Is Tourism Killing the Galapagos?

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The Galapagos isn’t like the rest of Ecuador in terms of wealth. People here make good money from tourism, you won’t see people begging in the street and you will find many people have smart phones.

But my biggest concern is the drain on the city’s infrastructure,

As much as I have been enjoying staying in the Galapagos, there is one thing that has been weighing heavily on my mind.

Am I part of the problem?

By staying in Puerto Ayora and writing that it’s possible to rent an apartment on the island for about the price I spend in a hostel in Cuenca. I worry that I am encouraging others to do the same.

What I haven’t shared is that I’m really concerned that the city is developing too quickly and won’t have the infrastructure to support it.

I’ve only been here a month but a few things are very apparent:

puerto ayora construction


Construction

There is new construction everywhere in Puerto Ayora – New hotels, new homes, new businesses.

Many of the people working in tourism are not from the islands but Guayaquil, Ambato and Esmeraldas.

The paved road in the main part of town replaced the dirt road only a couple years old and now new construction is rampant to accommodate more people coming to the islands.

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Children

Maybe the most fascinating aspect of the island is that there are children everywhere. Walk anywhere around 3pm and you’ll drown in a sea of white and blue uniforms.

Eventually these children are going to grow up and will need space of their own.

While everyone on the island knows it’s an issue many have said the children will likely just go to the mainland, but with such a good life here why would they leave?

puerto ayora

Pollution

Pollution from transportation is likely the single biggest threat to the Galapagos.

Not only do several airlines fly to and from Baltra every day but the number of trucks on the island are astounding.

In the beginning I didn’t understand why there were so many white trucks, these are taxis and you cannot walk 10 feet without seeing one.
 

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Because the islands are wealthy the development is not hindered by money.

It is fueling more development with more ferries to Isabela and San Cristobal island and now you can stay on some of the smaller islands, previously only available for locals.

While there are signs everywhere stating green initiatives I am skeptical as too much money is at stake.

Which brings me back to my original question. If I think tourism could possible ruin these islands, am I part of the problem by staying here?

Join the Conversation

  1. Hey Ayngelina, you definitely bring up a good question, but I think you already know the answer. You can’t be judged for being a tourist though, at the end of the day you’re still bringing money to the economy, and by spreading the word (blogging) you’re responsible for aiding the economy of the Galapagos. Kieran and I felt the same way about Halong Bay in Vietnam. It was overcrowded, polluted, and we questioned whether or not it would still be there in 10 years, considering the rate at which people were abusing the area. All you can do is generate awareness about responsible tourism, and hope for the best.

  2. When there is lots of money involved things will always get exploited. The question is a double edged sword because if nobody goes, there is no money but nobody gets to see the beautiful aspects of the island either.

    Writing about it which may encourage others to go does kind of add to the problem because more people = more money = more problems.

    Though, if you attended as part of a press trip, if you didn’t write about it, someone else would.

    The problems going on though ultimately lie with those who own the island, the Government. If they stopped allowing these things then the problem would not continue. To be part of the solution I wouldn’t encourage others to stay there but maybe focus on why it is a bad idea to stay there. Also write to their tourism board an ask why they are destroying their island (if that is what you think is happening).

    Basically what I am saying is you may be part of the problem is an extremely small way, but if it is something that really bothers you, then you have more opportunities to be part of the solution.

  3. This is exactly why I don’t want to go to the Galapagos. It’s a terrible shame, because it looks so beautiful, but I don’t want to become part of the problem.

  4. It is SUCH a tricky question. And one that doesn’t have a straightforward answer, I’m afraid.

    On the one hand, yes, you ARE part of “the problem,” since you are a tourist there and are bringing awareness to the place. But, on the other hand, if tourists stopped going there altogether, think how much the local economy would suffer.

    Responsible, sustainable tourism is such a difficult concept. But, by writing posts like this, at least you’re getting people to think about it.

    I really hope that this area IS making an effort to develop in a sustainable way. Otherwise there won’t be an easy way to reverse things later.

  5. Angelyna, felt like this as well when visiting the Galapagos. But from what I saw, they are doing lots of significant things to reduce the impact. The new, tighter restrictions on boats that can be out at any one time are helping, as are the increased fees to foreigners. I’d heard that in the past under a corrupt government, these fees weren’t going toward conservation but the locals I talked to were confident that now they are. I noticed few feral cats but the ones I saw were ear-tipped, which means they have been spayed or neutered. I’ve never seen that anywhere in Latin America, but it is huge in an area with so many sensitive bird species. There’s nothing they can do to bring back the species that are already lost or are irreparably harmed by the last several decades of unrestricted tourism development, but I saw they seem dedicated to not making some of those mistakes in the future. Green Global Travel just did this interview with a business association that I thought was interesting http://greenglobaltravel.com/2013/07/05/galapagos-conservation-ecotourism-matt-kareus-igtoa/

    It did seem that there were are a lot more land-based tours starting and I’m curious to know if those day trip guides are going to be as regulated and subject to the access restrictions of the cruises. I hope so.

