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Category: Travel and Holidays
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Contributor:   responsibletravel
Future for Responsible Tourism in the Galapagos Islands
I recently visited the Galapagos Islands as part of my honeymoon in Venezuela and Ecuador. It was an experience like nothing else and I would recommend that anyone who is considering going there to book their trip today!

The defining moment was when my wife and I spent an hour snorkelling off the island of Bartolome, one of the few islands where you can see penguins.

During that hour we swam with turtles, rays, penguins, sharks and a multitude of fish. I had never experienced anything like this before and it was something which will remain with me forever.

Located roughly 1000 miles West of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are famed for being a prime location for viewing wildlife in an environment which has been largely undisturbed by human development.

Unfortunately the popularity of this wildlife haven threatens to be its downfall, with increasing visitor numbers and conflicting interests between the conservationists, the fishing industry and an increasingly mobile domestic and international tourist market. Added to this is a rapidly expanding population which has boomed since the 1980’s due to the rapid growth of the tourism and fishing industries. To give an idea of the scale of this growth, the population until 1980 was less than 5,000 with 4,000 people visiting the islands each year. In 2006 there is a resident population of 28,000 (increasing at 6.5% p.a.) and around 100,000 visitors a year.

My lasting memory of our time in the Galapagos was our first day on Santa Cruz, the most populated island of the archipelago. To get to the nearest beach from Puerto Ayora, the main town on the island, a path has been created though two and a half kilometres of cactus forest. This is a small indication of where some of the $100 park fees have been spent and is a wonderful way of seeing some of the rugged landscape of Santa Cruz.

Where the path meets the sea the beach is a wide crescent of brilliant white sand with a large pile of dark black volcanic rocks right in its centre, providing a stark contrast with the colour of the sand.

When we arrived there I was initially disappointed that the second beach, which was safe for swimming, was at the end of a long lagoon-like channel that went out to sea round a headland covered by mangroves. As far as swimming went, the water was extremely shallow until you waded out to about thirty metres from the shore. The water was still only four or five feet deep so we stood still, just taking in the surroundings.

My first realisation that we weren’t alone was when I saw an eagle ray move off the bottom just inches from where I was standing. As I was describing this to my wife we saw another shape moving through the water. As it got closer we realised that it was a green turtle. The turtle only diverted from its course when it was only a few feet away from us and noticed that we were standing in its path.

By now we were captivated and were standing rigid with anticipation of what we might see next. In the next ten minutes we saw about ten turtles swimming around us, occasionally coming up to breathe and making a gasping sound as they did so. As we were marvelling at this incredible experience I saw something new break the surface. Unlike the turtles this animal was moving very close to the surface and it wasn’t until it finally breached the surface that we saw the unmistakeable markings of a white tip reef shark.

Part of the attraction and the reason why we had such a great time was due to the fact that we were on a boat with a group of interesting people and there were only 16 of us. On most days we only saw one or two other boats of a similar size but on occasions there would be as many as sixty people on one beach, albeit in different groups.

My experience of the Galapagos Islands was shaped by those moments when we were alone on the water or in a group with our guide. The difference between this and landing on a beach where there are already fifty people in the water all snorkelling towards one turtle was vast.

I was horrified to read in an article in the Guardian (19th April 2006) that a 650 berth cruise ship, the Discovery, will this week set sail for the Galapagos. The reason for my distress is twofold.

Firstly I think that the environmental impact of large cruise ships in the Galapagos has to be extremely detrimental compared to smaller vessels carrying a fraction of the number of people.

When we were on our tour of the islands I spoke to Raoul, our guide, about how this is affecting local people. His feeling was that boats registered in Guayaquil and other places outside of the Galapagos were effectively taking money out of the hands of local people.

Crewed by mainland Ecuadorians or foreigners and supplied with produce outside of the Galapagos, these boats are effectively bypassing any form of economic development on the islands and are utilising their resources for next to nothing.

Secondly I think that tourism in the Galapagos needs to focus on preserving not only the wildlife and its environment but most importantly the experience of viewing that wildlife so that it is a personal and individual experience. Having hoards of tourists descending on a small island will totally destroy the experience of seeing the wildlife of the Galapagos up close and personal and for me this was reason why it was so special.

Should people still travel to the Galapagos?

Tourism in the Galapagos must continue as it is an educational and inspiring place to visit. The important thing will be to manage tourism in order to ensure that the environment is not damaged and that local people benefit from the income that is generated.

In terms of limiting tourist numbers it is up to the government of Ecuador to set limits to growth based upon the carrying capacity of the islands. This is how tourism development has been regulated in areas such as Bhutan and the Inca Trail and is an effective method of limiting environmental degradation.

