What is ecotourism, and what are its positive impacts in the Galapagos?
Ecotourism is a term used to describe touristic activities in often remote natural settings. These activities aim to support conservation efforts to protect the environment and the species residing there. Another way to think of ecotourism as a framework for travelers to enjoy remarkable destinations where their presence has a positive impact.
Galapagos Conservation, Education, and the Economy
In the Galapagos, the positive impact of ecotourism extends beyond just support for conservation efforts. Ecotourism provides the opportunity for visitors to learn about the delicate ecosystems and endemic wildlife of the region. It inspires residents to learn more about their surroundings, parlaying that knowledge I into science, tourism, business, and conservation careers. This can lead to generational transformation, better standards of living, and greater appreciation and care for the incredible islands and waters of the Galapagos.
Sustainable Galapagos Tourism and the Future
Of course, the key to making these positive impacts last is sustainability. The Galapagos has come so far in developing an essential symbiotic relationship with tourism. It is only possible if it is sustainable, ecologically minded, and always respectful of the ecosystems and wildlife that make this place so unique.
Ecotourism and Its Role in Galapagos Conservation
Ecotourism plays a pivotal role in Galapagos conservation efforts. Organizations like the Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Galapagos Conservation Trust, Galapagos Conservation Action, and others focus on supporting and spearheading conservation projects throughout the archipelago, all the while working in tandem with the Galapagos National Park (GNP). The GNP is the Ecuadorian governmental authority in the region.
The Galapagos National Park
The Galapagos National Park extends over 97% of the archipelago. This area is highly protected and strictly monitored and maintained by the GNP. The remaining 3% is the area inhabited by the resident population, which extends over parts of Santa Cruz (15,701*), San Cristobal (7,199*), Isabela (2,344*), and Floreana (148*) Islands.
[* according to the 2015 official census numbers]
A few important things to note about the Galapagos National Park:
- Naturalist guides must be officially certified and authorized by the Galapagos National Park
- A Park-certified natural guide must always accompany visitors to the GNP.
- The maximum number of people permitted per guide is 16.
Protection and support for native and endemic species in Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are home to 56 species of birds, of which 45 are endemic, and 25 species of reptiles, of which 19 are endemic. Given the importance of the Galapagos Islands as a prime example of evolution, one can understand that the archipelago’s ecosystems are delicate and fragile. That so many endemic species (found nowhere else on the planet) have adapted to the unique conditions of the Galapagos over countless centuries is a testament to just how special this place is.
The Galapagos National Park understands and promotes this fact vigorously. Certified naturalist guides do their part by educating visitors as they tour the GNP. Guides are also trained and instructed to photograph and document any curious details regarding wildlife and the environment, sharing this information with the GNP and complementing the work of park rangers and biologists.
Tourism in the Galapagos, which is by nature ecotourism, is one of the primary sources of funds for this vital work. International visitors in the Galapagos pay a park entrance fee of $100 per person. It may seem pricey to some. However, considering that a day pass to a famous amusement park in the United States can easily cost that much or more, the GNP entrance fee is an incredible bargain!
Also, the GNP relies on tourism operators and conservation organizations to help protect the vital ecosystems and wildlife of the Galapagos. This coordination represents an enormous effort. Thankfully, as more and more people visit the Galapagos Islands and learn about the scientific research and work that helps keep this destination so pristine, they are more inclined to get involved with and offer financial support to various conservation organizations.
This work includes monitoring the effects of climate change, studying the evolution of numerous species, and tracking migratory patterns of various sea birds. Add to this the efforts of a handful of tortoise breeding centers on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela Islands that work to ensure the survival of 12 existing subspecies of this iconic Galapagos giant.
Sustainability, Innovation, and Lower Carbon Emissions in Galapagos
Some ecotourism operators set the example regarding sustainability, innovation, and lower carbon emissions in Galapagos. Metropolitan Touring, for instance, has been pioneering sustainable travel for several decades. The example they’ve set in the Galapagos demonstrates how tourism can be part of the solution, especially when it is done in service to the destination, its ecosystems, residents, and wildlife.
When we talk about sustainability, we refer to how we can minimize the adverse effects of tourism in a destination while maximizing their positive impacts. Sustainability involves caring for the ecosystems, wildlife, and natural resources. Some of this can be done through innovation.
For instance, Metropolitan Touring maintains and repaints their three expedition vessels—Yacht La Pinta, Yacht Isabella II, and the Santa Cruz II—at regular intervals. By utilizing a specific type of paint for their hulls that eliminates drag and increases fuel efficiency, Metropolitan Touring has found a meaningful way to lower their carbon emissions.
Another example is how Metropolitan Touring sources local ingredients for the exquisite meals they serve aboard their ships. Including local ingredients means fewer products are shipped from the mainland, which, in turn, reduces the consumption of fossil fuels to a fair degree. Local providers can also enjoy direct regional sales without exporting their products to the mainland.
Galapagos Ecotourism and Its Role in Education
Ecotourism in Galapagos relies upon individuals who have studied biology, environmental science, veterinary medicine, geology, ecology, economics, tourism, administration, communication, culinary arts, health, and foreign languages, to name a few! It requires an enormous collaborative effort.
