Galapagos News

Snapshot: What's occupying the minds of Galapagos residents these days

An old friend of mine in San Diego forwarded an article from the LA Times to me yesterday.   It's a good one, effectively illustrating the zeitgeist of Galapagos these days - as far as I can tell from what I'm hearing from friends and associates there.

The article from the LA Times covers the massive industrial Chinese fishing fleet cloud that hung over the islands for many weeks in the summer - which added to the overall feeling of creeping discouragement brought about by COVID-19's moth-balling of the tourism economy there.   

It also contains 2 short but well done video clips narrated by a good old friend of ours, Fernando Ortiz (also an excellent naturalist guide).  It refers to another old friend, Fiddi Angermeyer (son of a German pioneer who, with 3 of his brothers, sailed from Germany to Galapagos before WWII), and Norman Wray, the presidentially appointed provincial governor, with whom I've had the chance to speak with on a couple of occasions.   


Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island): The main economic hub of Galapagos

While tourism destinations are all suffering tremendously during COVID, Galapagos is suffering even more because the economy there is overwhelmingly dependent on dollars flowing in from tourists.   Take that away, and you're left with a few NGOs, government services (all being cut back because Ecuador has a huge cash flow problem these days) and relatively small scale fishing and farming.   

Almost all goods purchased in Galapagos are imported from outside.  This means that every time someone buys a roll of toilet paper, a bottle of water, a pair of sandals, a t-shirt, rice, beans... money is leaving the islands and it's not being replenished by dollars coming in from tourism.   

The Galapagos economy is drying up.   

I know of several people that have left.  While economic conditions on the continent are not good at all, they are better than in the islands.   

What's in store in the months ahead?  Nobody knows.  But until COVID-19 can be tamed, things will remain delicate.  The service providers we are in touch with are rearing to get going again of course.  They've worked hard at adopting COVID-19 safety protocols, be it on land or on ships.   Tourism is open - you CAN go to Galapagos - but as can be expected, there are hoops through which travelers must pass (COVID testing) and options will be fewer as not all businesses are operating at full capacity.  

At CNH Tours, we continue to receive inquiries (though fewer than before!) from people who are very keen to organize their trip to the islands as soon as conditions improve.  Galapagos is a premiere nature tourism destinations of the world - it was the first place to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site (1978).  It will remain a "trip of a lifetime" place to visit well after COVID-19 becomes a distant memory.   

For the Los Angeles Times article, click here

Ten years and 422 stories later

CNH Tours has been helping people assemble their Galapagos trip of a lifetime since 1999 but it wasn’t until 2010 that we started publishing regular news items and stories we thought would interest our past, current and future guests.  

On the 20th of September 2010, we published:  THE ECONOMIST Magazine Features Galapagos and Danger Listing in this Week’s Edition.  As an avid reader of THE ECONOMIST, I was very excited by the fact that the magazine's international section editor came to my UNESCO office in Paris to interview me for the story.   I simply had to write it up for the website, making this the first of 422 stories that would follow in the next 10 years.

Our editorial policy over the years has been pretty constant.   We focus on a variety of issues falling under a broad range of categories such as:

  • Conservation success stories / threats
  • Wildlife poachers / smugglers caught / prosecuted / sentenced / jailed
  • Volcanic eruptions, tsunamis
  • El Niño: Trying to predict when the next one will come (we’ve given up on that)
  • Several stories on the possible increase in the park entrance fee. First announced in 2011, but yet to be implemented (we should give up on that too)
  • The rise and fall of various National Park directors – most of whom are old friends
  • The trials and tribulations of the Charles Darwin Foundation - a roller coaster of a ride
  • Expedition cruise ships running aground and several cargo ships sinking
  • The death of Lonesome George, his peripatetic corpse and the struggle for a final resting place
  • Some beating of our own drum – highlighting awards, third party recognition of our work and that of our chosen partners and their staff in Galapagos
  • Politics and economics of Ecuador
  • Concerns over rapid growth in land-based tourism numbers
  • Travel logistics matters we consider pertinent in planning your trip to Galapagos

No other travel company comes remotely close to publishing so many diverse stories and on such a regular basis.   We hope that it conveys to our guests the fact that few travel companies know Galapagos as intimately as does CNH Tours.   We have friends in all sectors of society there – from government to tourism to the fishing communities.   We return to the islands regularly and, after this COVID has been cleared up, we intend to spend several weeks a year there to further strengthen our bonds with the islands and the people.

Over the years, we’ve covered some interesting items and we’ve also tried to come up with catchier / and sometimes rather sensationalistic titles.   We provide links to a few below and invite you to have a look (be assured, none of this is fake news): 

When sharks have lawyers...

Flying Galapagos Penguins Captured on Video!

Ships swallowed by giant sea creature

Michael Jackson spotted on a remote beach in Galapagos!

"The captain helped me to the bottom of the ocean"

Lenin asserts himself in Ecuador

Dolphin soup anyone?

A Dog's Life in Galapagos

CNH Tours Acquires a Mercedes...

Man's life is changed!

Plump Pepe Put into Park Pen

 

We look forward to continued coverage of stories we think our past, current and future guests will find interesting.   We’ll provide an update on this story on 20 September 2030.  See you then!

Potable water in Puerto Ayora: Always 3 years away

(The following article was Google translated, further edited, and slightly adapted for clarity from the original Spanish language article that appeared in the EXPRESO, an on-line newspaper on 5 September 2020.  Pictures are also from the original article. Click here to see the original.  CNH Tours can attest to the bad water piped into Puerto Ayora homes, as was the case with us when we lived there in 1998-2002.  Like all other residents, we had no choice but to bathe using this water - it had a mild salty taste to it and you certainly did not want to swallow any...)


Puerto Ayora and its endless wait for drinking water


In Puerto Ayora, the most populated settlement in Galápagos (apx. 20,000 people), the water that reaches homes and commercial and tourist establishments is still brackish and not suitable for human consumption.

It is extracted from underground aquifers via fissures in the bedrock on this island of volcanic origin. Because the bedrock is porous and full of fissures, it ends up being a mixture of rainwater and seawater, minerals and human wastewater.  The supply is limited to just two to four hours a day.  Typically, all buildings have large storage tanks on the rooftops and these are filled when the water is running, so that it can be used over the course of the day.

Above: A typical fissure from which brackish / contaminated water is extracted

"The fissures in the bedrock from which the water is obtained are interconnected with the septic tanks (little more than holes in the ground) and, obviously, they become contaminated and, finally, the water that reaches the houses is not drinkable (containing bacteria, salt etc…) and we are forced to continue to buy water in bottles", explains Jairo Gusqui, president of the Citizen Board of Santa Cruz.

In a city where some 200,000 tourists spend time each year, the lack of drinking water is not just a community problem that causes intestinal infections, skin allergies or untreatable hair to its inhabitants.

The Puerto Ayora waterfront - 200,000 visitors a year

“There are visitors from abroad who are used to drinking tap water in their countries. And you have to be telling them that you can't do that here, don't drink the tap water, ”says Rubén Montalvo, owner of a hostel in Puerto Ayora.

"A tourist who ingests the water and suffers an infection stays in the hotel.  He suspends his entire schedule of tours, and doesn’t spend his money," he adds.

For all these reasons, having potable water is an old claim of its 20,000 inhabitants.  They are used to hearing promises of potable water each time a new election comes around, and they are getting used to having it as an eternally unfinished project.

A very typical scene in Puerto Ayora - delivery of REAL potable water

Only in this century, in 2001, the government at the time put out an international tender to provide drinking water to the main islands; that work was awarded under the following government, but it did not advance from there. The government after that took it up again, but nothing came of it.

San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana islands, with a smaller population, have had potable water since 2013. But  not Puerto Ayora.

In 2016, the president at the time (Rafael Correa) announced that Santa Cruz was beginning to receive potable water "for the first time in its history." The project, initially planned for 2014, consisted of capturing water from nearby fissures and, through a reverse osmosis process, desalinating and making it drinkable.  But he was overly optimistic and it didn't happen.

