Galápagos Tourism Backfires

Famed Charles Darwin Research Station at Risk

It’s often said that tourism is a two-edged sword. If so, then nowhere do both edges gleam more brightly and sharply than in the Galápagos. Now, with a weird, backhand snicker-snack, the tourism sword is slashing at the same renowned scientific institution that it has also helped: the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz island. A squabble over tourist dollars is threatening the survival of the Research Station, which works to protect the flora and fauna that tourists come to see.

For decades, tourism revenues have provided the incentive to protect the archipelago’s unique wildlife. Giant tortoises, Galápagos penguins, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, the distinctive finch species that informed Charles Darwin’s work on evolution—all have inspired tens of thousands of visitors and earned the volcanic archipelago one of the very first World Heritage inscriptions.

Tourist inspects a giant tortoise. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Galápagos tourist inspects a giant tortoise. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Tourism also brings huge risks, fosters greed, and generates unexpected consequences. The stakes are high: In the Galápagos, tourism is growing. Fast. On an archipelago with a resident population of about 30,000, annual tourist visitation has now topped 200,000. Imagine 20 jet loads of 200 tourists arriving every week, and you get the idea. A bit of background will help you understand the current dust-up

Traditional Galápagos Tourism: By Ship

Tourism here comes in two different flavors, one based on sea, one based on land.

The first, by ship, is the classic way to tour the islands. After arrival by plane, the typical international ecotourist transfers immediately to a touring ship for one or two weeks. Ships range in size from a dozen or so passengers up to a little over a hundred. They provide excursions to various parts of the islands, mostly within the Galápagos National Park, which occupies 97 percent of the archipelago’s land area. Visitors take short hikes on designated trails and also may snorkel and dive. A favorite memory from my own visit 18 months ago was of swimming among sea turtles so numerous they were bumping into me. Fabulous!

Park authorities, scientists, and tour operators have carefully worked out excursion timing and size limits so as to avoid any undue disruption to the wildlife. CDRS scientists help by working on problems with invasive species and protection of Galápagos Marine Reserve fauna, such as sharks, tuna, and grouper. For decades, the Galápagos have been regarded one of the world’s best examples of managing tourism to safeguard natural habitat.

Newly arrived visitors transfer to their shipboard tours. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Newly arrived visitors transfer to their shipboard tours. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

The only problem was that many of the local residents weren’t getting much out of it. Tourists would land and sail off into the park, taking their wallets with them. Good ecotourism requires significant benefit to locals, and that wasn’t happening. In the 1990s fishermen rebelled against fishing restrictions, infamously attacking the national park office and killing several giant tortoises to make their point.

The New and Growing Galápagos Tourism: By Land

The need to ensure more tourism revenue for the Galápagos residents has led to the second and fastest growing style of tourism, based on land accommodations and day tours. Some 45 percent of tourists are now land-based—way up from 10 years ago. In principle, this is a good idea, IF well handled. It benefits local communities. Indeed, increasing numbers of fishermen have now switched to operating tour boats, relieving pressure on the fishery.

Also, Ecuadorians unable to afford expensive week-long cruises can now visit more easily. According to national park statistics, about 35 percent of 2013 visitors were Ecuadorean. This is good, too. Geographically and politically, the Galápagos are to Ecuador as Hawaii is to the U.S. Presumably, mainland Ecuadoreans will care more about protecting their Galápagos wonders if they’ve actually seen them. Younger international travelers can now afford to come, as well.

But land tourism is not always being well handled. Unregulated hotels, sport fishing boats, and tour businesses are popping up without quality checks. Although suicidal proposals to bring in large-scale cruise ships have been thwarted, other emblems of mass tourism are creeping in. Cheap T-shirt shops outnumber craft stores that sell quality artisanry. In Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the islands, I saw a ridiculous pink-and-green miniature train towing tourists around the mildly interesting business district. “Disneyfication?” I asked one seasoned observer. “No. Disney would do it better,” came the glum response.

