Category: Galapagos.

Galapagos Islands Threatened by the Wrong Kind of Tourism

October 19, 2009 by Brad Sylvester

Eco-Disaster in Progress as Galapagos Islands Reel Under Population Pressures

The unique natural heritage of the Galapagos Islands is being threatened by uncontrolled tourism and growing population pressures.

The unique natural heritage of the Galapagos Islands is being threatened by uncontrolled tourism and growing population pressures.

The Galapagos Islands are one of the Earth’s true treasures. The Pacific island chain that makes up the Galapagos Islands is home to many different species of life that are found nowhere else in the world. It was the diversity of species on the various islands that helped inspire Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, forever changing man’s fundamental view of life on Earth. Aside from being home to the Earth’s most endangered species, the giant Pinta Island Tortoise, the unique natural heritage of the Galapagos Islands is itself endangered.

Eco-Tourism in the Galapagos Islands
For many who fancy themselves to be eco-tourists, visiting the Earth’s greatest natural wonders while supporting the local economies and helping to preserve the delicate balance of nature in the remotest parts of the Earth, the Galapagos Islands are almost always at the top of the list of places to visit. However, the popularity of the Galapagos Islands as a tourist destination is helping to contribute to their environmental ruin.

Galapagos Islands are UNESCO World Heritage Site
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared the Galapagos Islands to be a World Heritage Site, for among other things containing “the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.” UNESCO’s World Heritage status seeks to help underscore the importance of preserving such places as the Galapagos Islands as a part of our global cultural heritage to be passed on to future generations. However, a subset of places listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list are also listed as being in danger of losing the properties for which they were selected.

Galapagos Islands Under Threat
The Galapagos Islands are under threat from a variety of invasive species that have been introduced to the islands by man over the last centuries, chiefly goats, dogs, cats, rats and invasive plant species, but the islands are also endangered by their very popularity as an eco-tourist destination. No matter how lightly eco-tourists try to tread, their presence is a disruptive force that has deeper implications for the local environment than may be obvious during a casual vacation visit, especially in the case of the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Tourism Wealth Siphoned to Ecuador
Although they are 1,000 kilometers from the continent of South America, the Galapagos Islands fall within the National boundaries of Ecuador, and are regulated by the laws of that country. Each eco-tour operator pays a surcharge to the government of Ecuador, and the volume and high-dollar value of tourist packages means that active tourism on the Galapagos Islands are a substantial source of income for Ecuador. Ecuador earns, according the Council of Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), an estimated $200 million each year from the tourism industry, a figure which represents one-quarter of the nation’s foreign-exchange earnings.

Cruise Ships Dominate Galapagos Islands Tourism Trade
Because of the earnings, Ecuador understands the value of protecting the Galapagos Islands, but also because of those same earnings, is unable to find the strength of character required to do what it takes to help protect the islands. In 2008, according to COHA figures, 173,000 tourists visited the Galapagos Islands, the majority on high-end cruise ships operated by a handful of large corporate concerns.

Tourists Trading Garbage for Fresh Water
All of the revenue from these tour packages goes into the coffers of these large corporations and to the mainland Ecuadorian government. Boston city public school teacher and renowned nature photographer Eduardo del Solar recounted a discussion he had with a native Galapagos Island school teacher on a recent visit he made to the islands; the teacher told him that, from the perspective of the villagers who live in poverty on the Galapagos Islands, the cruise ships come to the islands and drop their trash and take away precious fresh water for their onboard reservoirs. They contribute nothing, he said, to the local economy. This perception is perhaps the very crux of the problem.

Poverty in Ecuador
Ecuador is a poor country and, in many areas, its people live in poverty. Because some tourists eschew the high-end cruise ships and prefer to get a more local flavor of the Galapagos Islands by staying in local accommodations and visiting the shops in the island villages, the economy of the Galapagos Islands is actually much better than that of Ecuador proper. A recent COHA report said “wages are typically 70 percent higher… and violent crime, one of Ecuador’s main issues, is practically nonexistent [on the Galapagos Islands].”

Seeking a Better Life in the Galapagos Islands
As a result, Ecuadorians flock to the Galapagos Islands seeking a better life by supporting the tourist trade there. Although immigration from Ecuador’s mainland to the Galapagos is strictly regulated, allowing only a certain number of annual work and travel permits for the islands to be issued each year, there are many who make the move without the required documentation seeking to support their families. Even though the Galapagos Islands are a part of the country of Ecuador, the government detains and deports the undocumented residents as “illegals.”

Eggs, $1000 Each?
Eduardo del Solar, during his visit, found that the Island residents very much resent the policies of the Ecuadorian government that declares its own citizens as undesirable while spending as much as $1000, a fortune to most Ecuadorians, to preserve a single tortoise egg. At times, he said, active animosity from the villagers is aimed at the Charles Darwin Research Center that operates within the Galapagos Island National Park, over what the locals perceive as a waste of money while they suffer in poverty.

