The Unexpected Dangers and Benefits of Tourism in the Galápagos Islands

Behind Tortoise (Carla)

The Galápagos tortoise, classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, is probably the archipelago’s most iconic species. PHOTO COURTESY OF MILTON ULLOA.

BY JIM MALVEN 
ASSISTANT EDITOR

An exploration of the environmental and economic factors surrounding tourism in the Galápagos Islands from the classroom and the field.


When I was first accepted in the summer of 2015 to participate in a Westminster travel course to the Galápagos Islands, I did not think about how my visit to the Islands could possibly cause them any harm. Instead of worrying about the consequences of my visit, I focused on the idea that in less than a year I would be in a nature-lover’s paradise on the Equator, surrounded by exotic species and a living laboratory where Charles Darwin formed his theory of natural selection. I dreamed about snorkeling with rays and turtles, walking barefoot on beaches covered with sea lions and seeing enormous, 100-year-old Galápagos tortoises. However, I never thought that I could endanger these creatures by visiting the Galápagos.

The idea that tourism in the Galápagos is a complex issue with positive and negative aspects first occurred to me last spring, when I participated in an orientation course along with nine other Galápagos-bound students. The class, co-taught by biology professors Dr. Irene Unger and Dr. Dawn Holliday, covered topics such as the islands’ histories, formations and native species, Darwin’s theory and issues currently facing the Galápagos, including tourism.

I was interested in tourism not just because I would soon become a tourist but also because, after learning more about the subject, I realized that I faced the dilemma of wanting to visit the Islands but also not wanting to disturb them. I continued to study the effects of tourism, hoping to find out whether it is positive or negative for the Galápagos’ ecosystems, organisms and residents — and whether I should feel guilty about visiting one of the few relatively untouched places left on Earth.

The Dangers of Tourism

The islands of the Galápagos are located roughly 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian mainland – the nearest landmass – and were inaccessible to humans from the time they rose up as volcanoes about four million years ago until the late second millennium. Today, however, more than 200,000 tourists flock to the Galápagos each year. With them, they bring threats of pollution and invasive species and promote further settlement in an archipelago that already has 30,000 permanent residents on just four populated islands.

When I asked my group’s guide, Milton Ulloa, about the effects of tourism on the Galápagos, he first commented on population growth.

“Six years is not much time,” he said, referring to the length of his career, “but during those years, the number of people that have come to stay on the Islands – the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz and Isabela, mainly – has increased really, really quick[ly].”

Indeed, the Galápagos’ population is over six times what it was four decades ago, and it more than doubled between 1991 and 2007. Although this trend is due in part to an oil boom and a developing sea cucumber fishing industry, the Galápagos Conservancy says that the archipelago’s population growth is mostly a result of tourism.

As the number of tourists to the Galápagos increases, so does the potential for local residents to profit off of them. Given this financial opportunity, hundreds of mainland Ecuadorians continue to settle and set up businesses on the islands. The migration of mainlanders was quite evident in Puerto Villamil, a small town on the southeastern edge of Isabela Island, as almost everyone I encountered there spoke Spanish, Ecuador’s official and most spoken language.

Beach (5)

Puerto Villamil. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.

Something else I noticed in Puerto Villamil was a large number of children, which Ulloa also discussed.

“When you observe the inhabited islands, like Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal, you see that there are so many kids,” he said. “Once in a moment, all those kids are going to become adults, and all of them are going to look for space; all of them are going to form a family, and there [are] going to be more and more necessities for the locals.”

These necessities include not just homes, stores and restaurants but also transportation. The Galápagos now has three airports, as opposed to just one in the 1970s, and the Islands receive more carbon dioxide emissions than ever before.

International travel in particular increases the risk of introducing potentially invasive species into the Galápagos. Planes and boats may carry rodents, and travelers can unknowingly bring in seeds, insects and other parasites. These organisms can be harmful in any ecosystem, but the native plants and animals of the Galápagos are especially vulnerable, for they evolved together in extreme isolation for millions of years and have not had time to adapt to their new competitors.

Opuntia cactus on Baltra Island

The Opuntia cactus (i.e. prickly pear) is one of many native plant species threatened by introduced species. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.

For example, introduced plants such as blackberry, guava and quinine, all of which were brought to the Galápagos during the 20th century, dominate native species by germinating much more rapidly, being able to survive in a wider range of environments, blocking out sunlight or having larger seedbanks. The Islands are so susceptible to invasive species that scientists and conservationists consider them “the single greatest threat to the terrestrial ecosystem of the Galápagos,” the Galápagos Conservancy says.

While residents do play a role in the introduction of foreign species, it is often tourists who actually transfer species and substances to the Islands – and they come from dozens of environments that contain hundreds of unique organisms.

As tours continue to get people closer to wildlife, visitors also have more chances to physically harm wildlife (intentionally or unintentionally), and animals recognize that.

“The animals are starting to become scared when they see humans, and that is really, really new, because normally, animals in the Galápagos are not afraid of humans,” Ulloa said.

While snorkeling near Isabela Island during my sixth day in the Galápagos, I saw a sea turtle swimming next to me. I was so excited that I reached my arm out to touch the turtle, but then, remembering what Ulloa had said about respecting the wildlife, pulled it back at the last second. I knew that if I made contact with the turtle, I could not only injure it but also frighten it away from humans, preventing other tourists from having a similar up-close experience.