T-shirts for sale in Puerto Ayora. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
T-shirts for sale in Puerto Ayora. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

In short, not the type of tourism likely to fill visitors with an appreciation for the natural treasures and heritage of the Galápagos.

Now, right next door, the Charles Darwin Research Station is caught between these two forces. In July 2014 the mayor of Puerto Ayora forced closure of the Station’s brand new gift shop, in response to claims that it was taking business from souvenir stores downtown.

The bird that launched a thousand T-shirts: blue-footed booby. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
The bird that launched a thousand T-shirts: blue-footed booby. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

After a series of unexpected financial setbacks, loss of gift shop revenue of almost $400,000 a year threatens to close the Station for keeps.

Critical Conservation Science At Risk

For various reasons, the Station has fallen on hard times in recent years, and it shows. When I visited in 2013, deteriorating plaster sculptures greeted visitors at the entrance of the Station’s sprawling campus. Many of the buildings scattered along the winding drive needed a new coat of paint. Tourists themselves have helped keep the place afloat. Even before its merger with National Geographic, Lindblad Expeditions has made a point of inviting donations for conservation here, much of it going to support research at the CDRS. So have many other tour operators.

I had a chance to have dinner then with Swen Lorenz, the current executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, which supports the Station. A self-described “funding entrepreneur,” he was tasked with putting the Station back on a sound financial footing amid a tangle of Ecuadorian legal conditions and a legacy of management problems. We sat on an open restaurant veranda overlooking the main drag in Puerto Ayora, discussing tourism. He is the CDRS’s first nonscientist director and recognized that the Research Station needs to be a science center that also inspires visitors. He was enthusiastic about his plans for the Station: “It needs to be a place where people walk in and say ‘Wow!’” He’s overseen numerous improvements since then.

Now, he’s trying to save it from extermination.

CDRS scientists at work . Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
CDRS scientists at work . Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

The CDRS’s main work remains critically needed science, such as control of invasive species.

“Priorities One, Two, and Three,” Lorenz told me by phone last week. The Galápagos are horribly vulnerable to invasive exotic species that have disrupted the teetery island ecosystems. Rats, fire ants, and blackberry are among the exotic pests. Possibly the worst culprit is a ghastly maggot, the philornis downsi fly, which crawls into the nasal cavities of finch fledglings and devours their brains. Mortality rates among Darwin’s finches have been as measured as high as 95 percent. Every new planeload of tourists, every new shipload of hotel supplies increases the risk of destructive exotics slipping through inspections. More tourism means more invasives.

Forcing closure of the Research Station, I think, would be like sending the lifeguard home after you’ve let all the school children into the pool.

Lorenz says he has secured enough money through an emergency funding campaign to keep the Station open for another month. He maintains the gift shop closure is “illegal,” but fighting it in the courts would take years. A negotiated resolution is the best hope.

Tourist train in Puerto Ayora. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Tourist train in Puerto Ayora. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

What’s Needed

When it comes to the business of tourism, the ultimate product is not just hotels, or wildlife tours, or airplanes, or souvenir shops, but the entire place itself. The tourism industry can be its own worst enemy. Sensitive destinations need permanent stewardship councils that bring everyone to the table, and they need solid research to guide them—no more so than in the Galápagos. The CDRS and the town merchants would do well to hold their noses and work together, for loss of the Station would hurt everyone. Only if tourism businesses, ecologists, government, travelers, and the people of the Galápagos and of Ecuador collaborate to manage the archipelago as a whole, can its quality be sustained.

What if you’re planning a trip there? Absolutely, take a week-long shipboard tour if you can afford it. Spend enough for one with a good guide. But try to add on a few days on one of the islands as well, so that you can get a sense of the other side of the Galápagos. Realize that you, too, are a player. How you spend makes a difference. Try to buy souvenirs made in the Galápagos, or at least in Ecuador. Eat in local places. Skip the T-shirts. Think of every dollar you spend as a vote for that product, that establishment. Tell locals about the natural wonders you’ve seen and the science necessary to protect them and keep tourist dollars coming. And of course, donate for conservation, such as via the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos Conservancy.

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Changing Planet

National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC