The International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) has called upon the government of Ecuador to limit land-based tourism growth in the Galapagos Islands and to regulate more carefully this rapidly-growing sector of the islands’ tourism industry.
In a letter sent to Ecuador’s Tourism Minister, Enrique Ponce de León on Feb. 5, IGTOA expressed its concern that the rate of growth in land-based tourism over the last decade is unsustainable and may result in irreversible harm to the islands’ famed ecosystems and extraordinary wildlife.
Between 2007 to 2016, according to Galapagos National Park statistics, overall visitor arrivals in the Galapagos Islands increased by 39 percent (from about 161,000 to over 225,000). During that same period, the number of visitors participating in land-based tours increased from around 79,000 to 152,000 (a 92 percent increase), while ship-based tourism actually decreased, from approximately 82,000 visitors to just over 73,000 (an 11 percent drop).
“Many of our member companies sell land-based tours to the Galapagos. We are not opposed to land-based tourism per se, and, properly regulated, we support it,” said Jim Lutz, IGTOA’s Board President and the President of Vaya Adventures. “But the reality is that 100 percent of the growth in Galapagos tourism in the last 10 years is due to growth in land-based tourism. And unlike ship-based tourism, where there is a de facto limit on the total number of passengers, there is no limit whatsoever on the number of people who can engage in land-based trips. It is simply not sustainable to have never-ending growth in land-based tourism in this fragile environment.”
From the 1970s to the early 2000s, the vast majority of Galapagos tourists participated in ship-based tourism, which has long been recognized internationally as a model for limited, well-regulated tourism. Ecuador’s government has placed stringent quotas on the total number of berths (beds) allowed on the Galapagos cruise ship fleet and has placed a cap of 100 as the maximum number of passengers any ship can carry. There are no similar restrictions or regulations governing land-based tourism. If the current rate of growth continues unabated, there will be more than one million visitors per year in the Galapagos Islands in less than 35 years.
The international media is beginning to take note of the potential implications of this uncontrolled tourism growth. Both CNN and guidebook publisher Fodor’s recently placed the islands on their lists of destinations not to visit in 2018, citing concerns about the increasingly negative impacts of tourism there.
In 2007, UNESCO took the extraordinary step of placing the islands on its List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in response to a variety of threats, including unrestrained tourism and population growth. The islands were removed from the list in 2010, but in July 2016 UNESCO once again rang the alarm bells by releasing a report that cited Ecuador’s lack of a clear strategy to discourage rapid tourism growth as a source of grave concern.
“There’s no other place on Earth like Galapagos, a place where you can really get up close and personal with the wildlife,” says IGTOA board member Marc Patry, of IGTOA member company CNH Tours. “I’ve always been impressed by the work the government of Ecuador has done to strictly manage ship-based tourism there. But frankly, I’m not seeing any evidence that it’s dealing with land-based tourism with a similar degree of concern. We’re seeing a tsunami of growth in that sector. Unless something is done soon, it risks undermining all the good work that has been done to date,” said Patry, who was with the Charles Darwin Research Station for four years, followed by 11 years working at UNESCO’s World Heritage Center.
According to scientists, uncontrolled tourism growth poses several serious threats to the Galapagos Islands. Chief among them is the potential for devastating new invasive species to arrive as cargo shipments and passenger plane arrivals increase. Highly invasive Wild Blackberry, for example, has led to the loss of 99 percent of endemic Scalesia forests on the two largest islands, Isabela and Santa Cruz. With any increase in land-based tourism comes more shipments of cargo, more infrastructure, more roads, and more pressure for continued growth, something that will only become harder to stop the longer it continues.