? Some stats show that the local population has grown from ten thousand people in 1990 to 25,000 in 2012. Tourism numbers have grown from 40,000 to 100,000 in that same period. So what impact has that had on the Galapagos Islands?

[00:03:47.530] - Jim Lutz

I think they just came out with new statistics about the number of people and actually, the latest figures for 2013 are that 275,000 people visited and that was up about 14% in total. It's interesting to think about how travel to the Galapagos has changed over the years. Traditionally, Galapagos tourism revolved around live aboard cruises on small ships of 12-16 passengers. Since the late 50s when tourism started, there was one hotel in the Galapagos that for decades had a very low volume of travellers. Some time in the 80s/90s, things really started picking up. Unfortunately, what's happened is that the percentage of people who are travelling by vessel has become a much smaller and smaller percentage of the total people visiting the Galapagos.

[00:04:55.990] - Jim Lutz

About 10 years ago, you had about 70,000 people visiting doing land-based tours, staying in hotels and island hopping on day tours by boat. You also had about 75,000-85,000 people going on live aboard cruises, where they cruised around the islands and lived on the boat. Since then, land-based tourism has tripled to over 200,000. Vessel-based tourism has stayed almost at the same level, or even declined slightly. So virtually 100% of the growth in Galapagos tourism is in land-based tourism.

[00:05:36.070] - Jim Lutz

That raises a whole host of issues. The reasons why that's happened relate to regulations on the vessels themselves, and also an unregulated atmosphere relating to land-based tourism. There are a lot of complications that come with land-based tourism that you don't get with vessel-based tourism. And we can talk more about that.

[00:05:59.690] - Horizon Guides

Let's go into that. What are some of the issues with land-based tourism?

[00:06:06.970] - Jim Lutz

Land-based tourism involves hotels, it involves infrastructure and it involves construction projects. You have roads, you have restaurants that then support the hotels, you have stores that pop up - you have all sorts of supporting infrastructure. Towns develop supporting all the people who live there working in the hotels and restaurants and eventually what pops up is a city.

[00:06:49.960] - Jim Lutz

There's a UNESCO World Heritage site that has 30,000 people living in it. It is worth noting that only 3% of the entire archipelago is not national parks. 97% of the Galapagos is national park and only 3% is privately owned land and part of these towns. So the issue you have with these towns is that infrastructure projects and construction involves the importation of a lot of goods, a lot of cargo shipments, a lot of plane flights bringing in all of the stuff that makes up a consumer society.

[00:07:37.050] - Jim Lutz

Virtually any scientists you speak to will tell you that the biggest risk to the Galapagos is the introduction of invasive species that will wreak havoc on an environment that was isolated for the entirety of its existence. You know, these islands are about five million years old. The. The unique species that have evolved out there have done so in isolation. It's a magnificent place but it's a very fragile place. Just as the Native Americans were uniquely suspect to species and viruses that were brought over from Europe. It's a similar situation in the Galapagos.

[00:08:30.960] - Jim Lutz

Now there's cargo shipments, flights, boats and people bringing things in a number of ways. So what you have is an increased risk that things will arrive there that will be extremely destructive to an environment that has evolved over millions of years. That's why you have an issue with land-based tourism that you don't really have as much with vessel-based tourism. There is infrastructure on the land related to vessel-based tourism but it's not the same thing. It doesn't revolve around the hotels and all of the supporting development that goes along with it. That's not to say land-based tourism doesn't have a place in Galapagos. It does. The members of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association almost all sell some amount of land-based tourism. It's just it has to be regulated as well as vessel-based tourism has been.


[00:09:46.470] - Horizon Guides

With land-based tourism there is a sense that it can benefit the local population more. So how do you balance the needs of the people that live there with conservation needs? Is there a way of getting them to move away from land-based tourism?

[00:10:06.810] - Jim Lutz

It's a very complicated issue. There are many competing interests in the Galapagos.

