Fodor's: Don't go to Galapagos in 2018

The travel guide book company, Fodor’s, recently published an attention grabbing headline:  “Fodor’s Top 10 places to not go in 2018”.   Number one on their list was Galapagos.   The article justifies their recommendation as follows:

 “The Galápagos Islands are unlike anyplace else in the world. They’re home to species of flora and fauna that can’t be found anywhere else on Earth. But the centuries of extreme isolation that resulted in the archipelago’s many unique species have left them very vulnerable to outside factors. The Ecuadorian government has instated incredibly strict laws in order to preserve the fragile marine and terrestrial ecosystems from human and, more specifically, tourist interference. It’s not even enough for the government to instate said laws and regulations if visitors are consistently flouting[…..] Even if you follow the rules to a tee, seeds or tiny insects still find a way to reaching the islands and wreaking havoc on endemic populations. 

So be very careful when considering the Galápagos as a destination because once the things that make it such a magical place are gone—the fearless animals, the unique species, the otherworldly environments—we’ll never get them back.”

As the article deals with 9 other places, on can forgive Fodor’s for not getting into much detail.    Their warming is valid, but it has been valid even since people first set foot in the islands (1535 – just for a few hours…).   This recommendation would have been valid last year, and will be valid in 2019.   There is no reason why 2018 is particularly significant.

CNH Tours is very aware of the challenges related to the introduction and dispersal of non-native species in the islands.  I was hired by the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park Service in 1998 to help address the invasive goat and pig problem.   But more insidious species, such as blackberry and a type of fly are wreaking havoc as well, and these are harder to deal with.  

Because people live in Galapagos now, and because tourism is not likely to be banned, the challenge of preventing the arrival and dispersal of non-native species will be a permanent one.   The authorities have established “phytosanitary” protocols designed to reduce the chances of this happening.  They have sniffer dogs at the airports, planes spray insecticides in the cabin on the way over, people are educated on what is permitted / not permitted in terms of bringing products to the islands.  The Park and the Darwin Station work in tandem at developing news ways to eradicate or control harmful non-native species that are already in the islands.

But no matter how hard they try, the system is not fool-proof.   An additional way to reduce the risk is to reduce the number of people traveling to the islands and between the islands.    That is a tough nut to crack, politically.   Government numbers show that visitation to Galapagos has been increasing rapidly. 

In the year 2000 almost all of the 69,000 tourists to Galapagos embarked on a cruise.   In 2015, of the 225,000 tourists that came to Galapagos (a 326% increase in 15 years), 152,000 were land based tourists, while only 73,000 were ship based.   Government figures show a peak of ship based visitors at 83,000 in 2008 and project a decline to 71,000 in 2021, while land based visitation is projected to reach 209,000 that year.

These numbers illustrate clearly where the problem lies.    Whereas ship based tourism is clearly flat, and capped by the restrictions on the total number of berths allowed in the islands, land based tourism is out of control and overwhelming the authorities’ capacity to manage.   The incremental growth of the threat to Galapagos ecosystems is related directly to the rapid growth in land based tourism.   Even the United Nations through a 2016 decision of the World Heritage Committee, expressed its concern…

“…that comprehensive and effective management responses, in particular as regards the fundamental and related challenges of biosecurity and tourism, continue to require further strengthening of current efforts and urges [Ecuador to] develop and implement a clear tourism strategy for Galápagos, with a focus on establishing mechanisms to discourage rapid and uncontrolled growth in visitation”. 

Galapagos had been placed on the World Heritage in Danger list in 2007, and was removed from that list in 2010 after the government of Ecuador provided enough assurances to the World Heritage Committee that it was addressing areas of concern.  But since then, it is becoming clear that appropriate measures have not been implemented.  

At CNH Tours, we focus on the cruise ship experience in Galapagos - one we believe provides a far superior way to experience what these are islands are famous for.    We feel that cruise ship tourism impacts, though not non-existent, are limited and remain stable and more manageable due to a cap on numbers, whereas impacts arising from land based tourism are growing rapidly due to the absence of a cap on numbers for this type of tourist.  For this reason, we are convinced that choosing a cruise over a land based experience results in a smaller footprint on the islands and that people embarking on a cruise need not feel that they are contributing to a growing problem.   

Fodor’s raises an important issue in its attention seeking headlines, but they deserve more background information to be fully understood.