Responsible tourism in Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands National park was one of the first to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978, so it was a shock when this wonderful, remote archipelago with its unique ecosystems was put on UNESCO’s "red list" of endangered sites in 2007, with concerns about booming population and tourism, overfishing and the introduction of invasive species. As a result of the Ecuadorian government plunging vast investments into building and supporting nature tourism here in the 1980s, tourism numbers went from 11,000 in 1979 to 180,000 in 2012. Most of them packed onto, what was thought at the time, to be the good, ecological answer: Floating hotels. Luckily, action was taken quickly; the number of boats reduced and the population boom of Ecuadorians coming to live here in order to cash in on the cruises has eased off, resulting in its UNESCO danger warning being removed in 2010. It is still one of the most spectacular places to visit on this earth, but just go carefully.

People & culture

Cruising for a bruising

The Galápagos is one case where we can definitely say that we do NOT need a bigger boat. Or, indeed, another boat. Once thought of as the most ecologically sound way to bring tourists into the national park, it can be like rush hour at Heathrow Airport runway out there sometimes.

There has been a strong movement  to dicourage the use of big, high end cruise ships and thankfully the Ecuadorian government intervened and the national park now restricts the size of the boats allowed to cruise the islands, to100 passengers maximum. Some islands, such as Genovesa, are limited to boats with no more than 40 passengers. The boats are strictly policed, with one operator having its operations stopped for having lobster in its freezer, outside of the lobster season. This same company was also the subject of Channel 4's Dispatches, which uncovered alleged unethical and illegal working conditions. The company denies the allegations, but just to say, the world is watching out for the suspicious appearance of bruises. The Galápagos cannot afford any environmental blows.

Conscious Community Tourism

There has been so much focus on the cruising industry in the Galápagos that small, locally owned businesses on land have been jumping up and down for attention, but not managing to create the waves they need to. They are harder to market, especially if they are not linked to one of the cruise boat companies, as some hotels are, but do check out our excellent selection of Galápagos land based holidays. These support local communities, allow you stay and explore the islands long after the daily cruise passengers have left, are a great option for those travelling with children - and are often cheaper than staying onboard a boat, too! So do a Darwin here, and just go exploring.

Further reading from BBC, International Union for Conservation and Nature, Galapagos at Risk
Simon Forster – Co-founder of our supplier, The Beyond Tourism Co:
“Land-based tours will take you exploring around the islands of the national park and you will meet some of the communities that live there - a rare chance to experience the other face of Galápagos beyond the cruise ships. You'll come face to face with the famously tame wildlife, meet the Ecuadorians that are proud to call themselves Galapagueños and learn about the complex issues facing this extraordinary World Heritage listed environment.”

Responsible tourism tips

A good place to start if you want to find an ecologically sound boat trip is the Smart Voyager certification, created in 2000 in partnership with Rainforest Alliance. Local conservation organisation Conservación y Desarrollo set it up to protect these “living laboratories”, as well as the people who live and work there. It is awarded to boat operators and tour operators who meet Rainforest Alliance’s stringent criteria that protect both people and place, making changes such as using lead free and TBT-free paint, producing fresh water with a desalinisation plant on board, using careful fuel management systems and improving their conditions for workers. The label is now also used on the land, certifying certain accommodations with their Smart Voyager Earth label. The primary concern here is the introduction of invasive species, which come in via boat and via people. It is vital, therefore to adhere to ‘biosecurity’ rules and regulations, such as having your aircraft fumigated, being asked to stay within marked trails, and never touching animals. In fact, the rule is to stay at least two metres away from the animals. Amazing how many supposedly responsible holiday company photographs have images of kids almost nose to nose with a Galápagos seal or almost sitting astride a turtle. When you are travelling within the national park, you are pretty much guaranteed to get an excellent guide, because it is the law. First, it is the law that you must have a guide to begin with, and second, it is the law that guides must be fully trained. They must also be locals. Courses are led by the Directorate of the Galápagos National Park where students train in history, ecology and conservation, geology and volcanology, environmental interpretation and ethics, to name but a few. The guides are obliged to file a report within 15 days after the end of each trip, so if you think anything is amiss, you can report it to your guide, knowing that there is a legal procedure for follow up. Do NOT feed or touch the wildlife. End of. When taking photos of the animals, do not use flash photography. If you are a professional photographer, you need special permission to shoot here.
It may seem obvious, but it is amazing how many people think it is fine to stick stones in their pockets as souvenirs. It isn’t fine. Same goes for black coral, shells, volcanic rocks, animal parts, native wood or flora. Same goes for if you see them for sale anywhere else.
Galápagos National Park rules: “You can't write names and phrases of any kind on rocks, walls, trees or other. This practice of bad manners and rudeness also damages the landscape. Remember, your immortality is not more important than the unique nature of the islands.”
Keep Galápagos litter-free and take everything you brought in back out with you again. Smoking and camp fires are strictly prohibited within the Galápagos National Park, as they are a danger to the flora and fauna. As the warning notices will tell you, "Non-compliance will result in immediate suspension of your trip and/or work schedule". Fishing is prohibited from all tour boats and you should report anyone doing so to the national park. This is something that is taken seriously and in fact, businesses don’t hesitate in grassing up their mates in this part of the world because their livelihoods depend on the islands staying clean and green. There are speedboat trips available around the archipelago which are, well, on so many levels, just wrong. The Galápagos are a bit greedy and needy when it comes to getting all that Ecuadorian tourist adulation and adoration. Going to Ecuador and not spending serious time on the mainland is a bit like going to Sicily but never bothering with Rome, Florence, Tuscany or the Dolomites. So, yes, go for the iguanas and islets, but don’t go all that way and miss the Andes and Amazon, World Heritage cities and coast.
Dominic Hamilton, from our supplier Metropolitan Touring:
“The biggest growth in the Galápagos has been on the land, which we welcome. But after years of very strict regulation on the water, hotels are not regulated as much as we would like, without the same stringent system of licences, water treatment regulations and, in some cases, no community involvement. I would recommend that visitors who want to spend time on the land ask their operator what they are doing for the community, not only financially but in terms of education about the islands, their importance and unique status.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: pantxorama] [Cruising for a bruising: Aaron Logan] [Camping at Puerto Grande: Michael R Perry]