I think anyone who has spent time there will realise how complicated it can be. There are many people with valid interests. The people who have moved out from the mainland to participate in the land-based tourism boom in the Galapagos - how can you blame them? They've moved to the fastest growing province economically in Ecuador to make a living from one of the great natural resources of their country. We've done it in the United States and in many other places around the world.

[00:10:50.760] - Jim Lutz

We've taken advantage of natural resources to make a living. You can't blame them for that. A certain amount of land-based tourism makes total sense. But at a certain point, if you get too much land-based tourism you start running the risk of destroying the very thing that's bringing people there in the first place. Once it's it's damaged, it could be irrevocable.

[00:11:28.530] - Jim Lutz

It depends on how it's managed and the Ecuadorian government has done a great job on vessel-based tours. They take place within the Galapagos National Park and are very tightly regulated. They have a cap on the total number of berths on the boat. They haven't allowed any new additions of berths in the Galapagos.

So what you have in effect is a legal cap on vessel-based tourism in the Galapagos. Unfortunately, what they've had is a little bit of a land grab on developing hotels in the last 10 years. They went from having a few dozen different types of accommodation to more than 300 that are now legally registered. So they have a very large hotel capacity. Too large, many would say.

[00:12:37.770] - Jim Lutz

They operate at about 30% occupancy which is a low number. And what that does is create a lot of pressure for additional development of land-based tourism for more people to be brought there. It has tripled in 10 years. How much can the Islands take? If you speak to anyone who's been down there a long time, they say things are near a breaking point in terms of the risks that are being run.

It's also a very difficult place to do that kind of development. There are water issues and sewage issues as there is very little fresh water in the Galapagos. The government has stated that they have put a moratorium on hotel development, but it's my understanding from speaking to people there that people get around this by building additional rooms and calling them apartments. The bigger problem is that you already have a very high number of hotels. My sense is that they should put a cap on the total number of people that visit the Galapagos and a total cap on the number of people that can do land-based tours. You would need a permit to be able to go there and do land-based tourism. That would create a limited supply and you'd have ever-growing demand.

[00:14:36.840] - Jim Lutz

There's always going to be the demand to go to these special places in the world and locals could charge increasingly high prices over time for the products they have. Hotels could charge higher prices for the rooms they have, restaurants could charge higher prices. All of that money would go into their pockets, so you could have a limited amount but everybody making a lot of money. That's one way that locals could continue to make money and benefit from the amazing natural resource that they have. The other thing that could be done is to raise the fee that is charged to arrive at the Galapagos. Currently, they only charge you a $100 for the visitor permit.

[00:15:47.990] - Jim Lutz

They could make that $350. That would put a significant dampener on the low end of the tourism market where a lot of the growth has been - cheap accommodation, travelling without national park guides, unauthorised boats - really informal tourism. That's the type of tourism I would suggest people try to avoid.

[00:16:29.000] - Jim Lutz

And so I think there are different ways that the locals can benefit from tourism in the Galapagos. I think they should. I just think the government needs to do a much better job of managing it so that these islands are preserved long term for everybody.

[00:16:46.840] - Horizon Guides

How can someone travel responsibly? Should we visit the Galapagos at all?

[00:16:56.250] - Jim Lutz

The Galapagos have really been an eco-tourism success story. The money generated from tourism has created a great incentive to protect the natural environment of the Galapagos. That's eco-tourism. That's a classic success story of eco-tourism but it wasn't always the case. Prior to there being tourism in the Galapagos, there was a lot more fishing. There is illegal fishing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve now, but it was more lawless and there was poaching of animals previously. For example, pirate ships and whaling vessels took tortoises off of the islands and some of those species are now extinct.

[00:18:03.520] - Jim Lutz

You don't have those issues any more as a result of better management of the park and the money that comes in to help fund that through eco-tourism. So, going to the Galapagos is fine if it's done the right way. In my opinion, that would be to go on a live aboard vessel.

