The world’s natural assets are undervalued. One doesn’t have to look too hard to see evidence to support this statement: rainforests cleared to make way for farming, wild habitats cleared for building development and rivers used as depositories for effluent. If not undervalued then it is often the case that the world’s natural assets are given no value at all.

Tourism can play a key role in affording the world’s natural assets a tangible commercial value and in doing so protect them. But for this to really work, governments and private enterprises need to work together to ensure tourism pays the true value for the services that nature provides. Sadly, this is not always the case and the Galapagos National Park fee epitomises this issue.

The Ecuadorian authorities charge a national park fee of $100 for a two-week trip to the Galapagos. Compare this to Rwanda, where an hour with mountain gorillas requires a permit that costs $1,500, and it is clear that Ecuador is massively undervaluing the Galapagos islands. Tourism needs to pay a price that is commensurate with the demands it makes on infrastructure and natural resources; $100 doesn’t come close to doing either.

Footfall to the Galapagos is on the increase and according to recent reports by UNESCO there is a lack of clear strategy to ‘discourage rapid and uncontrolled growth’ of tourism in the Galapagos. According to the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, in 2010 approx. 170,000 tourists visited the Galapagos compared to a total of 271,238 visitors in 2019 – an almost 60% increase in under ten years. The report goes on to say that the growth of land-based tourism has been extreme and unregulated, especially with the emergence of the sharing economy; in 2010 there were 60 hotels in the Galapagos whereas today there are over 300. Clearly, this level of increase is unsustainable, so actions need to be taken to better manage tourism numbers and footfall.

In 2019, Ecuador’s ministries of tourism, environment and agriculture proposed doubling the cost of the Galapagos National Park fee to $200 for visitors to Galapagos National Park who also spent at least three nights on the mainland, while visitors spending less than three nights would be charged $400. Due to Covid and a change in government this proposal was never implemented.

So, what can be done?

We will continue to push the authorities for an increase in fees but in the interim, Steppes Travel will make a donation of $100 to Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) for every client that travels to the Galapagos islands. This will of course be in addition to the $100 Galapagos National Park fee included in the cost of your holiday. We encourage you to consider matching our donation to GCT to help fund conservation initiatives that might otherwise not be possible due to the poorly funded park authorities. In this way, we can get close to paying a fair cost for the demands being made on the islands’ wildlife and habitat and in doing so, raise awareness about the need for a similar exchange in other parts of the world.

Let’s give the final word to Rwanda; an example of what can be achieved, when a sustainable business model is put in place that reflects nature’s true value. Half a century ago, there were 254 mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Parc de Volcan but today there are over 600 individuals. Tourism has played a major role in this conservation success story. In a program known as tourism revenue sharing, 10% of the gorilla permit goes to local communities that border national parks.  According to CBS, this amounts to approx. $650,000 per year. Little wonder that Tara Stoinski, CEO of Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund, considers mountain gorillas to be Rwanda’s most important natural resource. A similar view in the Galapagos islands could make all the difference.

Thanks for reading

Jarrod Kyte

Author: Jarrod Kyte