Tourism on the Galapagos Islands - The Park Management Service Plan


Tourism in the Galapagos Islands, including cruises and land tours, began in the mid-sixties, grew steadily in the seventies and exploded in the eighties. The advent of ecotourism was part of a larger phenomenon explained by a values and lifestyle typology developed by SRI International in 1978. Its "VALS" study of consumer types demonstrated how Americans' values influence their spending patterns. Researchers found that tastes, interests and ideas of entertainment, had begun to change, predicting that the fastest growing markets would not be for mass-produced products and experiences. Baseball stadiums were starting to sell cassis-flavored sorbet. Mail order sales, once the province of Sears and Montgomery Wards, were being taken over by the boutiques.

Nowhere was this increasing sophistication and market specialization more vividly seen than in the tourism industry. People were still flocking to theme parks and Mt. Rushmore, but a growing number of vacationers were starting to seek more sophisticated pleasures. They were choosing country inns over the Hilton, opting for active vacations over sunbathing, seeking not simply to relax but to be stimulated on their trips. Much to the surprise of most tourism promotion professionals, niche travel markets, were starting to blossom. Cultural tours and ecotourism, once the little noticed fringe of mainstream tourism, were about to become big business.

Managing Tourism on the Galapagos Islands Air travel to the Galapagos Islands gave the visitor industry a big boost. When, ever so briefly, the Galapagos Islands became of strategic military importance, Ecuador granted permission to the United States to build an Air Force base on Baltra Island following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Baltra Airport remained a seldom used facility until 1968 when it expanded, and flights began twice a month. A second airport with flights from the mainland has been added on San Cristóbal Island, and a smaller third airport on Isabela Island in the town of Puerto Villamil now receives flights from Baltra.

Places without much in the way of attractions can afford to cater to ubiquitous tourists who arrive unannounced and go where they like. But regions that are overrun with visitors usually seek ways to mitigate the impact of this significant economic resource. Adopting restrictive policies makes good long-term business sense by ensuring that the points of interest remain in the condition that made them tourist magnets in the first place so that the tourist destination's reputation is perpetuated. With Galapagos Island tourism also comes the need to provide food and shelter for those who provide services to the visitors. Economists estimate that at the current rate, the population of the Galapagos Islands will grow to 40,000 by 2015 and to 80,000 by 2027.

Fortunately the Galapagos National Park Service has taken steps to protect its vast multi-faceted tourist attraction by establishing official visitor sites where human disturbance won't degrade the environment, and visitors can be limited according to each area's capacity. The Park Service began designating these sites and developing marked trails in 1974.

Galapagos N.P. Official Visitor Sites
Today the Galapagos Park Service has designated over 50 official land sites spread throughout the islands, totaling less than 1% of the National Park area. Visitors are also allowed in the towns and designated public areas as well at a few sites not within the Park Service's Management Plan. The land sites are categorized according to their fragility as follows:

Extensive Use Zone (Restricted)
These are sites where particular species flourish, wildlife is varied and the terrain distinctive, making for interesting sightseeing. Visitor activity is tightly controlled, and the number of visitors is limited to groups of sixteen, one at a time. The sites are used by smaller vessels. Only small Galapagos Island Cruises visit these zones.

Intensive Use Zone
These sites generally have extraordinary scenery and biological and geological diversity enjoyed by visitors without specialized interests. Limitations are fewer than in the "Restricted" category, and a larger number of groups at a time are accommodated. The sites are used by small to large vessels. Many Galapagos Island Cruises visit these zones.

Recreational Zone
These sites are located on the four inhabited islands and have the fewest restrictions. Camping and hiking are allowed, providing a less expensive way to experience the Galapagos.

Only modes of travel, water sports and fishing that are considered compatible with sustainability are allowed on the islands. Aerial tourism and floating hotels (other than boats) are prohibited. Navigated tours are divided into three categories according to where snorkeling can take place, whether scuba diving is permitted and whether visitors may sleep aboard. Day tours begin and end at inhabited ports.

The Galapagos Park Service trains and conducts a certification program for naturalist guides in the Galapagos Islands who serve as interpreters and ensure that passengers follow the established guidelines for environmental responsibility while traveling in the islands. These licensed guides accompany visitors, both on land-based tours and boat cruises, to all visitor sites in the Extensive and Intensive Use Zones and organized tours for non-local tourists to the visitor sites in the Recreational Zone. There are three categories of guides, reflecting the amount of training and education they have received.

In 2000, the Galapagos Park Service began monitoring visitor sites to evaluate the impact of tourism on the environment, starting with the most heavily visited sites, those of Bartolome, Floreana, Española and South Plaza islands. Standards have been adopted and baseline data has been collected so that the condition of the sites can continue to be accurately tracked. At some point, perhaps already, tourist demand will exceed the Islands' ability to accommodate its visitors. In its analysis of nature tourism a decade ago, the Darwin Foundation estimated that 54% of its total tourist capacity had been reached. The number of annual visitors has since doubled. In 2005, the Galapagos attracted 121,410 visitors, an increase of 19% over the year before and a 67% increase between 2000 and 2005. Seventy percent of the 2005 tourists were foreign including 39,570 Americans, a doubling of U.S. visitors since 2000. This seemingly unsustainable growth rate in an industry that generates US$175 million a year for Ecuador poses an enormous dilemma.

Yet there is reason for optimism. Since the beginning, the Park's decision-making has been dictated by scientists, international organizations and the government in Quito. Those entities have of late all realized that when outsiders call the shots, it is a recipe for conflict, making it more difficult to embrace a common vision. The management philosophy is shifting accordingly. The Galapagos National Park Management Plan and the Marine Reserve Management Plan now call for involvement of the local population and stakeholder industries in policy-making.

The procedures that protected the Park over the last 30 years will need to prepare for the more complicated future ahead by building a conservation-oriented culture. The challenge for the Park Service, the Marine Reserve and the Government was put most eloquently by Charles Darwin, a quotation aptly placed at the beginning of the Darwin Foundation's recently published 10-year plan (2006-2016): "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."