“It's a long story, it has suffered quite a few setbacks in these years: politicians who have used it as a campaign promise, lawsuits against the contractor. And it the story is not over yet ”, sums up local journalist Daniel Montalvo.

Water purification plant for preparation of potable water

In 2019, a month after taking office, Puerto Ayora Mayor Ángel Yánez published a diagnosis of how he had found the municipality, including this issue. He noted that the initial cost of US$18.5 million had risen to US$23.7 million for supplemental contracts. And that the plant was not working due to pipeline damage and that the system required the interconnection of the networks, a work not foreseen in the contract.

Yánez says he has advanced the work up to 80% and hopes to complete it. To do this, it needs the Government -which claims fiscal illiquidity and owes one billion dollars to the municipalities- to deliver 4 million dollars for the additional work.

A Photographer's Galapagos Life in the Time of COVID

We've known Tui de Roy since we first went to Galapagos in 1998.

Her parents moved to Galapagos in the 1950's and she was born shortly thereafter. She grew up on the rocky shores of the islands almost living the life of Mowgli. She ended up being an accomplished wildlife photographer, having published several books and leading many photography trips around the world.

While she maintains a home in New Zealand, she spends a lot of time in Galapagos still. She was there in March when COVID hit, and has been there ever since.

Here are two very well-written pieces about Galapagos life in the time of COVID, dated 4 May and 1 September (scroll down) in which she shares her observations on Galapagos both humans and animals. They are quite insightful with a few nice pics.

To see the stories, click here.
Tui's house in Galapagos

Economic, social and political challenges in Ecuador

While the focus of a trip to Galapagos might be nearly 100% nature oriented, you will be meeting mainland and Galapagos residents and you will have the opportunity to have some conversations with them.  Many people enjoy this part of their travels. 

For those who might not have considered it, a good talk with thoughtful locals goes a long way in helping one broaden one's understanding of people and societies.  Better yet, if you know something of the context in which the people you will be meeting are living, it gives you a better vantage point from which to have a more enriching conversation.  

We came across this article in The Economist (a news magazine widely read around the world) which was published in its July 4-10th issue.   It provides a succinct summary of the social/ political/ economic situation in the country these days.  In short, it has no money and the fact that it uses the US dollar as its national currency does not help.

I was living in Ecuador when they made the switch from the former "Sucre" to the US Dollar.  At the time, inflation was out of control, people were increasingly turning to the US$ for transactions.  A lot of the blame can be placed on corrupt bankers and enabling national leaders of the day - so much so that I've always thought that a monument to these people would help Ecuadorians remember why they had to give up their national currency.   Here's the article that appeared in The Economist:

ECUADOR'S ANGUISH:  THE DIFFICULTIES OF A DOLLARIZED ECONOMY / ECUADOR IS IN INTENSIVE CARE, AND A STRAIGHT JACKET.

At the start of the covid-19 pandemic in Latin America in March and April, Ecuador offered the world Dantesque images of dead bodies dumped in the streets of Guayaquil, a tropical port that is the country’s largest city. The outbreak has eased, but it is not over. After the government relaxed its lockdown last month cases picked up, especially in Quito, the capital. That is happening elsewhere in the region, too. But Ecuador faces additional difficulties.

One is that the centrist government of Lenín Moreno, the president since 2017, was economically and politically weak even before the virus struck. Another is that since 2000 Ecuador has lacked its own currency, using the American dollar instead. That switch was the consequence of hyperinflation and a previous economic crisis. It has brought a degree of stability. But it means that when recession strikes, Ecuador cannot print money. Nor can it easily borrow because Mr Moreno’s populist predecessor, Rafael Correa, piled up debt during his decade in power, which the government has struggled to repay. So while governments elsewhere are loosening the purse-strings, Ecuador has to cut public spending just when it is most painful to do so.

Mr Correa ruled during a commodity boom. He used windfall oil revenue to double the size of the state. Although some of the money was invested in infrastructure, much went on expanding public employment and much was simply wasted or stolen. Despite the spending splurge, in proportion to the population Ecuador scores barely above the Latin American average in number of doctors and below it for hospital beds.

When the commodity boom ended, Ecuador was left with a big fiscal deficit and mounting public debt. Mr Moreno, an ally-turned-foe of Mr Correa, has been left to pay the bill. In March of last year his government signed a $4.2bn, three-year agreement with the imf aimed at softening the effects of deficit-cutting and at boosting non-oil exports by making the economy more competitive. This reform programme soon went off the rails. In October, without preparing the political ground or compensating those worst hit, the government tried to eliminate indiscriminate subsidies on fuel (the imf had urged it to raise value-added tax instead). After a fortnight of protests and rioting left ten dead, Mr Moreno backed down.

With the deficit heading back up to at least 6% of gdp, the government is scrambling for cash. Since March it has saved 2.5% of gdp by agreeing with bondholders to postpone interest payments, and another 1% by trimming the working hours of public employees. The public’s anger at scandals over medical procurement has reinforced its resistance to tax increases. The imf approved an additional $643m emergency loan in May. The government has obtained a loan from China, and further relief from bondholders. It has used money from the Inter-American Development Bank to increase the payments to the poor and the number who get them. To try to boost recovery, it has introduced modest reforms of the labour law and the bankruptcy code.

Unpopular reforms are all the harder because a general election is due in February. But they are vital. Augusto de la Torre, a former Central Bank president, notes that “dollarisation is the most popular institution in my country—more popular than the church or the army.” But, he adds, “the country is learning the hard way that dollarisation means that we can’t print money.”

It is not a substitute for fiscal discipline and a more competitive economy. The problem is “there’s no coalition to pass the necessary reforms,” says Andrés Mejía, an Ecuadorean political scientist at King’s College in London. Instead there are what he calls “ghost coalitions” operating in the shadows, with parties refusing to support austerity publicly but quietly facilitating it. “They do enough to get the country past emergencies but not enough for long-term development.”

Muddle-through may be running out of road. With an approval rating of 19%, Mr Moreno has said he will not stand again. Perhaps sensing the difficulties ahead, Jaime Nebot, a powerful former mayor of Guayaquil, ruled himself out as a candidate on June 25th. Having received a jail sentence in absentia for corruption, Mr Correa, who lives in Belgium, is looking for a proxy candidate. With voters likely to be in an angry mood, unless a credible reformist candidate emerges the stage may be set for a return of populism—but a penniless version this time.

Massive industrial fishing fleet hugs Marine Reserve boundaries...

The following is adapted from an article that appeared in the El Universo newspaper on 16 July 2020.

The Ecuadorian Navy was alerted this morning to the presence of a fishing fleet made up of 260 foreign vessels near the limit of Ecuador’s Exclusive Insular Economic Zone (ZEEI).

Image of the waters around the west coast of South America and Galapagos.  Lines indicate exclusive economic zones.  White areas indicate presence of industrial fishing ships.

At the moment, the Naval Operations Command maintains continuous surveillance with Naval Aviation aircraft and also with the missile corvette “Loja”, which relieved the “Manabí” in these tasks in the continental sea.

The fleet would be made up of fishing, supply and warehouse vessels, the Navy said.

Part of the industrial fishing fleet photographed near the Galapagos Marine Reserve

At the same time, the personnel of the Maritime Analysis Division of the Operational Command sent information to the units located on the edge of the continental sea so that they corroborate that these foreign vessels do not enter the ZEEI and carry out some type of illegal fishing activities that threaten the Galapagos Marine Reserve (Ed. A World Heritage Site).

In 2017, naval teams intercepted the ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 while sailing illegally within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. The crew members were sentenced. Some 300 tonnes of fish mostly sharks, were found in the holds of this Chinese vessel.

