Is Land Tourism Threatening the Galapagos?
On Sunday June 3, the NY Times ran an article entitled “Is Land Tourism Threatening the Galapagos?” This article centered around a letter that the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) wrote to the Ecuadorian Minister of Tourism, calling for more stringent regulation of land-based tourism in this magnificent and fragile island ecosystem. Here is the link to the full article: Is Land Tourism Threatening the Galapagos?
As President of IGTOA for the past 4 years and as a Board member for several years prior to that, I’ve been actively involved in discussions about what we can do as an organization to try and address the significant increase in land-based tourism taking place in the Galapagos.
It is very important to distinguish between land-based tourism and boat-based tourism in the Galapagos Islands. Boat-based tourism, as the name implies, involves staying on a boat while in the islands: sleeping onboard and taking excursions onto the islands at various official visitor sites. This type of tourism is highly regulated and limited. The number of total berths (beds on the boats) has not been increased in over 10 years, with the minor exception of the addition of a couple dedicated scuba diving boats that don’t involve excursions onto any of the islands.
The Ecuadorian government’s limitation of the total number of boats, and their management of the National Park visitor sites that are visited by these vessels, are a model of successful ecotourism for the rest of the world. Strictly regulated and limited, tourism in the Galapagos has been and can continue to be a great success story.
Land-based tourism, on the other hand, has unfortunately not been strictly managed and limited in this way. The number of beds in hotels now far outstrips the number of berths on boats. The number of hotels has exploded, from 65 in 2006 to 317 in 2017. This total includes many different types of lodgings, including full service hotels, B&B’s and guesthouses.
Many people have moved to the islands over the last 20 years to get involved in the booming tourism business, and many of those people decided to open their own pension or small inn. The population of the Galapagos has unfortunately grown a lot over the years, very much in line with the growth in tourism. There are now upwards of 30,000 people living in the Galapagos full time, something many people are not even aware of, and that population will continue to grow. There are growing issues of dealing with solid waste, fresh water access, energy creation, infrastructure development, and overcrowding, all inside a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The biggest issue of all with land-based tourism is that it inherently involves more and more cargo shipments from the mainland, for infrastructure development and to supply the growing population’s needs, and these cargo shipments are one of the main ways that highly invasive species arrive to the islands.
The policies for approving hotels have been confusing and inconsistent. There is no clearly stated policy on how land-based tourism will be managed in the future and how hotel development will be limited and capped. UNESCO has continued to mention the Ecuadorian government’s lack of a clearly stated plan for proper management of land-based tourism in its annual reports, which can be read here. Meanwhile, land-based tourism is continuing to grow at an alarming rate. Between 2007 and 2016, land-based tourism grew from 79,000 per year to 152,000 visitors, a 92% increase. 100% of the current growth in Galapagos tourism is in land-based tourism.
IGTOA wanted to appeal directly to the Ecuadorian government to impose stricter and more definite limits on land-based tourism. This is why we wrote a letter to the Ministry of Tourism, and we were happy to see the NY Times pick up that story and run an article on it. The issue needs more attention, and the more awareness there is of it at the international level, the more pressure will be put on the Ecuadorian government to enact stricter policies on this type of tourism, helping protect the Galapagos Islands for future generations.