Scientific Research, Marine Biology, Climate Science, and Zoology in Galapagos
For decades, the Galapagos Islands have inspired promising university students worldwide to visit and study this magnificent destination and its remarkable wildlife. Many of these programs are focused on ecology, marine biology, climate science, and zoological sciences. Other programs are focused on language and sustainable development. An ever-growing number of universities offer study abroad programs in the Galapagos.
Below is a list of a tiny sample of well-known universities with study abroad programs in the Galapagos. Please note that some of these study-abroad programs are offered in collaboration with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ)
- Ohio Wesleyan University
- University of North Carolina
- University of Calgary
- University of Miami
- Universidad de Málaga
Galapagos visitors gain knowledge and awareness of the environment
Remember that part of the GNP’s mission is to impart knowledge to visitors to the Islands. Some GNP-certified naturalist guides are bilingual (Spanish and English) and multilingual, meaning they can offer information and answer questions in several languages. This awareness visit to the Galapagos is such an enlightening experience for travelers of all ages.
Galapagos Ecotourism and Its Impact on the Economy
By now, we can see how ecotourism has a general and positive impact on the Galapagos Islands. However, focusing on the economy and how ecotourism supports it at every level is interesting.
Galapagos Jobs in Education, Conservation, and Tourism
Some of the more high-profile jobs in the Galapagos revolve around scientific research throughout the islands. Scientists are often tasked with research, conservation, and education. The Charles Darwin Research Station is a famous example of this. (And, of course, each of these organizations employs communications and public relations professionals to help convey their work to the public.)
When visitors arrive in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, one of the premier places to visit is the expansive research station operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation. Visitors are led on campus tours and taught about the work required to preserve the unique habitats and species found throughout the islands.
Similarly, the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS), part of USFQ on San Cristobal Island, is a vital campus that implements programs for university students from Ecuador’s mainland and worldwide.
Add to these examples the dozens of jobs and professions needed to operate tourism activities, and you can easily see why ecotourism significantly impacts the economy.
Volunteer Efforts by Galapagos Residents and Visitors
The intersection of four marine currents in and around the archipelago means that many plastic bottles and caps, scraps of netting, and discarded buoys can wash ashore along otherwise pristine beaches.
On the island of San Cristobal, a group of young people from the San Cristobal Surf Club organized their efforts and channeled their environmental consciousness into volunteer beach clean-ups, calling attention to this persistent problem that affects beachside communities worldwide.
In a way, their work is like that of other GNP guides, who offer visitors the chance to participate in beach clean-up efforts as part of their activities in the park. It is an experience that provides visitors with a critical perspective and the opportunity to make a difference. The value of this activity is one with lasting and positive effects.
Industries that Support Ecotourism in Galapagos
There are so many industries that support ecotourism in Galapagos. Besides those mentioned, ecotourism relies on agriculture, restaurants, hotels, hospitality, transportation, infrastructure, local government, artists, and entrepreneurs.
Galapagos Restaurants and Hospitality
Some of the most notable restaurants in the Galapagos distinguish themselves by featuring locally sourced ingredients. This trend has increased in recent years and is increasingly becoming the norm.
Similarly, more and more residents are becoming skilled in various hospitality-related services, such as massage, spa treatments, expedition planning, language interpretation, and hotel management. These jobs enormously impact the local economy and allow families to earn livable wages.
One example of a hotel and restaurant leading the way in sustainability practices and ecotourism is the Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. This renowned, award-winning expedition hotel is carbon-neutral in its operations. The restaurant sources its ingredients locally. Also, the hotel has its yacht (the Sea Lion) that offers Galapagos tours to nearby islands in the GNP.
Galapagos Transportation, Infrastructure, and Local Government
Though the population of the Galapagos is relatively tiny, roads, buildings, and other infrastructure are crucial to facilitating ecotourism. Thus, numerous residents work in transportation, construction, engineering, and corresponding administrative jobs in local government or the private sector.
Markets, shops, and galleries in Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are beautiful. They inspire artists worldwide who have literally and figuratively fallen in love with the Galapagos people, climate, and culture. A few have even married locals and become Galapagueños themselves. They are artists and educators, creating inspired pieces of jewelry and visual art that visitors can purchase and take home. In Puerto Ayora alone, a dozen galleries feature authentic, locally made pieces.
Galapagos Islands Ecotourism and a Sustainable Future
Sustainable ecotourism is the key to the Galapagos Islands’ future. Tourism practices must continue to innovate in technology and transportation to, from, and through the region. More substantial efforts and advancements can help reduce carbon emissions. Tour operators can continue to source more materials, products, and ingredients locally, in addition to training talented individuals from the region to staff expedition cruises and provide necessary services and skills that support scientific, touristic, and administrative operations, strengthening the local economy.
So, when considering booking an expedition cruise or land-based experience with us in the archipelago, you can do so confidently, knowing that you’ll support sustainable ecotourism and make a difference in the Galapagos.