How should Galapagos restrict tourism

As reported by various news sources, the Congress of Ecuador is currently debating a draft amendment to the special law that applies in the Galapagos.   The Galapagos was placed on the UNESCO in 2007 endangered heritage list due to the increased tourism immigration and the introduction of alien species, then removed in 2010. It has been worried that this removal will cause increased tourism without proper focus in conservation if the government of Ecuador and Institutions do not respond.

Galápagos is currently inhabited by 25,000 people, the majority support themselves through tourism.  Many conservation groups believe that 20,000 is the proper population that the Galapagos delicate habitat can support, depite the fact that only 3% of the population is used by man.  In 2011, an estimated 170,000 people visited the Galapagos.  I was among the 170,000.  Unlike the majority of these 170,000 tourists, I was making a second voyage. Every day when I am in the Galapagos, I spend a long time pondering the effects of tourism on this special space as I work with locals to help develop their volunteer organization.

I came to the Galapagos barely knowing anything about them.  In my mind they were a place that was exotic, where Charles Darwin made his theories and, as I had read in a book while traveling, a place that has a constant fight with tourism.  Because of this book, although I knew nothing about the climate and very little about what animals I should have on my list to see,  I knew I wanted to help preserve this place for future generations.  It turns out because I read this book I knew more than most people do. I spent my first month volunteering to conserve the Island.  Often the tasks seemed menial and it was easy to loose sight of what we were aiming to do.  The locals we worked with had a small grasp of English and it was hard for them to explain the importance of what we were doing.  I knew the importance because I first read the book.  I knew the importance of the task we were doing even when we were attaching a satellite dish to a bamboo pole so someone had TV, because this task was showing the people in the community that not all foreigners are an open wallet, that some of us care about the Galapagos, it was spending money locally at farms to encourage people to follow the laws and preserve the enchanted islands and not choose to kill whales or turtles or another unique creature because countries were illegally paying money for these goods.

I often am sad as I keep my constant obsession to read all news related to Galapagos, which is flooded by tour operators, and a constant chime even in the backpacking websites, that to really see the Galapagos, you need to take a multi-day tour.  I would argue that to really see the Galapagos you need to spend the night in the highlands and if you need to take a multi-day tour all your doing is checking a sight off your bucket list and Galápagos doesn’t need you as a tourist.

Galápagos new regulations look to prohibit the award of a package of tourism operation to a single person and establish a 5 year ban on the construction or adaptation of tourist accomodations, while a record is made of operators.  Both of these are good things.  Galapagos needs to understand the current tour operators.  It needs to be clearer what are licensed operators in Galapagos and this information should be more publically available.  Often the information that tourist find is actually 3rd parties that are reselling and not direct tours.  Too the lull will hopefully allow locals to innovate and think of different ways to cap into the tourists dollars.  Galapagos is cluttered with restaurants and gift shops and to some extent hotels with the exact same offerings.  There are plenty of opportunities to create different goods.

If I could make the regulations they would go even further, they would mirror more similarly the regulations that are in place in Bhutan, but I don’t think the key is asking people to spend over a certain daily amount, its attracting the people who really want to understand the Galapagos, not those who happen to have enough money to receive another checkbox. I would propose all boat tours must be accompanied with 2 nights learning about the threats to the Galapagos and conservation efforts.  Galapagos puts great effort to minimize impact of tourists.  Most energy is clean.  I would allow tourists to choose between visiting these facilities or actively conserving the Galapagos.  I think adding this would dissuade people with limited vacation time, force people to spend money locally and give more jobs to locals, as well as encourage people to donate more money to help promote these causes.

Maybe its idealistic, but for me Galapagos is an idealistic place.  I think overall the government has done a great job.  The guides are vigilent about ensuring tourists respect the laws in the Galapagos.  Locals are educated about how unique a place they were blessed to be born in.  Most people I met have the idea of having less kids than their parents because they understand that the population can’t be sustained.  The majority of these 25,000 people, even if they do work in the tourist industry, aren’t getting rich off the 170,000 tourists even though most spend over $5000 on their voyage.  Something has to be done and cutting back the tourist alone will result in the local population looking for other means to support themselves, which may involve illegal activities.  If you cut back on the number of tourists but help ensure that the tourists are truly invested in the Galapagos, you’ll distribute wealth more evenly, which will in turn help the locals be encouraged to participate in activities that promote a more sustainable future.