[00:18:35.230] - Jim Lutz

If you're going to do a land-based tour, the best thing is to do is spend some time on a vessel and a little bit of time on land. I think that's fine. There are many legally registered properties that have been there a long time. They're there and you can stay in those hotels. That's fine. What you don't want to do is find something on AirBnB that is not legally registered, and you don't want to go the cheapest route possible. I would also say you shouldn't be going to the Galapagos if your main priority is something other than eco-tourism. You shouldn't be going to the Galapagos to go surfing. You shouldn't be going to the Galapagos - in my opinion - to go fishing.

[00:19:45.040] - Jim Lutz

You shouldn't be going there for a beach vacation. There are countless places around the world where you can do those things. You don't need to go to the Galapagos to do those things. This is a place for high quality, highly-regulated nature-based tourism. That's it. Nothing else. So to get that you have to spend the money to have good guides, legally registered and legitimate accommodation, or live aboard vessels. If you do it that way, then you can feel good about what you're doing and participating in an eco-tourism success story. If you cut corners and try and do it on the cheap, then I think you could be contributing to this longer-term problem that we have.

010 Galapagos Frigatebird

[00:20:40.490] - Horizon Guides

Taking it beyond the Galapagos - overtourism is a big buzzword right now. How do we deal with that and how do we encourage people to look at that travel options a little bit more responsibly?

[00:21:02.590] - Jim Lutz

Well, it's a big issue. It's a big issue all over the world. It has arrived in the Galapagos Islands, that's for sure. I don't know how much we can convince people not to go to places. I think it's a matter of regulation. Really what you need is to have governments involved.

[00:21:39.400] - Jim Lutz

Everyone can agree that that that there needs to be a limit and that we've crossed a threshold where we're getting diminishing returns. We're compromising the integrity of the destination by having this volume of travellers. It's affecting the lives of the local people that live here too. Tourism policy is should have longer term view of conserving the location and that has to come from the government.

[00:22:18.640] - Jim Lutz

That's not something that I think individuals are going to be able to control. Consumers are going to want to go to these destinations. Look at all of the places around the world that are moving into having middle-class economy, such as China. All of these people want to be able to visit these locations. We've had the luxury of going to these places as Europeans and Americans. It has been a privilege to be able to go to these places when there's not been so much demand to get to them. Now we're getting into a time when the demand is coming from all over the world and these places are feeling it. Governments are going to have to get involved. Otherwise, how many people can visit Venice? How many people can you fit on the Eiffel Tower in Paris? These things have to be limited in some way.

[00:23:21.580] - Jim Lutz

Otherwise, it's hard to imagine how these places won't be significantly compromised over time. And that's the same thing in the Galapagos. They really need to take a long view and put some limits in place and enforce them.

[00:23:36.290] - Horizon Guides

So is the future still bright for tourism in the Galapagos?

[00:23:43.060] - Jim Lutz

I think there's reason to be optimistic. There's a lot of great people in the Galapagos. A lot of great Ecuadorian people that are working there, who are dedicating their lives to protecting the Islands. I've met so many people from all around the world who are working in the Galapagos to conserve it.

[00:24:12.820] - Jim Lutz

So I think there's there's certainly reason to be optimistic. It's not going to come easy and it's not as if there aren't interests pushing in the other direction. Sometimes I think people just need to be educated. I don't think it's a matter of bad intentions. I think people need to be educated and understand what they have and how it needs to be protected. Short term growth can come at the cost of longer term growth.

[00:24:50.770] - Jim Lutz

So I think there's reason to be optimistic. I really do think the Ecuadorians have done a very good job over the years of managing the Galapagos. This has been a bit of an explosion of tourism in the last few years. It's difficult to manage, but I think there are many people at all levels of the government who are committed to getting it right. So I'm optimistic about the Galapagos.

About the author

The Journal Podcast #1: The Galapagos Islands with Jim Lutz

Karam Filfilan

Karam is an editor and journalist with more than 10 years' experience in industry. He has worked and lived in the UK, Middle East and India, but his favourite travel experience is spending a hazy month exploring landlocked Paraguay.

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