 

Editor:  The Galapagos Marine Reserve has among the strictest fishing regulations among all the marine reserves along the entire western shores of both North and South America.   Only a limited number of local Galapagos fishermen can fish there, and they are restricted to small ships and low impact fishing practices.   The waters within the reserve, and those extending to the coastal area are very rich in nutrients, as they are bathed by a variety of currents, including the cold Humboldt coming from the south, and the upwelling of the Cromwell current, coming from the west.    These rich waters attract industrial fishing fleets – and keeping them out of the Marine Reserve is a constant challenge.   

While strictly legal, the fact that the seas can be vacuumed out of their fish with little or no oversight highlights the on-going need to establish some type of international waters fishing regulation / monitoring system.   Moreover, it has been reported that these fleets will send small boats out at night into the reserve, bringing back their haul to the factory ships by daybreak.   

The Galapagos Marine Reserves cover the same area as the entire landmass of Greece.  It’s hugely expensive to monitor effectively, particularly when its boundaries are being tested by so many fishing ships. 

 

Low in cash, Galapagos residents turn to bartering

The following is adapted from an article that appeared in the El Universo newspaper today

 

The economy in the Galapagos archipelago has been affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Tourism, the Islands’ main economic activity came to a screeching halt nearly 4 months ago.

"Women's clothing for groceries, meat, chicken, fruit" or "Exchange a plastic blender container for a 2-kilos of sugar, or a juice extractor for a chicken" are two of the messages that are read in groups that was created through Facebook, where residents offer their products.

The desperation to get food has led several people to exchange and even sell their goods. This is how an ancient practice of bartering has become popular in the islands.

One of the groups where this practice is promoted is the “trueque official Galapagos” (Official Galapagos Barter), created two months ago by Isabela Bucheli and Milton Sevillano on the island of Santa Cruz. There, those who search for food or wish to exchange other objects publish their ads and within a few minutes receive a response from those interested in the transaction.

Sevillano has a boat hull cleaning company, while Bucheli is a naturalist guide although due to the health emergency she also ventured into a restaurant business with other partners.

Bucheli says that at the beginning of the pandemic, a neighbor placed a wooden box on the street so that food or other objects could be placed for others who needed could take them. This encouraged them to create the barter page.

The pandemic caused families to be affected. "There are homes where mom and dad are without a job and there are three to five children in the house. So zero income since the pandemic started in March," says Bucheli.

The Facebook page managers see bartering as a way of showing support for the community, because it is not about money or what a product costs, but rather to help someone with what they need, being able to get a product that they require.

"(We want to) adapt it to a daily lifestyle, so that people who are accustomed to bartering can do it all year long whenever they want, whenever they have something to barter ... We have tried to make people understand that it is also a matter of community solidarity and not just strict business dealing", they point out.

Among the rules that have been established within this community of more than 4,000 members is that sales are not allowed or money is not talked about, only exchange.  Advertisements cannot be disseminated and the most important thing is that there be seriousness between the two people for the exchange. For each transaction that is made, a photograph of the barter made is uploaded.

Video Interview: What's the situation in Galapagos and with CNH Tours?

For those who might be interested, here's a video interview posted on YouTube.  A friend who was formerly a Montreal morning television show host and a former curling partner of mine started doing his own thing, setting up interviews of people around him with stories to tell.   He interviewed me several weeks ago, a good month into the COVID-19 disruptions to travel.    

It's 18 minutes long - maybe too long for most of you.  In it, I recount a little bit of the history of CNH Tours, how COVID-19 has affected the local economy, and CNH Tours business.    

Click here to see it on the YouTube platform.   Thanks for leaving any (great) comments on the page! 

Scuffling in front of the Governing Council offices as conditions worsen

Faced with an ongoing economic crisis in the islands, some citizens groups have come together to propose solutions, many of which are contentious.  These include opening up the islands to long-line fishing, a practice considered very harmful to non-targeted marine species.   Also, there is a proposal to send away all people living in Galapagos who don’t have the full resident status, but are only there on temporary visas, thus allowing for more jobs to go to Galapagos residents. An effect of this request would result in the loss of many of the health care workers in Galapagos.  AGIPA, the Association of Naturalist Guides of Galapagos, published an open letter yesterday raising concerns over such measures.

In response to these mounting pressures, the Governor of Galapagos – who also has the status of Minister in the national government, had called a meeting with community groups to discuss these proposals on 7 July.   However, due to the recent resignation of the vice-president of Ecuador, the president called a last-minute emergency meeting on that day, and for that reason, the 7 July meeting had been postponed to the 10th of July.

Community groups gathered and marched on the offices of the Regional Council in frustration.  A peaceful march degraded into chaos, with the Governing Council’s Technical Chief, Monica Ramos, rough -handled by the crowd.

 

Frustrated protesters storming the offices of the Regional Governing Council

In an open letter addressed to community groups and distributed through social media, the Governor, Norman Wray explained why the meeting had been postponed, further indicating that the health and security of all people had been put at risk by the demonstrators gathering in such close quarters since the COVID-19 virus remains active on the island.  The Governor called for maintaining responsibility, respect and tolerance at this moment given that tensions are inflamed by the "electoral interests of some citizens" (the pre-electoral period in Ecuador can be agitated).   The open letter further notes that all the work that has been done to make Galapagos a safe travel destination should not be put at risk.

Galapagos governor Norman Wray addresses the protesters

The community groups responded that while the 7 July meeting had been clearly communicated, they were not informed of its postponement, prompting them to organize the march.

Things are heating up in the islands.  The Galapagos economy is very dependent on tourist dollars.  Tourism has been completely shut down since mid-March (some of our guests were among the last to have had the privilege of visiting the islands).  The government of Ecuador is heavily indebted and has very few options when it comes to helping its citizens in these difficult times.  Under these circumstances, it's easy to understand the mounting frustration, and perhaps panic, felt by Galapagos residents - it's not clear at all when tourism will start up again.   While the continental economy has also suffered, it is much more diversified and there are more alternatives to income derived from tourism.  

Local Authorities Request Declaration of Economic Disaster

Published in the El Telegrafo newspaper of Ecuador on 12 June 2020 (translated by Google Translate and slightly edited by CNH Tours)

 

Delaying and exempting taxes and other tourism incentive measures are proposals to revive the economy, paralyzed due to the pandemic. The local authorities of the Galapagos Islands are working tirelessly to revive their economy, severely affected by the total stoppage of tourist and commercial activities for three months, due to the health emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a manifesto delivered to the authorities of the Governing Council of the Provice of Galapagos, the Provincial Citizen's Board made a series of requests that, as they consider, would help in this purpose. Among the requests are to declare the archipelago as an economic disaster zone for the next two years. With this, they aspire to suspend the collection of loans, credit card debts, operating permits, renewals and other fees for a period of 12 months. The operators also ask for the refinancing of existing debts in the public and private entities of the National Financial System to be facilitated, without charging additional interest and with a one-year grace period.

Henry Cobos, Mayor of San Cristóbal, explained that one of the most urgent needs -at the administrative and financial level- is the payment of the delayed budgetary allocations (4 months), since these resources are vital to pay wages and serve the sectors most vulnerable and affected, such as fishing and tourism. It is precisely tourism, the main source of income for the islanders, the item most affected by the closure of (national and internal) borders. To reactivate it, the councils propose - among other measures - the creation of a digital platform to promote its attractions, with direct payment, without intermediaries. Likewise, operators have been committed to maintaining the values ​​of the services and activities they offer; In addition, the Provincial Board urged the authorities of the Galapagos National Park to enable new places of visit, closer to the populations, to encourage both internal and external tourism.

The mayor of Isabela Island, Bolívar Tupiza, considered that it is also necessary to shield the economy from local governments through ordinances. One of its proposals is that tourists visiting this island must stay overnight on it (ed:  Many tourists just visit Isabela Island on a day trip), to boost commerce and hospitality. He also assured that it is time to think about an airport to receive commercial flights (ed. a commercial airport has not been allowed on Isabela island in part to reduce the risk of introduction of alien species).

