Is Land Tourism Threatening the Galápagos?

Puerto Ayora en las Galápagos

Is the growth of land-based tourism in the Galápagos, the Ecuadorean islands in the Pacific Ocean, a good thing for its wildlife and ecosystems or is it harmful?

According to the International Galápagos Tour Operators Association,a group of 35 tour operators, it is both.

In February, the group sent a letter to Ecuador’s tourism minister, Enrique Ponce de León, to express its concern that the growth of land-based tourism in the Galápagos Islands has the potential to harm its much-photographed landscapes and beaches as well as its famous wildlife such as giant tortoises, sea lions and iguanas. The letter asked Mr. Ponce de León to limit and more carefully regulate land tourism; as of late May, the tourism minister had not responded to the letter, according to the association’s executive director, Matt Kareus.

Cruises traditionally have been the most popular way to explore the Galápagos. Mr. Kareus said that from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, most tourists to the islands were on cruises. However, ship-based tourism is a tightly controlled industry because Ecuador’s government has placed a cap on the number of berths (beds) allowed on the Galápagos cruise ship fleet.

“Unlike cruises, land-based tourism is loosely regulated, and because of that, this segment of the tourism industry is growing dangerously fast,” Mr. Kareus said.

According to statistics from Galápagos National Park, the number of visitors to the islands increased by 39 percent between 2007 and 2016 to 225,000 from 161,000. During that same period, the number of visitors on land-based tours jumped 92 percent to 152,000 from 79,000. At the same time, ship-based tourism decreased by 11 percent from around 82,000 visitors to around 73,000.

Galápagos travel experts and locals say that land tourism is rising so rapidly because hotel development has exploded on the islands in the past decade. A 2007 study from the Charles Darwin Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes wildlife research, reported that there were 65 hotels on the islands in 2006. In 2017, that number increased to 317, according to the Galápagos Tourism Observatory.

Andrew Balfour, a Galápagos native and the general manager of Pikaia Lodge, an upscale 14-room hotel on Santa Cruz Island, in the heart of the Galápagos archipelago, said that many of the new properties are budget-friendly and attract a large number of tourists. “You see hotels here that are extremely inexpensive, and that never used to exist,” he said. (Historically, the Galápagos have been an expensive vacation destination.)

Dr. Andrea Smith, an environmental scientist who has worked in the Galápagos, said that new hotels require new roads, infrastructure and sewage systems and involve shipments from the mainland. “The more shipments you have, the higher the risk of invasive species, and these are a major threat to the fragile ecosystem,” she said.

More people have moved to the Galápagos to work in land-based tourism, and this increase in population is also a threat to its wildlife, Dr. Smith said, because a larger population requires more infrastructure. According to the Ecuadorean National Census of 2010, 25,100 people live in the Galápagos, and the population on the islands grew by 60 percent from 1999 to 2005.

The tour operators’ association emphasized that it does not want to ban land-based tourism in the Galápagos. “We are not saying ‘don’t come here,’” said Jim Lutz, the president of the tour group’s board and the founder and president of Vaya Adventures, a Berkeley, Calif., company that sells Galápagos trips. “We are saying let’s control how many people can come.”

Mr. Lutz said that tourism has helped the Galápagos thrive: in past decades and centuries, pirates and whaling ships exploited the islands, especially by stealing its wildlife.

“There are stories of how whaling ships would come and fill their ship holds with the giant tortoises who live on the islands,” he said. Tourism protects the islands, according to Mr. Lutz, because the money generated from visitors allows for the monitoring and protection of Galápagos National Park and the Galápagos Marine Reserve, which he said is expensive and complicated.

He encourages travelers who are seeking a beach getaway or want to go fishing to consider destinations other than the Galápagos. “These activities exist in many places, and you don’t need to go to the Galápagos to get them,” he said. “The islands are a place for those who are interested in ecotourism.”

Marc Patry, a member of the association’s board and the owner of the Ottawa travel company CNH Tours, which sells Galápagos trips, also said he welcomes land-based tourism to the islands but added that it should be high-quality tourism. “We want a small number of travelers, and they should care about sustainability,” he said.

Overtourism isn’t an issue limited to the Galápagos: Venice, Italy, is among the cities that have been affected by overcrowding from tourism. In December, the World Travel & Tourism Council and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company released a co-authored report, “Coping With Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations,” which looked at the impact overtourism can have.

“Overtourism is becoming more of a problem because the number of travelers globally is increasing,” said Rochelle Turner, the tourism council’s research director. “Tourism can grow, but it needs to do so in a way that’s safe.”

As with any popular destination, the Galápagos should have a long-term plan in place to manage land-based tourism, Ms. Turner said. That plan should involve economists, scientists and nongovernmental organizations. “In an ideal world, these groups would work together and come up with a strategy to protect the environment and the local people and grow the tourism industry at the same time,” she said.

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