What are your thoughts?  Have you ever wanted to visit the Galapagos, have you pondered the impact of your voyage?


My Obsession…

Today I realized I have an obsession. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Galapagos. My recent addition to using twitter isn’t helping things.  I love reading every news story remotely relating to it, minus some sap promoting their tourist agency.

Looking back I realize I never have written why I love the Galapagos so much.  I remember when I first went there, an eventual friend Lauren, who was making her second voyage, emphatically would tell people “me encanta Galapagos” to litterally anyone who walked by which always resulted in marriage proposals as a solution to how she could stay forever.  I attributed it to not traveling enough and being young, but now I have the same urge…I literally want to go up to people and tell them I love Galapagos. The problem is that I do it in the US, so I don’t get any marriage proposals, just inquisitions into why I am not normal and dont want traditional things, along with a realization that its not good to relate every conversation back to something that happened while I was in Galapagos.

What happened to me?  I have been all over the world. I like gritty backpacking.  It makes me feel that any minute is an adventure.  I long ago concluded that if I had a gun held to my head and was kidnapped and eventually died while overseas, this was probably the best way to go and worth all the risk because I was doing what I loved.  So why do I have such an obsession with a pristine place? a tourist mecca? a place where its totally optional to know the native language?

As a local once told me in error “Galapagos means enchanted and todo es posible aqui.”  Galapagos actually means saddleback, which is far less romantic, so I still like to think of it with the wrong defintion.  I came to Galapagos on a whim because I found a cheap way to go, through volunteering, and I figured I would never be as close and it would never be as cheap to get to again.  It hasn’t been and yet I still go (and I guess when you consider I have seen more animals than most see on any cruise without ever being at sea for more than a day or paying more than $100 it has been).  But I don’t love it for the animals, I love it because of the culture and people.

It is still a small place where everyone basically knows everyone and yet its not nearly as catty as most.  There is still a great sence of family, although the divorce rate is through the ceiling.  What I mean by family isn’t a mom, dad and kids.  Its that your kids can run around the neighborhood and everyone has an eye on them and you talk to your neighbors.  Its the attitude that everything is possible and that you have a support network.  The people of Galapagos make me laugh and rearrange my priorities. They make me realize school intelligence isn’t everything and a job is just a job when the lighter for the stove goes missing and they magiver lighting a piece of paper on fire and then remark “inteligente ecuadoriano”, something I would have never thought to do.

I spent an entire month there realizing that all my computer and math knowledge was of no good when people dont understand the difference between facebook and email and don’t care to learn.  I constantly felt stupid, as I would struggle to machette without getting stabbed with thorns or almost get kicked in the head by walking on the wrong side of a horse or cook without a cookbook.  I would stare in awe as an entire family would each place one ingredient to make a stew blindly and in perfect unison and ask me how to make their kids bilingual and I would try and explain but realize they didn’t even understand how kids learned to talk to remotely understand what I was saying.

For me Galapagos makes the panic go away.  I was always a nervous being but now I just mentally picture the sea and realize there is nothing to worry about when I start to feel overwhelmed.  Its scenary is not what I imagined.   I literally knew nothing when I got there and feel that sadly this is all to common.  People picture a tropical place when they think of exotic things and want to go to places that are tourist destinations without fully understanding the place itself.  Galapagos appears more like the desert combined with iceland than anything else to me.  I love how different it looks.  The weather isn’t perfect, especially if you forget you aren’t a latina and don’t wear sunscreen, but its beautiful.  Its even beautiful at night when I see so many stars that I don’t even recognize the constellations that are common for me and my friends look on in irritation because they have had the stars their entire life and don’t understand how special this is.  Each island is different, reflecting the differences in ages of the islands.  I like to think of San Cristobal, my favorite island, as a well aged wine, and isabela as a young teenage beach week, still smoking and figuring out the world.

Maybe I’ll never fully understand my love.  Maybe it just fell at the right time in my life or maybe I would have always fallen in love with the enchanted island.  All I know is now its the only place that has ever felt like a second home to me.  The good news is despite initially feeling some dumb, I realize how I can help.  Galapagos is a place where you are super aware of the impact of everything you do.  When I visit there I always think of this and with that reflection, I use my knowledge from seeing all of the world to help locals learn different sustainable ways.  Yes sometimes they look at me like I am crazy but sometimes, like when I tell them how to make yogurt rather than buy it, they are happy that I came.