    But anyway, you’re doing the most important thing you can do by bringing attention to this issue. People should think about the impact they will have before they decide to visit a place and take that into consideration when deciding where to travel.

  6. Bret @ Green Global Travel says:

    Thanks for sharing our interview with the Exec Director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, Cassie! Nearly 40 responsible eco-tour operators have banded together to address many of the conservation issues facing the islands, from invasive species and illegal tourism operators to shark-finning and over-population. Land-based tourism is a big part of the problem, unfortunately, but there are new controls being put in place to help address those issues via the legal system. Traveling with a sustainable tour operator makes a BIG difference.

  7. It’s probably one of the downsides of tourism is the inevitable way the landscape will change. Here’s hoping there is some eco-friendly change.

    But those changes can also start with tourists. We can request to stay at places that are green or walk to where we need to go instead of taking a taxi.

    Who knows, one step in that direction might lead to change?

  8. It’s a horrible thought, isn’t it, and one has to acknowledge one’s responsibility – wherever we go. If you continue to hammer home the message you’ve put across here, then you will, hopefully, do more good than harm, but, yes to those who said it’s the government who ultimately must take responsibility. I was delighted and amazed to find out on a visit to Asturias in nothern Spain a couple of weeks ago, that a road which leads to a particularly gorgeous area of the Picos de Europa National Park, is actually closed July and August between 8am and 6pm. In other words to avoid the type of visitor who may not respect the environment so much. There was something another writer was told too, but forget now what. It takes a lot of courage and determination to do somehting like that, especially in these grim economic times, and I am awed by the regional government that they have done this. Perhaps governments elsewhere in the world can take a lesson? We certainly need to start putting plans in place to protect all sorts of environments before the population doubles again!

  9. Jen Gresham says:

    On the other hand, if tourism is the predominant form of income for a community and that tourism is there to see the ecological wonders, the community is driven to protect it, for their own self interest if not for more noble reasons. It’s worked well in other places like Cuba. If not for the ecological tourism, you have to imagine the islands would be paved over completely and made into condos.

    The other way of looking at the children issue is that you have an whole new generation who will grow up loving those islands with all their hearts. They will be the next champions, and goodness knows every bit of wild will need one in the coming years.

  10. This is a very interesting question and no doubt the cause of so much debate, especially among the travel blogging community. I think it’s safe to say that tourism does ‘ruin’ beautiful areas – thousands more people traipsing into a place, leaving litter, and causing more and more hotels that spoil the landscape is always going to do that. But as someone above me said, it also brings a huge amount of money into the economy and therefore it brings more jobs for locals. I often wonder if I’m spoiling a place by visiting, but I guess it’s one of those debates that will keep going x

  11. I feel the same way as you about Santa Cruz Island. Puerto Ayora is my least favourite place in the Galapagos as it is so developed. Even when I first visited 6 years ago I felt that way. I spend very little time there when I am in the Galapagos. It has a different vibe than the rest of the archipelago.

    Over population and illegal immigration is a big issue. Pollution and waste is a growing problem (they ship most waste back to the mainland), but invasive species from the mainland and tourists is a bigger threat. The fact that only 1 of the 4 inhabited islands has a decent fresh water supply is also a major issue.

    There is a great summary of environmental challenges to the islands at the Interpretation Centre on San Cristobal Island, I encourage anyone to visit it during their Galapagos vacation.

    Controlling the islands is tough. Celebrity Cruises was caught with illegal lobster on their tourist yacht recently, but are back in operation. The quality of many boats being used for tourism is questionable, with fires, sinkings more frequent than they should be.

    There are many more challenges to ensuring both cruise and land tour operators are operating responsibly and IGTOA is doing good work to promote those who operate sustainably.

    While only 3% of the islands are set aside to be developed in any way, the speed of development in Puerto Ayora scares me as well.

    Organizations like the IGTOA that Cassie and Brett mention are great, but they also have their drawbacks. Right now, it is impossible for a local Galapagos tour company to join the IGTOA.

    That is a huge void for that organization – that local businesses do not have a voice – it is for foreign owned companies only, and no similar organization exists for local companies who are on the ground and see the positive/negative impacts of tourism on a daily basis.

    The deeper issue related to that, which most people do not realize, is that you can not own a business in the Galapagos. You must partner with a local, who in turn must own a minimum of 50% of the business. Unless you’ve got your Galapagos residency, your cruise, hotel, tour business still has to answer to a local contact who has control. So how much impact can IGTOA really have without including the local component of Galapagos tourism? Your super-eco company in the US (or elsewhere) that charters a boat in the Galapagos may have amazing ideas and business practices, but if the local supplier/owner doesn’t want to go along with the same eco-philosophy, they’re out of luck. Thankfully almost everyone I know in tourism that lives in the Galapagos does realize the importance of their fragile environment, but there are exceptions and I’ve seen more than 1 international tour operator get stung by scrupulous business practices from their local partner.

