Tour Operator Association Calls to Limit Land-Based Tourism in Galápagos

The International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) is calling upon the government of Ecuador to limit land-based tourism growth in the Galápagos Islands and to better regulate this rapidly growing sector of the islands’ tourism industry. The request comes on the heels of the recently released “2023 State of Conservation Report” by UNESCO, which raised concerns about unsustainable tourism growth in the islands.

In a letter to Mauricio Efraín Baus Palacios, Ecuador’s permanent UNESCO delegate, IGTOA asked the government of Ecuador to make good on its 2017 commitment to adopt a zero-growth Galápagos tourism strategy and to regulate land-based tourism as carefully as it has regulated ship-based tourism. Both Lazare Eloundou, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and Tim Badman, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Heritage Program, received copies of the letter.

Both IGTOA, a 501c3 non-profit founded in 1997, and UNESCO have been sounding the alarm over Galápagos tourism growth and its potentially disastrous consequences for more than two decades. In 2007, UNESCO took the extraordinary step of adding the islands to its “List of World Heritage in Danger,” citing uncontrolled development of tourism as a factor in its decision. Although the islands were removed from the list in 2010, tourism growth has since continued unabated, the period of the pandemic notwithstanding.

Statistics published by Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism show that tourist arrivals have increased steeply since then, from just over 170,000 in 2010 to more than 270,000 in 2019 (nearly a 60 percent increase). In April, the Ministry of Tourism celebrated the arrival of a record 32,509 visitors in March, a 24 percent increase over March 2019, and announced a new flight to the islands from the city of Manta, Ecuador, which will continue to fuel tourism growth. If the current growth rates continue, the Galápagos will welcome 1 million annual visitors by 2041.

The UNESCO report notes that in 1998 Ecuador placed a firm cap on the total capacity of the Galápagos passenger fleet. This cap placed a de facto limit on the number of ship-based passengers that can visit the islands annually. One hundred percent of the growth in tourist arrivals since then is the result of the ever-increasing popularity of land-based tourism in the islands, facilitated in part by a huge increase in the number of hotels and overnight rentals operating in the islands.

According to IGTOA board president Jim Lutz of Vaya Adventures, the issue isn’t that ship-based tourism is necessarily better than land-based tourism. “Many of our members sell land-based tours. But it needs to be as well-regulated and well-managed as the ship-based sector of the industry is,” he said. “For many years, Ecuador’s management of ship-based tourism in the Galápagos has served as a model for the rest of the world for how tourism and nature can successfully coexist. We believe a similar approach needs to be adopted with respect to land-based tourism. It is simply not sustainable to have never-ending tourism growth of any kind in a place like the Galápagos.”

Marcy Patry, of CNH Tours and an IGTOA board member who has worked for the Charles Darwin Research Station and UNESCO, worries that the consequences could be dire if land-based tourism growth isn’t effectively addressed soon. “The Galápagos Islands are among the world’s most ecologically pristine and intact natural environments,” said Patry. “They are home to many species found nowhere else on Earth and they are incredibly fragile. Well-managed tourism can continue to play an important role in the ongoing protection of the islands. But it’s a double-edged sword. Uncontrolled growth and no plan to deal with it is a potential recipe for disaster.”

According to scientists, uncontrolled tourism growth poses several serious threats to the Galápagos Islands. Chief among them is the potential for devastating new invasive species to arrive as cargo shipments and passenger plane arrivals increase. 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, says IGTOA.

Concrete actions that IGTOA has suggested to limit the growth on land-based tourism are increasing the visitor fees substantially, to make them more in line with other premier international nature destinations such as the Serengeti and putting a cap on the total number of hotels in the islands or on the total number of land-based visitors. There is an absolute limit on the number of berths on vessels in the Galápagos, and it creates an absolute ceiling on the number of vessel-based visitors, says IGTOA. A similar approach could be adopted for hotels and land-based tourism, and this would help protect the Galápagos from the immense pressure for continuous growth that has plagued so many other destinations worldwide.


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