Robert Andrade, economist and owner of the Galapagos Sunset Hotel (San Cristóbal), defends the requests made to the Government. He explained that on the islands all activities are closely linked to tourism and that with the fall of this sector, the rest were automatically affected. "If there are no tourists, the hotels do not have clients or must close, so they do not need to buy from the fisherman either, who ultimately runs out of livelihood." He recalled that the crisis in the Insular region did not start in March but in October, with protests at the national level. “In November, fewer tourists came because it must be remembered that many come from China, where the pandemic began. Tourists are very susceptible to the situation in the country where they intend to travel, so it is expected that the situation will not normalize in at least another 18 or 24 months. " He added that the dimensions of the injury cannot yet be calculated. He gave as an example that in his hotel so far he has lost around $ 300,000, but that travelers continue to cancel reservations, so he projects a loss of at least $ 400,000.  

Residents Bet on Local Food Prodcution

Due to the paralysis of tourism in the Galapagos Islands, the inhabitants are looking to agricultural production to support the adverse economic situation they face. Priscila Bastidas, a resident of Santa Cruz Island, explained that due to the total absence of travelers she has lost her source of income, for this reason she chose to start an orchard and with the trade in her crops (grains, fruits, vegetables) she has been able to generate a bit of money. She explained that it has been the local production that has allowed for the maintenance of the food supply during the emergency, since the arrival of aircraft with supplies and supplies occurs periodically and the logistics to carry the merchandise have a significant impact on the final price.

One of the proposals of the Provincial Citizen Board to reduce the cost of products is that the Government Council be the intermediary in charge of logistics; in addition, that a lower price of $ 0.40 per kilo of cargo sent.

Main populated Islands in Galapagos declared free of COVID-19

(Translated and adapted from an article appearing on Ecuavisa.com on 30 May)

The islands Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal, in the Galapagos archipelago, are the first cantons of Ecuador free of COVID-19, according to the vice president of the Republic, Otto Sonnenholzner.

During his visit, Sonnenholzner evaluated the health system and promoted actions for the productive revival of the town. He was at the Oskar Jandl General Hospital in San Cristóbal, where he found that the service is adequately provided to citizens and that the staff has what it takes to continue facing the pandemic. “We have inspected the hospital and we have noted improvements.”

President of Galapagos Governing Council, Norman Wray (left) and national vice-president, Otto Sonnenholzner (2nd from left). 

The vice-president also provided rapid tests, protective equipment, masks, and medications. He stressed that “the health emergency has been adequately managed. San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz are already free of the virus”. Norman Wray, president of the Galapagos Governing Council, for his part, confirmed that "the decisions taken have allowed there to be no community contagion."

Meanwhile, Juan Carlos Zevallos, Minister of Health congratulated the work carried out by doctors and nurses "it is time to think ahead with long-term investment and trained personnel residing in this area, we are going to continue working on this issue."

However, the vice-president explained that "although the impact of the disease is not as great as in other provinces, it does not mean that the emergency is over." In Santa Cruz, they visited the appropriate “El Camote” Isolation Center with 10 beds for outpatients and 6 in ICU. Here, a donation of a biosafety chamber for air and sea transfers was made.

CNH TOURS ADDS:

The community in Galapagos has been torn over the conflicting desires to i) control COVID-19 in this very remote part of the world with poor access to medical services and ii) get back to hosting tourists, the very foundation of the islands' economy.  The success in having controlled COVID-19 is worth celebrating, and will go a long way in reassuring potential tourists that Galapagos is a COVID-19 safe destination.... but what of the tourists themselves?  How can Galapagos residents be sure that the virus will not be re-introduced through infected visitors?  If COVID-19 re-emerges in the islands, all the work done to date may have been wasted.  

It's a tough situation that has no easy answer.  Some are proposing the opening of island airports to international flights (currently only domestic flights serve Galapagos) as a way to avoid exposing incoming visitors to COVID-19 on the continent.   But that does not address the risk of having COVID-19 infected visitors arriving in the islands.    Recent announcements by the national government indicated that any foreign visitor to Ecuador will have to take a specific test for COVID-19 no more than 3 days prior to their arrival in Ecuador, and that the test will need to be negative, for them to be allowed in the country.   Though technically sound (notwithstanding the risk of these people getting COVID-19 after the test and before flying to Ecuador) this may prove to be impossible for most people, given that few have access to such testing facilities with such rapid turn-around in results.   

Clearly, a practical and effective solution to this problem still needs to be found.  For the time bgeing, at the very least, the residents of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands are under less pressure from the disease itself.   

Former guests come together to help the Samba team

JOIN US ON OUR GOFUNDME CAMPAIGN: LEARN MORE HERE

 

COVID-19 has not been good to Galapagos residents. Most of them depend directly or indirectly on tourism for their livelihoods. As of the 17th of March, tourism in Galapagos, like elsewhere, has been non-existent. Though no one knows for sure, and while the tourism businesses and employees cross their collective fingers and hope and prepare for the best case scenario, there is a chance that things will not return to normal for a long time yet.


While the islands have managed to keep the virus under control fairly well with rigorous quarantine and social distancing measures (approximately 100 cases ported, nearly half of which among the crew of the 100 passenger Celebrity Flora), residents face very difficult times ahead. Further compounding their difficulties is the high cost of food in Galapagos. Most of it is imported from the continent. Under these circumstances, people, young and old, will be losing weight in Galapagos in the coming months – that’s how dire things are.


There is an emerging effort to redirect resources to growing food locally, but this is only a partial solution. It will take time and not everyone has access to land. To make matters worse, COVID-19 struck just at the end of the rainy season, too late to seriously consider starting planting anything on a significant enough scale to make a difference for now.

 

Meanwhile, the national government is extremely cash-strapped. Its financial position is among the worst in South America – so much so that civil servant salaries are being slashed, the postal service shut down and embassies closed. Under these circumstances, people cannot rely on government support during hard times.


The Samba operations support 16 families in Galapagos. Those of the 9 crew members, of the 3 principal guides and of the 4 land-based support staff. Those who have embarked on the Samba in the past few years will have met 6 of the crew and a guide (crew members rotate of course, with 6 on board and 3 on leave at any given time). The crew (and guides) all receive nearly perfect reviews from our returning guests (see: Ship’s Crew Receives Near Perfect Score for more information). The 4 land-based support staff, dealing with logistics, administration and purchasing ensure that the operation sails along smoothly. The Samba has been officially recognized by the Galapagos National Park Service for its social responsibility (see this article which illustrates the rationale: NAVEDUCATION: Local Kids go on an Expedition Cruise).


Laura Sebastianelli and her husband Mike Sieracki travelled on the Samba in late 2019. Like just about all Samba guests, they had a trip of a lifetime. They had been very impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the crew and guide. When COVID-19 swept the world, their thoughts turned to the Samba team approached CNH Tours to explore options on how they could help. Together, we created a fund-raising campaign designed to support the 16 Samba team families food costs for up to 1 year.  Mike and Laura made the inaugural contribution of $500.   


That campaign was launched today. We hope to raise $96,000 ($6,000 per family) by June 20th.  We are reaching out to over 1,000 Samba alumni.  If you are a Samba alumnus and are interested in helping out, you can go to the dedicated GoFundMe page here.   Even if you're not, and you're keen on helping Galapagos residents get over this hump - do feel free to join in.  Helping any Galapagos family will help the community as a whole.

On behalf of the Samba team members and their families - thank you so much for your consideration.

Most COVID-19 cases in Galapagos linked to Celebrity Flora Crew

Of the 73 cases of COVID-19 reported in Galapagos (as of 15 April), 48 are among the crew of the 100 passenger Celebrity cruise ship Flora.  Norman Wray, the head of the Galapagos Regional Governing Council made the announcement yesterday.    The Flora is anchored in Galapagos and the crew remains on board.  The ship last hosted passengers in mid-March.  

Of the remaining 25 cases, there have been 2 deaths.   