    Last I spoke with Matt Kareus months ago they were working to change the restriction that doesn’t allow local businesses into the IGTOA, but who knows when that might happen.

  12. I learned a lot reading the comments in this post. We haven’t been to the Galapagos but it is difficult to blame yourself for going. I think it is primarily the job of the residents and government there to stay on top of the environmental situation (in any location) and to take steps to minimize the impact of tourism. What you can do (and I am sure you are) is work hard to minimize the footprint you leave behind.

  13. Indiatravel says:

    It also our responsibility to think & get some solutions. Also 1 thing I’m thinking now is ‘people who are getting aged today, may not will be there tomorrow.’ Hope!
    Hope Galapagos will be remain beautiful for ever.

  14. Seeing improvements in Galapagos wasn’t bad as we view it. I think the key to make it clean again is to be a responsible individual when touring the island.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I hope so.

  15. Lauren, ephemerratic says:

    This is so interesting. I’ve been thinking about going to the Galapagos recently, and doing it a bit more independently than a package boat tour would allow. I like to think that people who care about the impact of their travel – like you – can help influence how the area grows.

  16. beach house accommodation Noosa says:

    A wonderful article on Galapagos Island. I never knew it had such wonderful sights.

  17. Hmm, interesting and important. I wonder how much action has been taken to protect what is there and the various habitats, by designating protected habitats, preserves, etc.

  18. I really want to go to the Galapagos and have had the same concerns about damaging the environment. But if we succumbed to the fear of ruining special places, we wouldn’t travel anywhere. The answer is to try to be as responsible as possible and to support organizations that do the same.

  19. Nathan Domino says:

    I wondered that as well as I was there. Was I making the place worse by just being there? I tried to minimize my impact as much as possible but regardless, my presence only added to the problem of pollution.

    I did not understand why there were so many taxis when everything was within walking distance. Aside from needing a taxi to the airport, I don’t see their need to be there. Limiting the amount of taxi’s would be a good start. Plus, they are all trucks, which is unnecessary except for people with tons of luggage (which is a whole other issue). The cheap gas probably fuels that but having some more economical cars would help with pollution from vehicles.

    Same goes for the water taxis. The abundance of those are unnecessary as well. They are inefficient and add pollution where none is needed. When the speed boats can go right to the docks to load and unload, why is an extra boat polluting the waters and leaking oil needed?

    Anyway, it was nice to meet you on the ride over to Isabella. Safe travels.

  20. Great post. Same thoughts do cross my mind in some of the places I have been to but also if people don’t visit there is a loss of income for the locals who now depend on tourism for a living. Like on of the commenters said its a double edged sword but hopefully there are eco-tourism opportunities in the new developments.

  21. Honestly I wouldn’t say so as it’s not just your fault. Its all of ours, we created the place and we will most probably destroy it, unfortunately like so many great tourist locations.

    If we didn’t go there, more buildings would not have been built and business would not have been created and the Galapagos Islands would be much more stunning.

    However, we did and we came in masses. We would have made a lot of people happier and more wealthy. But we didn’t teach them what they really needed to know for their businesses to prosper for a lot longer. Which was how to protect those islands from ourselves.

    Its certainly is sad to see stunning places like that, turn to ruins, but we can only blame ourselves.

  22. I agree that this is a worrying development. Galapagos are supposed to be an eco-tourism destination, but they´re already showing signs of mass tourism. People aren´t even coming for wildlife anymore, they just come for a vacation..If only the national government could manage tourism through controls on building and infrastructure along with visa limits..then the ecology might stand a chance.

  23. Santa Teresa Costa Rica says:

    A risk to be taken. Galapagos is one of the most beautiful in America. It must take some actions to prevent tourism to destroy this area. For example: give the best and consistent training all small businessmen on sustainable tourism, the arrival of big brands avoid global tourism, respect for nature in the first place. Ojala and never read an article saying: Galapagos has died.

  24. Clearly the Galapagos Islands are being exploited. I truly believe that the only way to reverse the impacts of tourism is to limit the number of people that visit. Give priority visitation to those doing research and conservation. Supposedly they do limit visitors but I don’t believe it. Just search online and an unbelievable number of companies offer boat tours there. And if you can’t afford a luxury cruise, you can always stay in one of the dilapidated hotels on land.

    What are the impacts of tourism to these islands? Invasive species have been introduced, behavior of animals has changed as they’re now habituated to people, waste disposal issues and water pollution are just a few of the problems. This is what happens when paradise becomes a playground for the curious.

  25. I recently wrote about the perks of volunteering on the galápagos so whilst you enjoy living there you’re giving back to the community and making positive impact – would love to hear your thoughts…

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