The Galapagos Islands’ Missing Link
From a United States perspective, with comfortable homes and full bellies, it is easy to sit back and say that the work of the research center and others in preserving and restoring the rich natural heritage of the Galapagos Islands is the very thing that fuels the economy of the island villages. Without that work, the island environment would continue to deteriorate until the tourists stopped coming altogether. Obviously, that would leave the Galapagos villagers even poorer than they are now. When one struggles to put food on the table for one’s family every day, and children attend schools with dirt floors, if they go at all, that linkage isn’t quite so clear.

The Viagra Cap
The number of tourists allowed to visit the Galapagos Islands is also regulated to prevent too much damage to the islands. Yet, again, the Ecuadorian residents of the Galapagos Islands see themselves being treated as inferior to the paying tourists. The locals, del Solar says, call the tourist limits a “Viagra cap” because it keeps going up. Instead of turning tourists away when the limit is reached, the Ecuadorian government, smelling the revenue, increases the limit to accommodate every tourist willing to pay for the tour. The immigration limit and deportations of Ecuadorians, however, continues without relief for them.

Garbage In, Garbage on the Beach
The areas where the majority of high-end tourists go within the park system are well-maintained, but closer to the population centers on the Galapagos Islands, del Solar still saw uncontrolled dumping grounds filled with trash. These illegal dump sites exist despite the presence of a modern recycling facility, the Fabricio Valverde Recycling Park, built, in part, to allow cruise ships to offload their garbage before making their return voyages. The plant manager, said del Solar, told him that each garbage truck had to have video cameras installed to prevent local workers from simply dumping it at the most convenient location because they did not see the value in wasting time to transport garbage. Again the problem is one of perception.

Successful Education Project in the Galapagos Islands
In cases where strong efforts have been made to educate the public, there has been success. Fundacion Galapagos, a charitable group dedicated to promoting a sustainable lifestyle in the Galapagos Islands, reports that a door-to-door education campaign for adults combined with in-school lessons for the children about the importance of separating trash for recycling showed very strong positive results in the town of Puerto Ayora. The education efforts were combined with reminders on local radio and television channels to keep the message top of mind.

Galapagos Island Villagers Are Guardians of the Treasure
Similar educational efforts are needed on a much broader scale within the communities on the Galapagos Islands to help local villagers understand the direct contribution to their economy and their individual livelihoods that can come from the preservation of the tourist trade (at sustainable limits, of course). Education is needed to reinforce that the primary reason why many came to the Galapagos Islands to seek a living in the first place is the higher standard of living afforded by the tourists who come seeking the treasure of the Galapagos. The people of the Galapagos Islands are the guardians of that treasure. Their dedication to that effort will either lead to a continually growing economy and higher standard of living for themselves and their descendants, or it will lead to environmental disaster and economic ruin for the islands.

Planning a Trip to the Galapagos Islands
Even tourists can help to draw this linkage more plainly by adhering to the basic principles of eco-tourism. True eco-tourism involves supporting the local economies and the environment in sustainable ways. In the case of the Galapagos, that means visiting and spending money within the villages of the islands instead of staying on a cruise ship that drops them off at the park entrance and picks them up at the end of the day. Spending a few dollars on local hotels and restaurants to get the true flavor of the islands rather than eating meals prepared aboard cruise ships, is not only an enriching experience for tourists, but also for local shopkeepers. If residents of the Galapagos see a more direct link between their own financial prospects and eco-tourism, then it becomes easier to educate them about the importance of preserving the ecological treasures of the islands.

Immersive Eco-Tourism in the Galapagos Islands
This type of locally involved tourism demands a little more work by the tourist or their travel agent. Researching reputable local accommodations, tour guides, and restaurants is vital to making sure that the experience is enjoyable, in fitting with the basic premise of eco-tourism, and does not support activities that harm the local environment. The experience of this immersive eco-tourism can be far superior to standard cruise ship vacations, in part because of the knowledge that it is helping to lift a local people from the despair of poverty while making strong contributions toward the preservation of the truly unique ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands.

Patel, Tara. “Immigration Issues in the Galapagos Islands.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Retrieved from on October 18, 2009.
“Galapagos Islands.” UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Retrieved from on October 17, 2009.
Recycling of Solid Waste: “Fabricio Valverde Environmental Park.” Fundacion Galapagos. Retrieved from on October 18, 2009.

My thanks to Eduardo del Solar for taking the time to discuss this issue with me and for sharing the insights and experiences he gained while visiting the Galapagos Islands on a 2008 cross-cultural education program sponsored by Toyota International. His Birds of the Americas III wildlife photography exhibit is on display at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, MA throughout the month of October. He also deserves our thanks for spending 25 years teaching in the Boston city public schools.

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Category: Galapagos
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