My tips to tourists travelling to the Galapagos:
I would recommend that anyone travelling to the Galapagos go for as long as they can. We did a four day tour of the northern islands but given the chance we would have done a longer tour which covered the southern islands as well. The following points are tips for ensuring that your visit to the Galapagos is as positive as possible:

• Ask your tour operator if they have a responsible tourism policy. Only travel with operators that can demonstrate that they are doing as much as they can to support conservation efforts and ensure that local people benefit as a result of tourism.
• Consider your environmental impact when travelling. Try to lessen the environmental impact that you have by taking highly polluting articles such as batteries home with you where they can be disposed of safely.
• Travel with a local tour operator. Ensuring that tourism is of maximum benefit to local people is key to the sustainable development of the islands. At present marine wildlife is threatened by illegal fishing and increased pollution. Viable alternatives to fishing need to be created through tourism and this needs to be done through a regulated framework which ensures that the development of tourism in the Galapagos is managed sustainably.

I asked David Blanton, the Executive Director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) for his comments of the future of tourism in the Galapagos:

1. Is there going to be a cap on visitor numbers in order to control tourism development?

To our knowledge, there is no official limit on the number of tourists allowed into the Galapagos Islands. We do not know at this time whether there will be any such limit created or enforced. But we hope there will.

One important limiting factor right now is the number of “cupos” or permits that are allotted to 84 passenger boats operating there. We have been told that if all of the boats were filled year round, there could be up to 189,000 passengers. We are not certain of the accuracy of this figure. Moreover, some travelers come for 3, 5, 7 days, and longer. A 3-day visitor should not be counted the same as a 7-day visitor. Finally, this does not include hotel capacity. Many visitors to Galapagos (25,000+) are Ecuadorians on holiday using local hotels for varying lengths of time. For these reasons, any formulation would probably need to consider visitor-days combined with their distribution and impact in various locations rather than a simple overall visitor count.

2. Do you feel that visitor numbers need to be capped or should there be stricter controls on responsible tourism practices by Galapagos tour operators?

Overall tourism has been beneficial by providing income and jobs. It has provided a reason to protect the islands against total exploitation by extractive industries like commercial fishing. Yet tourism has brought its own unwanted impacts, such as invasive species of plants and animals and incentives for people to migrate to the islands in search of work.

We have reached a point at which it is difficult for scientists, conservationists and authorities to keep up with the impact of tourism growth, given the limited resources they have at this time. For this reason, it can be argued that the number of visitors has outgrown our ability to protect against their impact. What the exact limit should be is unknown, and IGTOA will defer to experts who are on the front lines of conservation. It will, in large part, depend on the resources that can be brought to bear for scientific research, conservation and administration of the islands.

A big problem is governance, the application and enforcement of existing laws. Those in the tourist industry join conservationists in urging the Ecuadorian government to enforce existing rules and regulations provided by the Special Law for Galapagos. For instance, sport fishing is currently being done in the Galapagos Marine Reserve by companies from Ecuador and the United States in flagrant violation of the law. In addition, the size and budget of the Galapagos National Park has been seriously reduced. There have been twelve Park Directors in the past two years. This has seriously affected the ability of the Park to patrol, enforce laws, and protect the islands.

3. Are licensed tour operators required to demonstrate that they are promoting responsible tourism in the way that they act as a company?

Tour companies who are members of IGTOA practice responsible tourism by giving back through conservation projects funded by the donations of member companies.

Ecuadorian tour operators are bound to abide by laws and regulations laid down, and follow itineraries set by the Galapagos National Park. They have their own associations which are quite vocal about lax government enforcement and support. A few have taken on the additional cost of certification by the SmartVoyager program, sponsored by Rainforest Alliance. To become certified, a company must go through a rigorous process that guarantees minimal environmental impact.

Although there have been problems, in all, it has been an effective and well-run system of low-impact, small-scale tourism. One new development, a 500-passenger cruise ship has recently been given access, which causes concern among many about future growth.

4. Are fishermen being offered viable alternatives to illegal fishing through the development of tourism in the Galapagos?

There has been talk of this, and some projects are reportedly underway. Local fishermen are now permitted to take travelers with them to show their local culture. But there are not many opportunities available for fishermen to enter the tourist industry. Lack of education, cultural and language differences, and lack of specialized skills provide barriers to entry for most. These need to be addressed for progress to be made.

Our view at responsibletravel.com
The long term future of the Galapagos lies in setting a balance between protection of the environment, the creation of sustainable local economic development and ensuring that the visitor experience is not diminished. In order to ensure that tourism in the Galapagos remains sustainable only tour operators who show a strong commitment to responsible tourism should be licensed to operate. Visitor numbers should be controlled, but need not be limited as long as measures are put in place to ensure that operators and tourists operate responsibly.

Specific calls:

1. Clear limits to growth need to be set to ensure that tourism in the Galapagos is regulated. The most obvious way to do this will be through the number of permits that are issued.
2. Permits should only be issued to operators who are active in responsible tourism.
3. Government needs to enforce regulations on tourism development especially those relating to environmental protection.
4. More opportunities need to be created for local people through tourism. Key to this will be the provision of viable alternatives to (illegal) fishing.
5. The development of responsible tourism needs to be based on what is appropriate for the Galapagos. Will the licensing of larger vessels increase environmental degradation and detract from the visitor experience?

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