Galapagos Islands Tourism
Famed Charles Darwin Research Station at Risk
It’s often said that tourism is a two-edged sword. If so, then nowhere do both edges gleam more brightly and sharply than in the Galápagos. Now, with a weird, backhand snicker-snack, the tourism sword is slashing at the same renowned scientific institution that it has also helped: the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz island. A squabble over tourist dollars is threatening the survival of the Research Station, which works to protect the flora and fauna that tourists come to see.
For decades, tourism revenues have provided the incentive to protect the archipelago’s unique wildlife. Giant tortoises, Galápagos penguins, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, the distinctive finch species that informed Charles Darwin’s work on evolution—all have inspired tens of thousands of visitors and earned the volcanic archipelago one of the very first World Heritage inscriptions.
Tourism also brings huge risks, fosters greed, and generates unexpected consequences. The stakes are high: In the Galápagos, tourism is growing. Fast. On an archipelago with a resident population of about 30, 000, annual tourist visitation has now topped 200, 000. Imagine 20 jet loads of 200 tourists arriving every week, and you get the idea. A bit of background will help you understand the current dust-up
Traditional Galápagos Tourism: By Ship
Tourism here comes in two different flavors, one based on sea, one based on land.
The first, by ship, is the classic way to tour the islands. After arrival by plane, the typical international ecotourist transfers immediately to a touring ship for one or two weeks. Ships range in size from a dozen or so passengers up to a little over a hundred. They provide excursions to various parts of the islands, mostly within the Galápagos National Park, which occupies 97 percent of the archipelago’s land area. Visitors take short hikes on designated trails and also may snorkel and dive. A favorite memory from my own visit 18 months ago was of swimming among sea turtles so numerous they were bumping into me. Fabulous!
Park authorities, scientists, and tour operators have carefully worked out excursion timing and size limits so as to avoid any undue disruption to the wildlife. CDRS scientists help by working on problems with invasive species and protection of Galápagos Marine Reserve fauna, such as sharks, tuna, and grouper. For decades, the Galápagos have been regarded one of the world’s best examples of managing tourism to safeguard natural habitat.
The only problem was that many of the local residents weren’t getting much out of it. Tourists would land and sail off into the park, taking their wallets with them. Good ecotourism requires significant benefit to locals, and that wasn’t happening. In the 1990s fishermen rebelled against fishing restrictions, infamously attacking the national park office and killing several giant tortoises to make their point.