COVID-19 is turning out to be a major community-strengthening factor in Galapagos.  Galapagos social media posts, usually themselves quite virulent, are uncharacteristically low key and supportive.   There is widespread concern expressed in the community over the fate of 3,000 Galapagos residents who are "marooned" on the continent - a interesting reversal of perspective for people living on small remote islands!   A fund-raising effort is underway to help support those continentally-trapped Galapagos residents.   

 

 

 

Why it pays to book with a specialist travel agent...

An article published in the "Stroud News and Journal" today (Stround is not too far from Bristol in the UK) tells the story of a pair of travellers who "finally made it back home!" last Sunday, after getting caught in Galapagos during the COVID-19 border closings.   

Glad to be home.... 10 days later than anticipated.

We reproduce some of the article below. Clearly, these travellers did not book through an agent specialized in their destination. 

These days, it's a lot easier to book things directly on-line.  A flight, some hotels, even day tours.  But when things go wrong, Expedia will not be sending you WhatsApp messages or emails warning you of impending airport closures.   AirBnB will not be in touch to help you find alternative accommodations at midnight.  Travelocity will not buy you emergency air tickets on the last flight out your behalf, on the assumption that you'll pay them back later.   

There may be a misconception that "I can get a better deal if I do it myself".  Unless you're singularly focused on the cheapest possible accommodations and trips, you may be right - mostly because few travel agents will want you as a client - they do need to make a living after all.

But if you're looking for a trip with a middle-of-the road budget, or more, you'll find that agents will be able to get you the exact same services at the exact same prices while providing expert advice and recommendations along the way.  Why?  Because service providers will reward the agent who brings business to them by giving them a modest commission on the price of the service.  If that same service provider sells to the client directly, that commission is simply kept by the service provider. 

End result? The client pays the same price, but if he/she goes though an experienced agent, that same client will benefit from a professional who will have his/her back should anything go wrong.   

Over the past 2-3 weeks, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of travellers around the world have learned this lesson.   Those who had booked their travels with agents experienced in the destination they were visiting were more likely to have received a tremendous amount of help in dealing with the sudden complications.  Those that were winging it, booking a variety of services on a variety of internet platforms were left to fend for themselves - as illustrated in the case below.

Previous news articles posted by CNH Tours illustrated how we were able to get 17 guests (10 of which were on a ship in the remote parts of the archipelago) out of Ecuador in 3 days. This was the time that elapsed between when we heard, through our high level local contacts, that Ecuador would be closing down airports - to just before airports were closed down.  We spent that time rebooking flights, chasing down the ship, arranging for emergency hotel accommodations, arranging for meals (on us) and a lot more.   

Quoting from the newspaper:

The pair found themselves marooned on the archipelago, living in a hotel with no staff, food stocks running low and uncertainty over flights.

All the national parks and beaches were closed and a curfew was in place from 2pm to 5am.

To get back to the UK, Jamie and Abi first had to get to mainland Ecuador - around 800 miles from the Galapagos - and they struggled for two weeks to get on a flight.

But finally, on Friday morning, they secured tickets to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on one of the last emergency flights available.

“We eventually got saved by our airline- Avianca - that we previously booked an exit flight with,” said Jamie.

After a brief medical check, Jamie and Abi headed for the airport, where they queued with hundreds of other tourists before flying to the mainland.

"We left on the last emergency flight available for some time," said Jamie.

“We then had one night in Quito.

"We wanted to stay by the airport to ensure we could get there quickly to take any potential flights.

“The only option close to the airport was five star hotel, the Wyndham."

Jamie then stayed up until 2.30am, looking for a way home.

“I managed to book a flight to Houston, Texas with United Airlines for the next day, as well as two flights the following day to Newark, New Jersey and then onto London, to eventually arrive on Monday morning,” he said.

“We had a 14 hour layover in Houston but we managed to get a nearby hotel for the night. We shared a room with a girl from Cambridge and a guy from Australia who were trying to get home too.

 

 

Handling COVID-19 as a public health issue in Galapagos

How does a remote archipelago, a province within the borders of a developing nation, handle COVID-19?  Quality medical care is a 1,000km / 600 mile flight away.  Normal transportation between the islands is severely disrupted.   The country has imposed restrictions on travel between provinces.  The social safety net is not as robust as those of the countries most readers of this article are from.   The country has very little leeway in terms of economic support to displaced workers.  

This (Google-translated - with some edits) summary of an interview with the senior political person of Galapagos yesterday (30 March) gives us a glimpse of the situation.   Norman Wray is the appointed head of the Galapagos Regional Governing Council – a “governor” so-to-speak.   He reports directly to the president of the nation.    I have had the opportunity to meet him on a one-on-one basis a couple of times.   He first comes across a little bit as a “surfer dude” – but quickly, one realizes the depth of his engagement and commitment to public service.   

 

This is the summary of the interview with the Governor Norman Wray this morning on Radio Santa Cruz about the actions that have been carried out due to the #coronavirusgalapagos emergency.

On the return to Galapagos

- I underwent a COVID-19 test, because contagion situations occurred at the National COE level. It is a test that we have made several officials for our responsibilities in the National COE.  (Editor:  Norman was on the mainland in the past weeks and increasingly criticized for not returning to the islands). 

- Once the test was negative, I decided that my presence was important in the territory.

- The Provincial COE (Emergency Operations Committee) approved the protocol out of necessity for public officials who have to enter: health, police, army, there are people who have to respond to their responsibilities urgently and be in the province, it is not a privilege and we are the first to comply with the rigor the Ministry of Public Heath's established protocols.

Situation in Galapagos

- Regarding the subject of the new COVID-19 test samples, a total of 8 were sent (to the mainland for analysis).

The Ministry of Public Health must release the results as required by law. These samples are under analysis, we are awaiting results. The delays in the results respond to the congestion that exists in the sampling of the entire country, but we have asked that they be a priority.

- This moment we continue with 4 confirmed cases and continue establishing epidemiological fences

- Yesterday we were in Isabela Island carrying kits for the work of authorities and public officials. We were able to verify that the local population is respecting the "stay home" directive.  People are clearly committed to the measure. They are maintaining isolation.

- You can always improve the work, there are no perfect situations, but what we have taken as a strategy is the one that PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization) dictate: and that is to gather clear information to make epidemiological fences.

- People who are under observation at this time have to give us information about where they have been.

- I send my greetings to entire population which is acting as a team.

- We know that Floreana island residents are also taking this seriously (home isolation).

- You always have to work from home, keep your distance, go out only if strictly necessary.

- The Municipality's work is exemplary, giving support with food supply issues.  This is being done by Mayor Yánez and his team, and that is key.

- All the capacity we have to reduce the movement of people to the maximum will allow us to reduce risks

- It is important (for the media) to speak to Ministry of Public Health officials so that they can give more details. We are welcoming suggestions from the health sector.

 

Economic resources

- We have mobilized our own resources; the municipalities are doing the same along with initiatives from the private sector.

- Today I just spoke with Councilwoman Castillo who is organizing a private initiative designed to collect resources in a transparent way, so that these can be provided to various support groups. 

- I welcome constructive initiatives from those who are interested in supporting, building and not destroying. Support for, and not criticism of Councilwoman Castillo's example must be replicated by the rest of the province's authorities.

- I reject the attitude of Assemblyman Washington Paredes who is dedicated to creating castles out of thin air, uses his immunity to insult people and what he is doing is generating anxiety.

- We are not going to allow them to want to fish in a rough river (Editor: expression meaning taking personal advantage of difficult times), if they are not going to help, then they should not interfere. Let's all work and get ahead. To Washington Paredes I say: irresponsible and a liar.

- In the course of today, we already have a legal analysis to be able to manage resources to strengthen the emergency with territorial equity funds.

- There are things that had been planned with our budgets (prior to the COVID-19 outbreak) but  we are going to have to redirect the funds.  This must be done within the framework of the Law – if not, the auditors will declare that things were not done in accordance with what the Law and regulations require. 

