Responsible tourism in Galapagos

Responsible tourism in Galápagos

Travel right in Galapagos

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 and Culture in the Galápagos

Cruises and communities

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 among eco commentators to discourage the use of big, high end cruise ships although thankfully the government intervened and the national park now restricts the size of the boats allowed to cruise the islands, with some islands such as Genovesa being limited to boats with no more than forty passengers. Though the maximum size of passengers to be carried is now a hundred passengers (a vast improvement when hundreds were allowed to roam the seas and land), that is still a lot of people landing on a highly protected beach, although they are then divided into small groups of sixteen, each accompanied by a guide.

Not only are these large boats pretty unsightly in such pristine environments (think giant motorhomes that roam the Lake District or La Provence), they also bring little or no money into the local economy. Most cannot access the landing points that other boats can, and there are actually only five licenced boats that can do that within the national park anyway. The boats are very strictly policed, with one operator having its operations stopped last year for having lobster in its freezer, outside of the lobster season. You can read more on that story in Travel Weekly. This same company was also the subject of investigative journalism programme 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.

At Responsible Travel , however, we support slow, sustainable and safe as the way to go Galápagos. Aim for locally owned boats, but if they are super cheap ask all the right questions, as it often means something has been cut along the way, such as decent guide fees. Check out those certified by Rainforest Alliance, as you won’t spot many of the bleach white behemoths there.

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. Such as the eco exemplary Finch Bay Hotel, which has been set up by a cruise company which is clearly making efforts to go green on land, and also support the community. The Galápagos is crying out for a community run network of land based tourism providers, all marketing on one site so that they can get the attention they deserve. But, for now, you need to 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

Travel better in Galapagos

  • 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. Prevention methods are well in place on the ground, sea and air, not only among businesses, but local communities too, with government awareness schemes, inspections and quarantines all the norm. 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.
According to the International Union for Conservation and Nature, the UNESCO danger warning may have been lifted, but “there is still work to be done”
  • Be wary of port-to-port tours as they do only that, allowing you to visit the port towns – wildlife isn’t really an option on these trips, as they are run by boat companies that aren’t permitted to go into the actual Galápagos National Park.
  • Take a lesson from the tortoises here, and slow down. These islands are a long way away, and this really is going to be a trip of a lifetime, so don’t think you can ‘do the Galápagos’ in a weekend. Go for a week at least, for maximum wildlife watching experiences and be sure to spend some of that time on land too.
  • When you are travelling within the national park, you are pretty much guaranteed to get an excellent guide. Because, quite simply, 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. It is also the law that they must be locals. Ecuador is cool that way. This is a country that has ‘good living’ written into its constitution, after all. The 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 working guides are obliged to file a report within 15 days after the end of each cruise or 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 is actually possible to camp here, but only in a few areas, and of course with advanced permission. If you do, there are numerous rules to adhere to, which include no smoking or alcohol in research sites, no fishing, no eating on the beach or in tents and no music except through headphones. And – not sure if it offends the animals or perhaps it’s a Darwin demand – no walking around naked!

For details of where you are allowed to go in the Galápagos, what you can do there as well as more details on regulations and policing, study the National Parks website.
  • 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.
  • There are a number of dive operators, but be very careful to opt for a responsible one. Diving here is not for beginners, with strong currents and sometimes limited visibility.
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 have always been a haven for birding experts and if you aren’t one already, this trip will bring out the birder within. For more information, check out the leading Ecuadorian birding organisation, Aves y Concervación.
  • 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."
Photo credits: [Camping: Michael R Perry] [Land growth: Aah-Yeah] [Cruise ship: Aaron Logan]
Written by Catherine Mack
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