Delivering a letter to the park director

I’m in Galapagos these days.   I’m “gathering intelligence” – ensuring that we maintain close ties to the community here – both the tourism one, and that of our old friends and colleagues.   One of the tasks I had on my list was to deliver a letter from the director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators’ Association – IGTOA -  (Matt Kareus) to the Galapagos National Park director (Jorge Carrion).

I’m on the IGTOA board of directors.   IGTOA represents many tour operators that together, send thousands of people to Galapagos every year.   IGTOA’s mission is to:  “preserve the Galápagos Islands as a unique and priceless world heritage that will provide enjoyment, education, adventure and inspiration to present and future generations of travelers.”

We learned recently (see our news item posted on the 23rd of August this year) that the Park and the Governing Council of Galapagos were considering an increase in the national park entrance fee.  It has effectively been at $100 for 30 years now.   Raising the park fee seems like a no-brainer for local Galapagos interests.  In fact, some local stakeholders are opposed to it. 

Out of control growth of mostly low-end land-based tourism in Galapagos (18% growth between 2017 and 2018) has lead to the proliferation of informal tourism service providers catering to budget visitors (one blogger boasted that he was able to spend 7 days here for $251, all inclusive).   In a race to the bottom, quality of service is suffering.   What we end up with is a proliferation of informal, opportunistic businesses that are destined to limp along indefinitely, if not struggle and fail.  They have no surplus with which to invest in ensuring quality service, infrastructure and staff.    These same service providers feel that raising the park fee will discourage these low end visitors from coming to the islands and are not happy with the proposal. 

But not all service providers in Galapagos are against the park fee increase.  I have had the opportunity to meet dedicated hotel, restaurant and ship owners who are invested in their businesses and who lament the very rapid growth of land-based tourism here.  They are caught up in the race to the bottom, making it difficult for them to compete with the black market, or with those that are more willing to cut safety, security and quality corners.   Locals also lament the growing crowds that squeeze them out of their beaches, swimming holes and parks.    

IGTOA believes that raising the park fee to a level commensurate with the unique, iconic status of this World Heritage site will contribute to strengthening the ability of the Galapagos National Park Service to do its work.  CNH Tours adds that raising the fee will also encourage prospective visitors to pause and to reflect on the undertlying motivations that are driving them to visit the islands.  We are confident that those who have been dreaming about visiting Galapagos for a long time will not be discouraged.  At the end of the day, only a small number of people on this planet have the right combination of means and passion to consider exploring these islands and it's important that we understand the privilege to be in such a position.   Visiting the Galapagos islands should also be commensurate with the promotion of a healthy, locally owned businesses that provide services that generate enough revenue to support owners, their families and the community, with enough surplus to reinvest in improving overall quality. 

IGTOA surveyed its member companies to confirm that we were all on board.  The companies overwhelmingly supported an increase.   Though this may seem contrary to our commercial interests, at the end of the day, we recognize that these funds will support conservation and management efforts of the national park. 

Asked what we thought might be a reasonable amount, the weighted average of the IGTOA member responses came to $280.  

Based on this survey of member companies, IGTOA’s executive director (our only employee, and half-time at that – we like to run a lean operation…) penned a letter of support for the park director, sharing the sentiment of Galapagos tour operators with him.  As I had already been planning to travel to Galapagos to attend the Charles Darwin Foundation’s annual general meeting (I’m on the governing body there), I was tasked to deliver the IGTOA letter directly to the park director. 

This afternoon, it was my pleasure to hand the letter over to Jorge Carrion.  I told Jorge he had one of the most distinct jobs on the planet – director of the iconic Galapagos national park, the first ever site to be inscribed onto the World Heritage list.