- We will proceed once we have this report with the Plenary of the Governing Council that we are going to convene this week. It is part of the objectives that we have and in this way we can take important measures.

- In any case, the Provincial COE is also carrying out work, but regarding certain decisions it is necessary for the Council to meet and that is also one of the reasons why I am here.

 

About the Laboratory donated by the private sector

- We have arranged for it to be the ABG (Biosecurity Agency of Galapagos – usually focused on control of introduced species) laboratory where the equipment is installed and we hope to be able to provide this service, which can be generated even for people who do not have symptoms.

- About the equipment donated by the private sector for the laboratory, as loading and transport sectors around the world know, conditions make it hard to move as fast as we would like, but we are making all the efforts to do it urgently, but we depend on the a reduced transportation system.

- It is important to tell the population that the fact that they do not have symptoms does not imply that they do not have the virus, you may feel in perfect health, but you do not know if you are with COVID or not and these people can be a risk to others. That is why isolation is important, that happens throughout the world, that is why staying at home is essential, because there are asymptomatic populations. The social distance is to deal with those cases that do not look sick but that can be carriers of the virus.

 

About Galapagos residents who are on the mainland

- We send information to people who are on the mainland (we have collected the detail of the places where they are located) and based on that we have prepared a registry and we are in contact issues of concern (and we know important information about them).

- There are three options on how to handle repatriation back to Galapagos:

1) uncontrolled return to Galapagos, establishing the test and quarantine on arrival only.

2) Restricting access to specific cases only, establishing priorities, and

3) Not allowing admission due to contagion levels depending on the contagion risk levels on the continent

- Clear policies must be established with the Ministry of Public Health and a clear position regarding what the National COE says on the issue of restriction of mobilization in the provinces. It is part of what the Provincial COE must discuss to decide how to proceed in the case of Galapagos residents who are on the continent but wish to return.

- This is a decision that we must take in common with all the authorities of the province, it cannot be a return to uninformed decision-making.  We must evaluate what is happening at the continental level before deciding how to proceed.

- Let's also wait for the issue of access to tests and request for rapid tests to be able to support citizens.

- The protocol must be strictly rigorous in any case. It is not my decision exclusively but of the set of authorities for an analysis of the risk that implies and to close to the maximum the levels of contagion.

- Allow us to have those answers in a concrete way this week to establish a criterion assuming this decision in the whole authorities.

- In order for us to have a Galapagueño doctor here, we had to carry out very complex administrative and logistical procedures.  There are no regularly scheduled flights – even supply shipments are not allowing for the transport of people at this time.

- There are strict protocols, we have to establish clear criteria. It is not that there are primary and secondary priorities.  If doctors need to be mobilized due to the nature of the work, we have a responsibility do mobilize them.

- This is not a political campaign, it is a national emergency. I welcome all those who want to join the fight.

- We have supported a local family who lost a family member on the continent.  That is the risk and it is one of the reasons why we have put restrictions on entering the province. To try to curb vulnerability in the province.

- What we ask for is co-responsibility, do not generate disinformation, allow the Ministry of Public Health to do its job.

On the identity of the patients

- We have not lied to people and we will continue to support their work, it is an emergency that is happening in the world, not only in Galapagos.

- We have to protect the identity of the patients – it’s a legal requirement, it is an issue that is handled by the Ministry of Public Health risk management system, I have been very clear. I cannot put patient tests into the public eye. We cannot do it, it is part of the protocols that the WHO clearly establishes.

- Isabela's patient has recovered very well, but he must follow the protocols of the Ministry of Public Health and maintain his quarantine, after which a new test needs to be done to show that he no longer has the active virus.

UPDATE: Cancellation policies going forward in the time of COVID-19

These past two weeks have been like a whirlwind in the travel industry all over the world.  While COVID-19 was certainly on our radar screen, the speed with which it overtook things came as a complete surprise.

You may have seen in a previous news item that CNH Tours has been very busy taking care of guests caught up in very rapidly changing travel environment in the days prior to global travel lockdown.  We were able to get 17 guests out of Ecuador (10 of which were on a ship in the far reaches of the archipelago) within a few short days, just in time before the airports closed.   Many tourists were caught off guard and nearly 10 days later, a good number are still in Galapagos and Ecuador desperately trying to find a way out.  May this be a lesson learned:  It pays to book with an agent specialized in the destination they serve.

With that emergency taken care of, we turned our attention to those guests who had paid their full trip balances and were about to head off to the islands in the coming days and weeks, along with those travelling by early July.  We're just now reaching out to those who were scheduled to travel in July and August this year. 

Please be assured that well before any final balance is owed, we will be in touch to inform you on the situation and on any possible changes in the terms and conditions of the trip.  Our intention is to give you as full a picture as possible of the situation so that you may be in a position to make the most informed decision on how to proceed.   

Ship owners and other service providers recognize that the times call for a more flexible approach.  In the past ten days, they have been frantically developing new policies designed to mitigate the misfortunes to which our guests have been subjected.  These revised policies will vary in detail, but generally, they consist of the option to postpone a trip into the future.   How far into the future, and wether a modest surcharge is applied or not varies from ship to ship. 

At this point, we suggest you take a "wait and see" approach.   We will be in touch with more information specific to your particular ship well before your balance is owed.

Thank you for your understanding. 

 

 

 

Under the Wire: Getting out of Galapagos in the time of COVID-19

These have been "exciting" times recently.  Though we all saw COVID-19 looming on the distant horizon and anticipated that it would eventually begin to gradually cause problems to tourism in the Americas, the next thing we knew, it had ambushed us.   

Alarm bells really first began to ring in earnest during the week of March 8th.   Another giant cruise ship off the coast of California reported COVID-19 cases, and governments began emitting advisories against going on cruises; the USA started banning flights from Europe and the Canadian government was urging all Canadians to strongly consider canceling any out-of-country travel.  The government of Ecuador later imposed a 14-day quarantine on all arrivals from a constantly expanding list of countries as well as some U.S. states (California, New York, Washington).   We had to inform some guests on the day of their planned flight to Ecuador that under these new rules, they would not be able to join their respective cruises.   

We already had ten guests on the Samba in Galapagos, along with three in the islands doing some post cruise land-based exploration.   We had 4 other guests who had been on the mainland for several days already and were just about to fly to the islands to embark. 

By Saturday 14 March, though no formal announcements had been made, we were hearing rumours from our well-placed contacts in Ecuador that a complete travel ban would be imposed in a matter of days - barring any incoming foreigners from arriving into the country.  It was clear that commercial air traffic would soon be very disrupted even for guests already inside the country wanting to go home after their trip.  

We decided that it was time to pull the plug and do what we could to get all our guests out of the country and back home as soon as possible.  The ship was in the far reaches of the archipelago and we ordered it to make its way to the airport – Monday (16th) being the soonest it could be there for outgoing flights to the continent.  We had our other three guests on land in Galapagos - and assumed that for them, as they were already booked to fly out of Galapagos and Ecuador on Monday the 16th, all would be good.  

In the meantime, we started to frantically work at finding exit flights for our group.  From Saturday (14thMarch)  to Tuesday (17th March), for just about all waking hours, our team was on the phone, WhatsApp, email, texting and skyping to the ship owner, the naturalist guide on the ship, airline companies, our guests on the ship and our guests on the mainland.  We were very relieved to find flights to Miami for all ten of them out of Quito on the Monday night.

On Sunday, it became official.  Ecuador would be closed to all incoming foreigners by Monday the 16th at midnight, although foreigners would not be prevented from departing after that date we knew that flights out would be scarce.  We felt so fortunate having found the Monday night flights. 

Things began to unravel in earnest on Monday (16th).  At 6:30AM, we received a call:  Our land-based guests in Galapagos informed us that their international flights out to Dallas out of Quito that night had been cancelled – they didn’t know what to do.  We activated our network again, and were able to secure tickets to for them on a Tuesday morning flight to Dallas out of Guayaquil.  So far, so good.

