A trip to the Galapagos Islands is one of those “bucket list” travel experiences. The unique ecosystems found here have created homes for wildlife found nowhere else on earth, and here many animals have evolved in ways that are completely unique on our planet. Today, about 97 percent of the land area and all of the waters surrounding the islands up to a seventeen-mile boundary have been set aside by the Ecuadorian government as a national park, helping to ensure that wild Galapagos will be preserved for the world to treasure and enjoy.
But with such interest and tourism, such places can pay a heavy price – along with the life in them. Knowing how to be a good steward of the environment when traveling here, and how to select a responsible tour operator, is paramount to protecting this ecosystem and its wildlife.
One of the most unusual aspects of Galapagos wildlife is how unafraid they are, how completely unperturbed they are by people. Because they are protected and mostly have no natural predators, they really fear little and see no threat from humans in modern times. They do not flee – there is no searching and waiting to spot wildlife. It is right there in front of you, and you can walk right up to them.
This can also be their downfall, if not properly protected. “The Islands retain a staggering 95% of their endemic species, a feat unparalleled on any other archipelago in the world,” says Santiago Dunn, owner of Ecoventura tour company. “Keeping Galapagos biologically pristine has been and continues to be, a constant and hard-waged battle. Tourism to this remote volcanic archipelago is both part of the solution and also part of the problem.”
Ecoventura is one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable tourism companies in the Ecuadorian archipelago, with a dedication to making the least footprint possible on this ecosystem. Ecoventura was was the first company to earn and maintain the ecological certification, SmartVoyager, and the first Galapagos cruise ship company to offset carbon emissions and to install alternative energy sources.
Arrivals to the Galapagos have tripled in the past 15 years due to the growth in land-based tourism operations. During this time the type of tourism available to visitors has changed with land based accommodation and activities now representing 50% of the market, according to the Galapagos Conservation Trust. Visiting the islands by water, as a tourist, has by far a lower impact than land tourism. The number of highly regulated, self-contained non-diving live-aboard tour boats has not changed since 1998 after the introduction of the Special Law for Galapagos.
In 2007 the Galapagos Islands were added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage In Danger for three reasons:
- Uncontrolled increases in tourism
- Uncontrolled increases in population
- Uncontrolled increases in invasive species
“The growing number of settlers migrating from the mainland of Ecuador to the islands, largely in response to the recent boom in tourism, has also put pressure on a fragile environment that imperils the entire ecosystem,” Dunn adds. “Ecoventura strives to ensure that local communities can benefit from tourism as well as seeking to discourage negative effects of irresponsible tourism.”
So what should a potential visitor to the Galapagos Islands look for in a tour company, and remember during his or her visit? Here is a helpful checklist to get the most out of your trip, as well as help protect this truly magical place:
- Do not take any food or drink other than water to the uninhabited islands. Do not touch or feed the animals. A distance of six feet between you and an animal is required. Also, do not allow them to touch you.
- Combine coastal visits on uninhabited islands with inland highland visits, where giant tortoises are found in the wild. Also combine active pursuits such as snorkeling, kayak, hiking, zodiac rides, with visits to port towns.
- Navigating at night means fewer daylight hours are lost while spent in transit and passengers have more time on the islands. Tour boats, also called liveaboards, visit the islands and wildlife in the early morning and late afternoon, when wildlife is more active and the sun less intense.
- Liveaboards are self-contained and have less impact on the local limited resources. Convenience, all the planning and logistics are done, the itinerary is set, all meals are provided, and there is continuity, and you only have to pack and unpack once.
- Ask your tour operator if they have a responsible tourism policy. Only travel with operators that can demonstrate that they are doing as much as they can to support conservation efforts and ensure that local people benefit as a result of tourism.
- Consider your environmental impact when traveling. Fully cooperate with environmental inspection and quarantine services personnel during your visit. Introduced plants, animals, and certain foods not native to the islands are a serious threat to the delicate ecosystems here.
- Do not buy souvenirs or objects made of native plants or animals from the islands, especially black coral, volcanic rocks, native woods, sea lion teeth, or tortoise shells
- Travel with a local tour operator. Ensuring that tourism is of maximum benefit to local people is key to the sustainable development of the islands.
Following these guidelines and committing to be a responsible tourist will help to ensure that Galapagos tourism is sustainable in the future.
For more information about Ecoventura, visit their website.
The International Galapagos Tour Operators Association has some great tips to prepare you for visiting the islands.