To counteract tourists encroaching on animals, the Galápagos National Park mandates, as part of its 14 park rules, that visitors must maintain six feet of space between them and park wildlife at all times.  Ninety-seven percent of the Galápagos is national park, so park rules apply almost everywhere in the archipelago, but that does not guarantee that tourists will obey or respect the rules. Park guides can be of great service here – and Ulloa said that explaining the rules is a guide’s “most important role” – yet no one can require tourists to be accompanied by a guide. Without a guide, visitors lack both an expert who can explain park regulations as well as a monitor who can enforce them. The six-foot restriction seems pretty obvious to me now, but I might not have been so mindful if Ulloa had not reminded my group about it periodically.

Positive Aspects of Tourism

Tourism has certainly created problems for the Galápagos’ ecosystems, but it does have some notable upsides. One major benefit of tourism is that it promotes education and conservation. This can be as simple as tourists experiencing the purity of the Galápagos and thinking about how human actions have taken that purity away from most other places. This reflection can then make people more aware of their actions in the natural world.

My trip, for instance, has made me more conscious of my role in climate change. On Fernandina Island, I saw dozens of dead marine iguanas, which had starved to death due to El Niño events wiping out the algae that they heavily rely on for food.

Marine Iguana Skeleton

This marine iguana likely starved to death as part of a chain reaction started by El Niño activity and influenced by climate change. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.

El Niño is a cyclical weather pattern in the Pacific region that involves a lowering of atmospheric pressure, an increase in precipitation and a warming of ocean temperature, and it can be very catastrophic. When ocean temperatures rise, water loses nutrients, algae struggles to survive and iguanas struggle to find food. Although El Niño events have occurred every two to seven years for centuries, scientists believe that a warming climate can intensify their effects.

Another way that tourism promotes conservation is by being the main fundraiser for conservation organizations like the Galápagos Conservancy and Charles Darwin Foundation. These organizations aim to protect the Galápagos’ native species by researching introduced species and sustainability issues and monitoring native populations. In 1997, the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galápagos National Park Service launched Project Isabela, a program that successfully eradicated goats from Pinta Island by 2003 and goats, pigs and donkeys from Santiago Island by 2006. Previously, those large mammals had overgrazed vast areas of vegetation, causing declines in tortoise and bird populations; however, with Project Isabela complete, native species have made considerable comebacks in recent years.

Lastly, tourism is generally economically beneficial for Galápagos residents. With an average annual revenue of $418 million, the tourism industry makes up 51 percent of the Galápagos economy and provides a living for the majority of citizens.

“If you consider that tourism is the most important activity for the locals and that the locals need to find a way to survive, it is not bad,” Ulloa said.

Finding a Balance

However, there are still obviously some negative factors, and with that in mind, Ulloa said that there must be a balance between conservationism and tourism. He suggested establishing rules that “benefit both conservation and the survival for the people who live [in the Galápagos].” Ulloa said these could include implementing specific time limits for locations and limiting the number of visitors to the Galápagos.

Each day, my group had a specific itinerary of timed events, to avoid running into other groups and overwhelming the animals. However, there is not yet a limit on tourism to the Galápagos.

“We need to finish the law to establish the number of visitors that can visit Galápagos and stay on the Islands,” Ulloa said, adding that this is especially necessary for unguided visitors, because they can determine which sites they visit, what they do and how long they stay.

He also said that if the Ecuadorian government does not create a visitor limit, the number of tourists, which nearly doubled from 91,356 to 180,831 between 2003 and 2012, will continue to expand.

However, Fernando Icaza, who guided my group in the mainland city of Guayaquil, said that tourism in the Galápagos is growing at a “manageable” rate of seven percent. He added that most international travelers are more interested in vacationing at popular consumer attractions like Disneyworld.

Either way, Ulloa said that the Galápagos National Park has been improving on regulating tourist activities within the park.

He also emphasized the importance of education in protecting the Galápagos, not just in communicating and explaining park rules but also in teaching people – especially children – the value of conservation.

That leaves invasive species as the last major issue associated with tourism. Invasive species have been huge problems in recent decades, but Project Isabela completely eradicated goats – perhaps the most destructive species – from three islands, and an organization known as SICGAL (Quarantine Inspection System for Galápagos) now scrutinizes everyone who enters and leave the Galápagos. My fellow passengers and I had to fill out forms and answer questions about animals, seeds and various substances on our way into and out of the archipelago.

What You Can Do

The Galápagos Islands are highly protected, but they are still threatened by a growing population, invasive species and disrespectful tourists. So, what can you do to help?

First, you can donate to the Charles Darwin Foundation, Galápagos Conservancy, or any other conservation organization. Almost all of these groups are nonprofit and rely heavily on donations (in addition to tourism) to fund their research.

Second, if you are visiting the Islands, one of the easiest yet most helpful things you can do is follow the park rules. Besides the six-foot rule, other regulations include not feeding the animals, staying on marked trails and disposing of waste properly.

So, feel free to visit the Galápagos. If tourists follow these guidelines and organizations continue to work to protect the Galápagos environment, the Galápagos will remain one of the most unique, bizarre and awe-inspiring places in the world – a place where people can take in incredible natural beauty without destroying it.

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