Charles Darwin Avenue, the main strip in
Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos Islands, is lined
with shops that offer diving excursions, boat trips and white
T-shirts emblazoned with blue-footed boobies.
Ana, a young woman
who sells handicrafts and jewelry near the end of the road, heralds
the arrival of a pack of tourists with great hope. On a good day,
she said, maybe five or six people will come into her shop, but on
some days, she lamented, not one person stops by.
"We need more
tourists, not less," she declared in Spanish. "It's difficult to
earn a living now. If they decide to let fewer tourists in, there
will be nobody to sell to. We wouldn't be able to pay rent or even
Ana, who gave only
her first name, is one of a growing number of immigrants from
mainland Ecuador; their arrival has helped to double the population
of the Galapagos Islands over the past 20 years, to about 25,000
people, according to the National Institute of the Galapagos, a
often find themselves at odds with conservation groups, which for
years have advocated that immigration, fueled by escalating numbers
of tourists, and the unwanted species that both groups
inadvertently introduce, have reached levels that the islands'
delicate ecosystem cannot sustain.
The issue reached a
fever pitch this spring when the president of Ecuador, Rafael
Correa, became the first chief executive in memory to publicly
tackle the issue of Galapagos conservancy.
To the delight of
Galapagos watchdog groups, Correa declared in April that the
archipelago was at risk and was a national priority.
economic and social viability... in the Province of Galapagos are
in imminent danger," the president stated in a signed decree. "It
is necessary to define a more appropriate strategy for the control
of invasive species."
He went so far as
to describe the situation as an "institutional, environmental and
social crisis in the islands."
pleased Felipe Cruz, technical director of the Charles Darwin
Foundation, a conservation organization that has been based in
Puerto Ayora since 1959.
for the first time in the history of Ecuador, has recognized this,"
he said. "Now everyone is working toward doing something about
president's decree was the recent decision by the United Nation's
scientific, educational and cultural body, UNESCO, to add the
archipelago to its list of endangered World Heritage
During a meeting in
Christchurch, New Zealand, in late June, the World Heritage
Committee said that the 19 islands of the Galapagos and their
surrounding marine reserve were threatened by invasive species,
growing tourism and immigration.
actions, the UNESCO committee said that the threats it had
identified in previous missions to the islands had intensified. It
made an appeal to the international donor community to work with
the government of Ecuador to support the agenda outlined in
The committee said
that the number of days spent by passengers on cruise ships had
increased 150% over the previous 15 years, an increase that "fueled
a growth in immigration." The ensuing interisland traffic "led to
the introduction of more invasive species," the committee
who works at UNESCO's office in Quito, Ecuador, said that sites on
the endangered list stayed on it for a minimum of one year. They
are sometimes removed immediately after the one-year minimum,
depending on what is done to correct the problems.
included a recommendation to consider a temporary suspension of
residency permits and new permits for tourism and commercial
flights to the islands.
The message taken
by the tourism community: Go to the islands while you can. The
message taken by tour operators: Notice has been served.
Tourism keeps growing
Cruz, born and
raised in the Galapagos, lives in Puerto Ayora, where he rides his
bicycle to his office at the Charles Darwin Research Center, the
CDF's operational and management headquarters.
He coauthored the
recent report "Galapagos at Risk" with the CDF's executive
director, Charles Watkins. A key point in the report is that
between 1990 and 2006, the number of visitors to the Galapagos each
year increased from 40,000 to 140,000.
Cruz, sitting in
front of the research center on a Saturday morning, said that the
more visitors come to the Galapagos, the more people come to the
islands to work. This acceleration of migration leads to the
introduction of new species.
Many of the new
species of insects and invertebrates, the report said, "are
considered as high-risk with the potential to cause severe impacts
to native biodiversity."
The introduction of
certain species could be fatal to the delicate ecosystem, the
"The impact of a
West Nile virus or avian flu here would be disastrous," Cruz
And though the risk
is increasing, flights to the province have doubled in the past
five years, Cruz said, while the number of people inspecting the
planes and everything coming off them has decreased by
population is taxing the island's limited resources, he said,
creating increased demand for basic goods and services such as
water, food, sanitation and fuel. Tourists also require these
"Every visitor has
an impact," he said. "They need to be fed. They use fuel. They need
Cruz, whose father
came to the islands in the 1930s looking for a more peaceful life,
said he hoped that the international community would rally to save
the archipelago and to help it from bending to pressure exerted by
multinational tourism companies.
Currently, a large
cruise company is trying to change the rules so that it can bring
larger ships to the islands than the current 100-person maximum, he
"The Galapagos are
not for the large cruise lines," he insisted. "It's not the
Caribbean. There is no other Galapagos. You can find a beautiful
beach anywhere. Extinction is forever."
environment and relative isolation of the Galapagos have long made
it a destination for nature enthusiasts.
The islands are
best known as the place where naturalist Charles Darwin, visiting
in the 1830s, observed that the archipelago's species, such as its
famed tortoises, finches and iguanas, had evolved different traits
on different islands.
laid the foundation for Darwin's theory of evolution and natural
selection and led to the publication of "On the Origin of Species"
According to the
CDF, because of their relative isolation, the islands still contain
95% of their original biodiversity.
A paradox underlies
the tension between tourism and conservancy on the islands: The
interest in protecting the Galapagos environment runs counter to
the tourism that drives the islands' economy, yet tourism also
depends on the islands maintaining their pristine state.
On a seven-day
cruise of the islands, a tourist is likely to see only two human
settlements, one in Puerto Ayora and one in Puerto Baquerizo
Moreno, the islands' capital.
On boats of no more
than 100 passengers, and some with fewer than 20, visitors are
allowed to sail to certain parts of the islands to hike along
marked trails, weaving through the nesting grounds of countless
birds, including the famed blue-footed boobies, while stepping
around packs of iguanas, which often blend in with the islands'
volcanic-rock floor. Tourists can snorkel while sea lions swim
between their legs. Sea turtles hover an arm's length away, and
Galapagos penguins zip by.
Animals here do not
fear humans because people do not hunt, fish or touch the wildlife.
It is one of the few places on earth where such coexistence between
people and wild animals occurs. Travelers pay hefty sums for this
kind of experience, and it exacts a toll from the tour operators as
well. The park has a long list of rules that the ships must follow,
including a strict prohibition on bringing in food and other
materials, making it much costlier to operate here than in most
parts of the world.
As the government's
and UNESCO's warnings grow louder, the companies that offer tours
here find themselves in what one operator described as a Catch-22.
They know that the Galapagos are desirable because they are
unspoiled and only a limited number of people can enjoy them. But a
decrease in the number of allowed tourists would mean a drop in the
number of customers. Many operators said that would be a small
price to pay.
"Of course we'd
love to see more business, but we don't want it to become
Disneyland," said Allie Almario, vice president of Myths and
Mountains, a tour company based in Incline Village, Nev. "I would
like to see them stick to the cap. They say there is a cap on the
number of tourists, but every year it increases. They should set a
moratorium on that number."
Almario said the
situation had actually improved remarkably since she began
operating in the Galapagos in 1989. She recalls a time when
visitors could smoke cigarettes on the islands and bring food
ashore. Much has changed, she said, as regulations have been put in
place and visitors have become more educated.
The tour companies
here, many of which offer the small, boutique type of travel that
fits perfectly in the Galapagos, are concerned that if the larger
companies can pressure their way past current park regulations, one
of the ominous predictions of the CDF report could become reality:
The present rate of development in the Galapagos will lead to the
failure of tourism and its associated businesses.