United Nations to Ecuador: “You must control runaway land-based tourism growth in Galapagos”

(Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) manages the implementation of the World Heritage (WH) Convention.  Under the terms of this Convention, the 193 countries of the world that have ratified it have undertaken to identify and conserve, for the benefit of their citizens and for all of humanity, the world’s most outstanding natural and cultural heritage sites. 

Every year, UNESCO organizes the meeting of the intergovernmental WH Committee.  Made up of 21 signatory countries, elected among their peers, the WH Committee oversees the work of UNESCO in implementing the Convention.  Acting like the bouncers in a private club, the WH Committee also keeps an eye on the state of conservation of WH sites around the world – and if they consider that things are not going particularly well in a site, they will request that the country in which the site is located take specific measures to ensure the site’s values for which it was recognized, are not lost.   

The WH Committee receives information on the state of conservation from various sources.  The government of Ecuador submitted its own Galapagos report in 2022.  While governmental reports can provide valuable information, one is not wrong to suspect that such reports may not want to focus on issues that might raise undue alarm. 

The WH Committee also receives a State of Conservation report jointly produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and UNESCO’s own experts at the WH Centre.  This report relies on a variety of information sources and tends to raise issues that the government would rather gloss over. 

Specifically, the IUCN / World Heritage report includes the following statements in relation to tourism in Galapagos:

… statistics publicly available at the website of the Ministry of Tourism show a steep and continuous increase of visitor numbers (https://servicios.turismo.gob.ec/) from less than 12,000 at the time of inscription in 1978 to more than 270,000 in 2019 before the start of the pandemic. Notwithstanding the temporary decrease in numbers as a result of the COVID pandemic, tourist visitation numbers from January to March 2023 are reported to be 78,507, which is over than 9,500 more than in the first quarter of 2019, prior to the pandemic. The reported opening of a new flight connection to Galapagos from the city of Manta in March 2023 will only further exacerbate this trend.

Since 1998, when a cap was established on the total capacity of the cruise ship fleet, most of this growth is land-based visitation, which carries even larger risks of introduction and dispersal of alien species compared with ship-based tourism.

The WH Committee is meeting in Riyadh these days.   It has been assessing the state of conservation of WH sites around the world.  When it came to Galapagos, they made the following request to Ecuador:

The WH Committee reiterates its continued concern on the steady growth of tourism and commercial flights to the property and urges again the State Party to develop and implement a clear tourism strategy with a clear action plan with urgent measures to achieve the zero-growth model, including maintaining the moratorium on construction of new tourism projects and the limits on the number of flights, and to submit this strategy and action plan to the World Heritage Centre for review.


 A busy day at the Darwin Bay visitor site, San Cristobal Island


The ball is back in Ecuador’s court.  They are part of the prestigious “World Heritage” club.  Galapagos was the first site to every have been recognized as World Heritage, back in 1978.   If Ecuador wants to keep its membership in good standing, it has to do what it takes to ensure that the values for which Galapagos was recognized in the first place are not undermined.  

Unlimited tourism growth in a remote oceanic archipelago like Galapagos is a major factor when it comes to the introduction and dispersal of alien species.   Alien species are the greatest single threat to Galapagos biodiversity.   With increased visitation numbers comes an increase in:

  • the number of flights from the continent;
  • the frequency of cargo ships offloading supplies from the mainland;
  • immigration from the continent, leading to rapid population growth.

These increases all facilitate the inadvertent (and sometimes deliberate) introduction of alien species to Galapagos.   They help neutralize the critical ecological isolation that was key in making Galapagos what it is today – a place where one can easily witness the graphic manifestations of biological evolution in action.   It’s why Galapagos is on the World Heritage list.

Ecuador won international recognition among proponents of sustainable tourism when it established a strict and well-regulated expedition cruise ship tourism model in the islands back in 1998.  It set a firm cap on ship sizes and total fleet capacity.  Since 1998, ship-based tourism numbers have been flat at about 72,000 / year.   It is now time for Ecuador to do the same for land-based tourism.  It needs to find a way to establish a firm upper limit to how many land-based visitors can come to the island each year.  


Las Grietas, near Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz island



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