At 9.5% growth per Year, Galapagos land based tourism is out of control

I was quoted in the New York Times' June 1st paper (along with perhaps 500 other people in that day's paper... so my ego is kept in check).   The article was entitled:  "Is Land Tourism Threatening the Galápagos?".  It was not a cutting edge article, and frankly, I don't think I said what the journalist quoted me as saying, but at the end of the day, the article was factual.  Click here to read it. 

The article came about after I encouraged the International Galapagos Tour Operator's Association (IGTOA - I sit on the board) to make a statement on the unregulated nature of land based tourism in Galapagos.  That statement can be consulted on IGTOA's website (click here).   

I was motivated to do so as a former staffer at UNESCO's World Heritage (WH) Centre.  The WH Centre is the United Nations body charged with overseeing the state of conservation of WH sites - which includes the Galapagos islands.  In its last decision, back in 2016, the intergovernmental WH Committee expressed concern over rapid growth of tourism and the absence of any plan to manage it.  More visitors coming and going draw more migrants from the continent and together, there is markedly more movement of people and goods between the continent and the islands, and between islands themselves.  All this to-ing an fro-ing raises the risk of more introductions of invasive non-native species - these are the main threat to the long term survival of Galapagos biodiversity (Darwin Finch numbers are currently in decline thanks to an non-native fly that lays eggs in the birds' nests). 

My conscience could not let me sit on the board of an association of Galapagos tourism companies that claims to be "dedicated to the complete and lasting protection of the Galapagoson the one hand, and see that the same organization had not addressed threats linked to uncontrolled tourism growth identified by the United Nations on the other.    

We started by producing an IGTOA position statement on Galapagos (noted above).  We followed that with a letter to the Minister of the Environment about this issue in 2017.  The Ministry asked the the Galapagos National Park to respond.  During the IGTOA meeting in Galapagos last November, we met with the park staff to discuss.  Though we agreed to work more closely together on conservation related matters, the Park indicated that Galapagos tourism policy was a Ministry of Tourism matter.  Our letter to the Minister of Tourism duly went out in February (and as noted in the NYT article, we have yet to receive a response).   We were then approached by the New York Times who wanted to publish an article on the matter.

All along, I have been working to convince my former colleagues at UNESCO's WH Centre to recognize the on-going absence of  significant measures taken by the Government of Ecuador to control the growth in land based tourism.  Government numbers show a growth in land based tourism averaging at 9.5% / year over the last 5 years.  While the Government of Ecuador wisely saw fit to put a cap on the capacity of ship based tourism nearly 20 years ago, it has yet to impose any equivalent cap on land based tourism.  As a result, land based visitors, who numbered fewer than 5,000 in the 1990's, will likely surpass the 200,000 threshold within 2-3 years. 

UNESCO's WH Committee is meeting again later this month / early July to review the state of conservation of WH sites, and Galapagos is on the agenda.   I was hoping to present a solid case to justify strong wording from the WH Committee to the Government of Ecuador in regards to the need for a firm limit on the total number of tourists coming to the islands.   

Their draft decision on the matter was published recently.  As in its last decision (2016), the proposal is to recognize that more needs to be done to manage tourism while recognizing the government's very small steps taken to date (these have had zero impact on tourism growth). The Government of Ecuador, in its report to the WH Committee, indicated that it was committed "to adopt measures that promote a zero growth model".  That's not the same as "placing a firm cap on the total annual number of visitors granted a Galapagos National Park entrance permit".  It leaves a lot of wiggle room, particularly in terms of when the "zero growth" is to be achieved. 

To conclude, though I am disappointed in UNESCO's timid recommendations to the Government of Ecuador, at least the issue remains on the front burner.   The Government of Ecuador will have to report once again to UNESCO in 2019 and if no progress is made then, we can hope that bolder requests will be made.    If Ecuador does not implement measures deemed necessary for the conservation of the islands, UNESCO's WH Committee can put the site on the Danger List, or further still, remove Galapagos from the World Heritage List altogether.   

In the meantime, anyone thinking of going to Galapagos using the cruise ship model can rest assured that they will not be contributed to tourism growth in the islands.  Ship based tourism, thanks to effective Government policies, has been more or less flat at 70,000 people per year for the past 15 years or so.   Enjoy your trip!