The Galapagos is a remarkable and spectacularly beautiful place. However, tourism is having a big impact on certain parts of the islands.

Figures released in early 2019 show that 275,000 people visited the Galapagos in 2018, which is up about 14% on the previous year. Travel to the Islands has changed over the years. Traditionally, Galapagos Island trips have revolved around live aboard cruises of 12-to-16 people on yachts. Ten years ago, you had 70,000 people visiting on land-based tours and about 75,000 people going on boats.

Since then, land-based tourism has tripled to over 200,000 per year, while vessel-based tourism has stayed at the same level or even declined slightly. Virtually all of the growth in tourism to the Galapagos over this period has been in land-based tourism, which has raised a whole host of issues.

What are these issues?

To create land-based tourism, you needs roads, you need hotels and you need all sorts of infrastructure to support the people who work in the hotels and shops. Before you know it, you have a city and 30,000 people living on a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Building all this involves importing a lot of goods through shipments and flights. If you talk to any scientist who works in the Galapagos, they will tell you that the biggest risk to the archipelago is invasive species that wreak havoc on an environment that has been isolated for the majority of its existence. That’s not to say that land-based tourism doesn’t have a place, or that vessel-based tourism doesn’t also raise some of the same issues. It’s simply that vessel-based tourism has been much better regulated, while land-based tourism has exploded and continues to grow at double digit rates -- which is not sustainable. Going to the Galapagos is fine if done the right way. Given the problems posed by land-based tourism at the present time, my own view is that it is currently a better option to go on a live aboard cruise. Some people want to do a bit of both, which is fine if you stay in legally registered properties that have an established track record of operating in a sustainable fashion. Don’t go down the cheapest route. If you’re doing that, you’re likely to not be staying in registered properties and or touring with quality guides.

In my opinion, you shouldn’t go if your main reason is something other than nature tourism. If you want to go for surfing, fishing, or a beach vacation, there are countless places around the world where you can do that. You don’t need to go to the Galapagos for that.

We want to promote high-quality, highly-regulated nature tourism. To get that, you have to spend money on good guides, legally registered accommodation or live aboard vessels. If you do it that way, you can feel good about yourself and what you’re doing. If you cut corners and do it on the cheap, then you could be contributing to a longer term problem.

Doesn’t land-based tourism benefit the local population?

It’s complicated. There are many people in the Galapagos with valid interests. You can’t blame people who have moved from the mainland to participate in the land-based boom.

They’ve moved to the economically fastest-growing province in Ecuador to make a living. The problem is that if you have too much land-based tourism, you run the risk of destroying or significantly compromising the very thing bringing people there in the first place.

With vessel-based tourism, the Ecuadorian government has done a great job. Vessel-based tourism takes place in the national park and is very tightly regulated. There is a cap on the number of berths on the boat -- not the number of ships -- and this has been the case for a number of years. In effect, you have a legal cap on the number of vessel-based tourists.

In contrast with land-based tourism, in the last ten years, we went from having a dozen hotels to over 300 which are legally registered. There is a very large hotel capacity which operates at about 30% occupancy, creating pressure for more land-based tourists to fill it -- and that’s with numbers having tripled in the last 10 years. How much more can the islands take?

My feeling is that if you put a cap on the total number of people who can go to the Galapagos and a cap on land-based tours -- a permit maybe -- that would create a limited supply and you would have an ever-growing demand. People will always want to visit.

Should tourists still visit the Galapagos?

The Galapagos have been an eco-tourism success story. Over the many decades people have been visiting, the money generated has created a great incentive for people to protect the Galapagos.

Prior to tourism, the archipelago was more lawless. Animals were poached, whales hunted and tortoises taken for meat. That doesn’t happen anymore thanks to better management of the park and the money that comes in through eco-tourism.

Responsible tourism on the Galapagos Islands

By Jim Lutz

Jim is president of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, an organisation made up of 40 companies working to preserve and protect the islands by promoting responsible, well-regulated, low impact tourism, and by supporting critical conservation initiatives and scientific research.

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