On the origin of tourists: Humans, ecology clash on Galapagos

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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 eat."

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 government agency.

These residents 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.

"The ecological, 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."

Correa's statement pleased Felipe Cruz, technical director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, a conservation organization that has been based in Puerto Ayora since 1959.

"The government, for the first time in the history of Ecuador, has recognized this," he said. "Now everyone is working toward doing something about it."

Bolstering the 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 sites.

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.

Commending Correa's 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 Correa's decree.

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 added.

Maurice Castillo, 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.

Correa's decree 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 report warned.

"The impact of a West Nile virus or avian flu here would be disastrous," Cruz said.

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 20%.

The surging 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 basics. 

"Every visitor has an impact," he said. "They need to be fed. They use fuel. They need water."

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 said.

"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." 

Catch-22

The pristine 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.

Those observations laid the foundation for Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection and led to the publication of "On the Origin of Species" in 1859.

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.

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