But we also needed to get everybody to Quito on that Monday (16th) – the same day many were evacuating Galapagos.   With the help of our local partners, we had purchased flights for our cruise-based guests as our land- based Galapagos guests were already scheduled to fly to Quito that day – they had tickets. 

It was bedlam at the airport – people where milling about hoping to catch flights which in turn had been very overbooked.  Flights were delayed significantly.  Tempers flared – it was very hot.  Then, both the cruise-based and land-based guests were told that their tickets would only take them as far as Guayaquil, while the international connections we had secured for them the previous day were out of Quito that night and the next morning.   Five guests (subsequently known as the “Quito-5”, or Q-5) managed to make this flight, while the other 8 (the Guayaquil-8) were bumped off and forced to scramble for space on a later flight out that day.  In both cases, it was patently clear that the chances of catching the international flight out of Quito that night were slim to non-existent.    

On arrival in Guayaquil, the Q-5 managed to find a connecting flight to Quito.  But knowing that the international connection out of Quito would likely be missed, we had been frantically looking for alternatives.   We could only find a flight out of Guayaquil leaving the next afternoon and booked it (Tuesday 17th).  We called to inform the Q-5, and to tell them to stay put in Guayaquil – not to fly on to Quito.  But we reached them as they were settling on to their flight to Quito.  Frustration all around. They would have to spend the night in Quito and fly right back to Guayaquil the next morning, before the Quito airport was scheduled to close at 2PM. 

We arranged to have a guide waiting for the Q-5 on their arrival in Quito, accompanying them to the hotel.  We’d figure out their flight back to Guayaquil shortly – but we had to turn our attention to the G-8 and how to get them out of Ecuador.

Back in Galapagos, the G-8 ended up on a late flight out but could only make it to Guayaquil and no further that evening.  We found them a hotel, arranged for a private transfer and they settled in for the night.  Before the lights went out, we came back to them with some good news – we had secured flights out to Dallas and to Miami the next morning, out of Guayaquil!  But while doing so, we also learned that the flight to Miami that afternoon had been cancelled!  What to do with our Q-5, stuck in Quito, for whom we had booked flights back to Guayaquil??  They seemed to be set for a long stay in Quito… 

The G-8 group got a 3AM wake-up call and headed off to the airport to catch their early morning flights…. While our three guests headed off to Dallas succeeded in boarding (and critically, taking off), our Miami-bound guests’ hopes were once again dashed.  Their flight out was cancelled…. But wait.. good news!  The late afternoon flight had been reinstated and they were re-booked onto that one.   At our end, we (Heather) was up very early looking for decently-priced medium term accommodations in Quito, as it appeared they would be destined to spend several days, if not longer, in that city.   She received a text message from one of the G-8 guests informing her that while their morning flight out of Guayaquil had been cancelled, they had been re-booked on the late afternoon flight – which was on after all!

We contacted our travel partner in Quito (it was 5AM and she was on-line) to confirm the veracity of the afternoon flight, and on learning that it looked good, we checked the Q-5 onto it, emitting their boarding passes.  We next got tickets for all of our Q-5 people out of Quito and into Guayaquil.  It was one of the last regularly scheduled flights out of Quito airport – which was closing at 2:30PM that same day. 

 

Out in the nick of time: The Q-5 with the G-8 (minus our three guests who had made their flight to Dallas), just before boarding their flight out of Guayaquil to Miami on Tuesday, March 17th.  They look surprisingly relaxed - but they had just lived through a very harrowing 48 hours. 

The Q-5 met up with the remaining G-8 guests in Guayaquil early on the afternoon of the 17th.  The airport was shutting down, shops were closed.  They had the chance to take the group picture (above) before boarding, and taking off.   It was in the nick-of-time.

Miami was not the final destination for any of our guests.  They all had to find their way home to different part of the USA, Canada and Bermuda.   Our Bermuda guest was the last one to make it - emailing us just Thursday evening (19 March) that she had made it home, safe and sound.  

Every day, as we monitor the press on Galapagos related matters, we are still seeing stories of tourists who continue to be stuck in Galapagos (even domestic flights are now very restricted, as is land transportation within the country) or on the mainland.  It may be many days, if not longer, before they manage to get home.   When we see these stories, we are reassured that we made the right call last week.   

PS:  A big thanks to our local team:  Part-time fixer Adriana who also happens to work for an international airline (that came in very handy) and our full-time Quito-base colleague, Mercedes whose 20+ years in the business showed its value.   Heather Blenkiron coordinated efforts from Canada - ceaselessly and tirelessly. Valeria and Juan whose family owned the ship, Giancarlo, our naturalist guide on the ship, and Eddie, another naturalist guide and fixer at the Galapagos airport.  There was Eufemia of the Mansion del Angel hotel, Paula who works for a larger cruise company, Fernando, who stood by our guests at Guayaquil airport, Shirley and Silvia from Galapagos Experience travel company, and Kelsey who has the thankless task of helping all our guest whose travel plans have been disrupted, and many more all helped make this happen. 

A note to fellow Galapagueños

Juan Salcedo, who, with brother and sister and mother, owns and operates the 14 passenger expedition cruise ship SAMBA.   He was on a first ever family holiday to Europe with his wife and 2 young daughters when they were forced to evacuate just before the COVID-19 curtain was lowered.  They made it back home last week, and are now self-quarantining in Quito, after which time they hope to go back to Galapagos.  

Social media in Galapagos is always a chaotic place, with all kinds of outrageous statements, cheap politics, conspiracy theories and hyperbole.  In this climate of COVID-19 induced uncertainty and under lock-down conditions, things are even worse.  

Having witnessed the invective and disinformation, Juan, always a cool head, attempts to pour a little oil on the troubled waters in this post, published today.  

The 14 passenger Samba at anchor between North and South Plazas islands

This is a long note, but now we can't complain that we don't have time to read. Many of us spend a lot of time on social media - so I urge you to read this.

The most difficult days are still far away. The good news has been hiding behind the chaos of misinformation and uncertainty. Those desires and positive advances have been hampered by the chaotic irresponsibility of social networks, which are fueled with the force and speed of recklessness and ignorance of many. These people write to feel important, they write to criticize, undermine, to generate rejection and discourage common sense. Please STOP.

I have remained silent so as not to contribute to a discussion that is increasing in tone and has the intention of generating a digital pandemic, causing despair to gain ground faster than hope. Now that we have confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Galapagos, it is time to intervene, to call for empathy, generosity and social responsibility. Unity and solidarity PLEASE.

We are a family of 4 and we have almost all of our relatives on the islands. Our home and our work is in Galapagos. We have mothers and fathers in vulnerable situations. This reality also worries us and we are sure that harder days will come even when our health and economic situation are good at the moment. For now we are taking one day at a time, with a lot of patience and a desire to collaborate.  We’re currently in self-quarantine in Quito so that we can return to Galapagos soon.

When COVID-19 was a distant thing, when it was already known but, it was China's problem, we traveled abroad for a month. We left Quito on February 19 and flew to New York where there was no case yet (more than 35,000 now in the USA).  Our only concern was over the eventual spread of the virus. My daughters are 9 and 11 years old and in those days, it was still unclear who was most vulnerable. We were responsible and meticulous in taking precautions even since we left the Islands. Gel, alcohol and masks were part of the luggage.

We arrived in Europe just as the virus began its dizzying advance. It almost seemed to follow us from destination to destination. Madrid and Barcelona presented the first cases and both authorities and people were very casual and indifferent, tourism numbers were high due to an unusually warm winter. We spent a week in Spain and did not see evidence of any preventive measures,  even when the situation was already catastrophic in Italy.

When we left for Paris, Spain was still asleep. In early March the French and their government still did not react. On their own initiative, the Louvre employees decided to close and were harshly criticized by tourists.  The government reopened the museum, dismissing the virus. France has more than 16,000 confirmed cases and nearly 650 deaths at the moment.

