Ecuador to Halt Tourism to the Galapagos?

Rafael Correa, Ecuador's president, recently declared that the Galapagos Islands are suffering a "huge institutional, environmental and social crisis" and suggested temporarily suspending tourism permits and imposing strict population restrictions to prevent further environmental harm. He signed an emergency decree to help the islands, which thousands of tourists visit every year, and urged his cabinet and local authorities to immediately discuss ways of better protecting the country's most popular tourist destination. He did not provide any details about the possible restrictions, but said the country would consider suspending some tourism permits, according to the AP.

 Golden sting rays near the Galapagos Islands

However, Ralph Hammelbacher, president of International Expeditions, a tour operator that has been running 10-day itineraries to the Galapagos Islands for 20 years, says that the AP story is misleading. "International Expeditions' Galapagos voyages are continuing as scheduled," he stresses in an e-mailed communication with Travel Agent, "and none of this affects the programs or conditions at any of the visitor sites and the fantastic experience that visitors enjoy."

Bartolome Island, part of the Galapagos Islands chain (Photo courtesy of Amercrombie & Kent Inc.)

Referring to the AP article, he clarifies, "Some stories are saying that the government is suspending tourism to the Galapagos. That is not correct. They are talking about suspending new tourism permits, not taking away permits from existing legitimate operators."

If that is the case, then travel agents do not need to worry about popular, lucrative tours to the Galapagos becoming extinct.

In fact, people should embrace the conservation efforts, Hammelbacher says. "We view this initiative in a positive light. Immigration from the mainland, illegal fishing, excessive tourism and activities that can introduce alien species to the Galapagos are ongoing issues that have been of great concern to us," he says. "Previous Ecuadorian governments have done little or nothing, and in most cases made the situation worse. Now the government finally appears willing to take decisive action on some of these matters."

An artist drawing a sea lion on the Galapagos Islands

According to him, that action will involve preserving the status quo of the existing stable of tour operators by barring new suppliers from getting tourist permits.

"Tour operators such as International Expeditions who operate within the framework of the regulations and take care to minimize their impact on the islands (and work to give back to them) not only have nothing to fear," Hemmelbacher continues, "but rather stand to benefit from measures that will help the islands' long-term health."

"We believe this is a case where the media has taken the president's remarks out of context," writes Pamela Lassers, director of media relations for Abercrombie & Kent, in an e-mail to Travel Agent.

"It is incorrect to report that the Galapagos may be 'closed to tourists,' when what has really been discussed is 'no more permits being issued,' which has been the status quo since 1998," she continues.

"President Correa's pronouncement comes as a high-level delegation from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee visits Ecuador," Lassers says. "Its aim is to study the state of the Galapagos and make recommendations next June on whether to include the islands on their list of the world's most endangered sites."

A blue-footed booby on the Galapagos Islands (Photo courtesy of Interntional Expeditions)

The Charles Darwin Foundation has voiced "strong support" for President Correa's declaration.

President Correa's statement was picked up by the international media, and was quoted in numerous articles and news reports, many of which did not accurately portray the president's message.

One headline broadcast mistakenly, "Tourists May Be Banned from Galapagos Islands." There is a growing consensus that tourism development needs to be contained and regulated; however, no one in Ecuador's government has called for a total ban on tourism.

In a statement issued April 24, the country's Ministry of Tourism reiterated that "all tourism activity...is being carried out normally" and that it is studying "further limiting tourism arrivals" and "limiting the number of tourism permits."

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