Can tourism in the Galapagos be sustainable?

So, how can tourism be a force for good in the Galapagos? And at what point will tourism destroy the very essence of what makes tourists visit the Galapagos in the first place? On my recent trip to the Galapagos I sought answers to these critical questions, canvassing the opinions of people working in tourism, people travelling as tourists and drawing my own conclusions from what I saw.

Where tourism has a critical role to play, is in the creation of vocal ambassadors for conservation in the world’s most fragile environments. Just as we can’t protect what we don’t know, equally we can’t expect people to speak out for causes they don’t understand and therefore do not care about. Travel can be a catalyst for action as it provides the process through which people can begin to understand. From understanding comes the capacity to care which can ultimately lead to action. As a Steppes client travelling to the Galapagos, you are automatically signed up to a year’s membership to Galapagos Conservation Trust which keeps you updated on the important conservation issues affecting the islands.

Tourism allows local communities to realise the economic potential of the wildlife they live alongside, and thus provides a compelling reason to protect it. I was listening to a Galapagos guide speak recently, who mentioned how the smell of rotting shark fins on the island of Isabela was many years ago, unbearable. This changed when the shark fishermen whom used to harvest these fins realised they could make a far more reliable income from tourism. Not only does this mean fewer shark fishermen but it also means the shark is worth more alive than the money received for its fin. It also means Isabela smells a lot better as tourists pay good money for the prospect of snorkelling alongside sharks!

It’s not a question of whether you should visit the Galapagos but how you should visit the Galapagos, and Steppes believes a cruise is the best option. Not only does it offer a varied and exciting experience it is also more manageable and therefore more sustainable. Land based tourism has played a positive role in giving local people the means to make money from wildlife on the Galapagos however this has not been without its problems, as on some of the islands, hotel development has been allowed without sufficient regulation. There are of course several lodges with impeccable eco-credentials that make for a good alternative to a cruise should the thought of spending time at sea not appeal. Steppes favourites are Pikaia Lodge, Galapagos Safari Camp, Finch Bay Hotel and Lava Lodge.

The visitor experience is well managed in the Galapagos in order to make the footprint of tourism as light as possible. There are strict codes of conduct that visitors must adhere to and ships’ schedules are carefully organised to avoid overrunning key sites. But over 200,000 visitors came to the Galapagos in 2016 and if this number continues to grow then at what point does the tourist experience and its impact become unmanageable? We may only know this when it is too late to undo some of the harm caused so I am in favour of an immediate freeze on tourist numbers which will give the park authorities and conservation bodies time to take stock and measure the environmental impact that tourism is having on the Galapagos. In addition to this cap on numbers I suggest that the authorities immediately revise the National Park Fee which currently sits at a paltry $100. To spend three nights in Kenya’s Masai Mara requires park fees of $240. To spend one hour with mountain gorillas in Rwanda requires a permit that costs $750. At $100 for an unlimited stay in the Galapagos, the park authorities and the national government of Ecuador are massively undervaluing their prime tourist asset and in doing so, missing an opportunity to create a budget with the capacity to preserve the islands for many years to come. They could double or even triple the existing park fee and still not see a significant downturn in tourist numbers. Just think of the funds this could raise towards the implementation of key conservation projects. I know there are those whom object at raising park fees for the fear of making tourism in the Galapagos Islands elitist but one only needs to look at the conservation goals achieved by Botswana through adopting a low volume/high value model to realise that this is a small price to pay for long term sustainability.

David Attenborough famously wrote:
“Without tourism, the Galapagos islands wouldn’t exist.”

Following my recent trip to Galapagos, I have seen first-hand how the future of the islands and tourism are inextricably linked. But this dependency does not give the tourism industry the right to exploit the Galapagos Islands. There needs to be a balance whereby tourism is carefully managed and the numbers closely monitored to ensure that the islands benefit just as much, if not more than the tourists that visit the Galapagos each year.