We continued to travel very cautiously, disinfecting everything. You will understand that with two young girls the level of stress and vigilance as parents was enormous. Although we always enjoy the trip and the activities we were aware of the danger and our hygiene protocols were at the highest level. Our last stop was Switzerland and upon arrival the holiday mood was normal. For this it is important to say that we always travel by train, metro and bus. At no time was anything disinfected, nor was there any hygiene or preventive protocol to reduce infections. Europe lived a climate of tranquility and denial.

Only on March 13, they remember that Friday the 13th, there was a reaction to the WHO PANDEMIC statement. Switzerland still did not take rigorous actions even though it already had more than 500 cases (today they exceed 7,000 and are among the 10 countries with the highest number of infections).

Ecuador took more effective measures and did so more quickly than Europe. For that reason we were hardly able to return to our own country. I am not a supporter of any politician, current or former, but I understand that they are authoritative and must take measures to reduce the spread of the virus. They are not perfect, yet they have shown more prudence, common sense and commitment than the authorities of developed countries. The rest is citizen responsibility, the rest we have to do. Upon returning to Ecuador we follow the protocols requested by the Government. We are still in Mandatory Preventive Isolation here in Quito and, although we have not presented symptoms, we have been very meticulous and compliant so as not to be asymptomatic transmitters of the virus.  It will be another 5 days before we can be sure that we’re not carrying the virus and perhaps it will be longer before we can actually return home to the islands.   

I would like to shout: Stop making a mess of things! But that won’t help much (a little humor after having to read this spiel). I prefer to say: nobody is to blame, let's understand that this is a WORLD problem. That goodwill and the desire to collaborate will be the essential ingredients to get out of this enormous health and economic CRISIS.

Today more than ever we contribute in a positive way, silencing the EGO and activating the best sides of ourselves.

See you soon family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances.

Galapagos: Closed until further notice

This afternoon, the vice-president of Ecuador announced a series of measures with the objective of slowing down the spread of COVID-19 in the country.   Though there are fewer than 30 cases in the country, he has indicated that it would be better to apply these heavy-handed measures now to avoid greater disruptions later.

As of midnight, Sunday night (15 March), foreigners will no longer be permitted entry into the country (even Ecuadorian nationals have until midnight on the 16th of March to return!).  Should any arrive after that date, they will be forced to purchase an air ticket on the spot and return to whence they came.  

All ships operating in Galapagos are closing shop.  One large ship operated by National Geographic turned away several dozen passengers just as they were arriving in Galapagos today.  They had to turn around and head right back home.

Countries are urging their citizens to head back home as soon as possible before it becomes very nearly impossible to do so:  Commercial airlines, faced with a dramatic drop in passengers, are cancelling many flights and some routes may no longer have service.  

Over the past several weeks, we have tried hard to keep abreast of the developments.   It seemed that each day brought a new policy decision on the part of Galapagos authorities, Ecuadorian authorities, the World Health Organization, various governments.   It has been very hard to try to get clarity at times, and to translate that into practical, accionable advice for our guests. 

As of this morning, we had 4 determined guests from Canada - willing to embark on a ship this coming Tuesday.   Despite our warnings that things could change, they were keen.   They were already in Ecuador and would have been eligible to fly to Galapagos.   But sadly, by this afternoon, everything changed (once again) and now, instead of swimming with penguins, they will be on a flight home this Thursday.

It's not clear how long these measures will be in place.   Some ships in Galapagos have the temerity to declare that they will be resuming operations in 1 month.   But frankly, I don't know the basis on which they make these decisions.  It could be much longer.    

In the days and weeks ahead, we will monitor the situation.  We have many friends in Galapagos who keep us posted on conditions there (it won't be easy, as most people there make a living from tourism and already, I have reports that it's a ghost town in Puerto Ayora).  We'll be posting updates here if there are any developments of substance to report.

In the meantime, hang on to your dream.  Perhaps giving Galapagos a little breather might be a good thing for the wildlife and the visitor experience when things get going again.

In the meantime, for the keeners out there, CNH Tours is offering some very favourable booking conditions to those who are keen on booking something now for a future date.  We'll offer a discount, and we'll let you change the date of your sailing should COVID-19 remain an issue at that time.   Contact us for details.   

Update on COVID-19 and Galapagos / Our recommendations

Update 14 March:  The following countries / states have been added to the "mandatory 14 day quarantine on arrival" list:  USA states of Washington, New York, Massachusetts and California, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  Applicable as of March 15.

FURTHER CHANGES IN EFFECT AS OF 14 MARCH:  Any person arriving in Ecuador, having started their trip to Ecuador on the 14th of March and having spent some time in any of the countries listed above within the 14 days prior to their arrival will be detained at the airport and requested to leave the country by the same means, at his/her own expense, unless they can demonstrate that they have confirmed accommodations for a 14 day self quarantine.  

 

ORIGINAL MARCH 13 NEWS ITEM FOLLOWS: 

While the number of confirmed cases in Ecuador remains very low as this note is written (fewer than 20), and while none of these has occurred in Galapagos, the Government of Ecuador has implemented widespread pro-active measures in an effort to reduce the incidence of the virus and the speed of its transmission.   CNH Tours approves of these measures as it’s better to slow down the spread of the virus at the outset than to start dealing with a grass fire only when it’s already out of control.    We are confident that these measures will contribute to reducing the overall impact of the virus on the Ecuadorian people and the Ecuadorian economy.

However, these measures may have a negative effect on those whose trip to Ecuador is coming up soon.   On Tuesday this week, the government imposed mandatory 14 day quarantine on all travellers (both visitors and nationals) arriving into the country and who will have travelled in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Iran, South Korea and China in the 14 days prior to their arrival.    These measures come into effect today (13 March) but we’re not sure how rigorous the process will be.   To confirm how such policies were being implemented, we spoke with our close colleague who works with Avianca Airlines.  She is in very close touch with airport personnel and procedures.  We expect to get updates from the airport terminal presently. 

Regardless, all arriving passengers will be asked to fill in a general “state of health” questionnaire in flight, prior to arrival (see sample below).   You will be screened for a fever and other signs of COVID-19 before passing through immigration.  If there is no reason to believe the passenger may have the virus, he/she will proceed as normal.   If any COVID-related symptoms are detected, you will be taken for closer examination.  A similar health check takes place prior to embarking on your flight to Galapagos.

 

If, over the 14 days prior to your arrival in Ecuador, you will have spent time in the countries noted above, we suggest that you prepare to reconsider your travel plans.   In the meantime, you may want to contact your airline to see about refunds or re-bookings.  You may want to consult your insurance policy to see if you might be eligible for compensation.  

For others, no one knows at this point if and when Ecuador might add to that list of countries noted above.  At one point, should the virus begin to spread more widely within the country, such measures might prove to be moot and might be dropped altogether.  But for the time being, Ecuador is trying to limit the arrival of carriers into the country.  

On the positive side, these measures will reduce the chances of the virus spreading among people, and they will contribute to making a trip to the Galapagos less risky.  CNH Tours remains confident that the chances of contracting the virus in Ecuador remain very slim.   In a previous news item, we made our case on why we think that travel by ship in Galapagos is less risky that embarking on a multi-thousand passenger mega-cruise ship elsewhere (see here).

Despite these stringent measures and despite our confidence in the continued safety of a Galapagos cruise, regulations are changing rapidly.  It might be possible that you are prevented from travelling not because of the health risk, but because of Government of Ecuador decisions, or even due to flight cancellations on the part of your airline – or even re-entry conditions imposed by your own government.

We recommend that you keep a close eye on developments.  Review your insurance policies to see if/how they might apply should you be asked to spend 14 days in quarantine, or should your airline cancel your flights, or if your own government imposes regulations that prevent you from travelling.  

As for CNH Tours, we are doing all we can to help those caught in the middle of this.   We re-iterate that, for the time being and notwithstanding all of the regulatory concerns noted above, we feel that a Galapagos cruise remains a very low health risk travel proposition.  All of our expedition ship partners have indicated to us that they are operating normally.   

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