Travel Agent / December 20, 2005
By Larry Luxner
SAN CRISTOBAL, Galapágos Islands — Blue-footed boobies, sea lions and giant tortoises have for years lured wealthy tourists to Ecuador's remote Galápagos Islands.
In fact, this Pacific paradise has become so popular that a record 120,000 Americans, Europeans and others will have visited during 2005. At the same time, more and more Ecuadorians are taking up residence in the Galápagos — worrying environmentalists, politicians and even some tour operators that enough is enough.
"We have to control immigration. We cannot let it have a negative impact on the environment," said Grace Unda, governor of the province of Galápagos. "We have to develop strong controls. This must be our priority if we want to preserve the Galápagos."
Unda, interviewed at her office in the little town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on the island of San Cristobal, said the Galápagos now home to 26,000 people. That's up from 18,600 only four years ago. The major islands are Santa Cruz, with 16,000 people; San Cristobal, with 7,000, and Isabela, with 3,000. Most of the other 10 islands, 17 islets and 47 reefs in the volcanic archipelago are uninhabited.
Unda said the population is growing because tourism is booming — and tourism brings in badly needed dollars.
But Patricio Tamaríz, executive director of the Quito-based Fondo Mixto de Turismo, says the islands can't handle more than 160,000 tourists a year.
"We'll be there in the next two years, and for sure, prices will go up by as much as 30% once the level of 160,000 is met," said Tamaríz. He says "the Galápagos Islands are going to get more and more tourists, because even though we're doing a marketing campaign for our three other destinations [Amazon, Andes and the Pacific coast], there will always be a strong demand for the Galápagos."
Santiago Dunn, president of tour operator Eco-Ventura in Guayaquil, agrees that the Galápagos is close to capacity.
"Yes, I think we're reaching the limit," he said. "Most likely, the same thing that happened to Cuzco and Machu Picchu will happen to the Galápagos, with price increases of 10-15% because of unusually strong demand as a result of the marketing that Ecuador has done over the past 12 to 18 months."
Dunn added that "2005 was an extraordinary year in load factors, and 2006 will be the same; 2007 is the big question mark."
Another question mark is whether the government will raise the $100 Galápagos National Park tax it charges each foreign visitor upon arrival. There's been talk of increasing the already hefty tax to $200 or even $250 — a move favored by politicians but opposed by tourism operators and many local residents worried about the impact that might have on the economy.
In the wake of 9/11, Ecuador's tourism appeal has increased substantially. The fact that the country is relatively cheap and uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency certainly helps. And the growing controversy about Charles Darwin's theory of evolution versus intelligent design has also contributed to the islands' fame.
Yet a trip to the Galápagos isn't cheap by any means. Per-person prices (excluding airfare to and from Ecuador) range from $1,000 for a four-day boat cruise to $3,000 for a seven-day cruise on a luxury vessel. At the moment, 70% of all foreign visitors to the Galápagos are Americans; the remaining 30% are Europeans, with a handful of Latin Americans, Israelis and Asians.
Dave Blanton is executive director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, which represents 40 tour operators in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France and Australia.
"Tourism in the Galápagos has grown in a haphazard way and needs to be rethought," Blanton told Travel Agent."There needs to be a new vision and ecotourism model that everybody agrees on. Only 1% of the land area is set aside for visitors, so if it's done properly, even 160,000 tourists would be OK."
Richard Knab doesn't agree.
"Given the current infrastructure, I question whether we can adequately handle the current numbers," said Knab, director of development at the nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy, formerly known as the Charles Darwin Foundation Inc.
"The current model is not really equitable," he said. "It's a boat-based model where the local population isn't involved, and that leads to limited economic opportunities. The fishing sector is very vocal, having outfished its resources, and everybody's saying they need to seek alternative means of income generation.
"But those means of income generation really don't exist. You're getting the travel companies and employees from the mainland, who are reaping most of the benefits, while the locals are told to curtail their activities because of the potential impact on tourism."
For now, Dunn says his company, Eco-Ventura, will have brought 3,600 tourists to the Galápagos this year on its four luxury vessels — Eric, Flamingo, Letty and Sky Dancer.
"Business has been good," he said. "The Galápagos has turned into an oasis for tourism, but the Galápagos tends to come in cycles, so I don't know how long this uphill cycle will last. For the good of the country, I hope it stays up."