Friday, February 21, 2014

Tourism in Galapagos – by Gary

I first came to Galapagos in the mid 80s in tiny Orzel, anchoring in Academy Bay on the island of Santa Cruz.  It’s the same place where we are now.  While memories of back then are hazy, I recall a quiet, dusty main-street curving around the head of the bay, a seedy Port Captain’s office, shanty like shops, houses and some low key tourism.  At that time about 18,000 visitors were coming to Galapagos each year. Anchored on one side of the bay next to a low basalt cliff, I could watch the marine iguanas diving under the boat to feed on algae, or walk along the cliff-top through the rugged chasms and tunnels left by former lava flows. On the opposite side of the bay the Charles Darwin Foundation opened its doors to the public every Friday afternoon with a seminar featuring some aspect of their current research program. Cruising to such a remote destination felt like real eco-tourism, though I think the term still awaited invention.

Needless to say, much has changed!  The Galapagos Archipelago has since emerged as one of the world’s premier ‘eco-tourism’ destinations, attracting more than 180,000 visitors annually, most of them being international visitors.  As the most popular tourism destination in Ecuador Galapagos is a major foreign currency earner for the country contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the national economy.  In-order to develop the industry the islands have been the focus of major public and private investment.

But I surprised myself!  I really like the town that Academy Bay (now called Puerto Ayora) has become – it’s vibrant.  It’s a tourist hub, but also a very ‘lived-in’ town, with a waterfront full of locals; volley-ballers, skateboarders, bike riders, craft competitors, promenaders, even beauty contestants.  Much of the architecture is new, stylish, modern.  Of tourists, yes there are plenty, but about them there is generally an air of energy, engagement and enthusiasm about what they are seeing and doing.  There is no MacDonalds, KFC or Hilton Hotel.  Instead everywhere around the town is the amazing, tame wildlife that Galapagos is so famous for, seals, pelicans, noddies, iguanas, boobies and of course, those finches.

Some of the architecture in Puerto Ayora is stunning.

Volley ball players, the pleasant main drag and the very pleasant beauty contestants

The local fish market features people, fish, flies, pelicans and yes.. a seal!

Of institutions I found less to get excited about.  A phalanx of government bureaucrats boarded our boat on arrival, agents, inspectors, officers you name it – eight of them – all with their hands out to relieve us of well over US$1,000, much of it in exchange for some meaningless, feel-good ‘conservation’ measures.  One chappie, the quarantine officer, wanted $150 to ‘fumigate’ the boat.  Following payment he squeezed some cockroach bate out of a tube (one that you can buy in any supermarket in this part of the world) and then wrote out a pretty certificate.  Another, the ‘park inspector’, wanted $100 so he could ask us if we had a black water tank.  Did he check it out, did he see if it was connected?  Nah!  The Charles Darwin Foundation’s central plank of community engagement now seems to be an interpretation hall featuring a hefty load of government and institutional propaganda and some interesting misinformation.  On the positive side the foundation has had some encouraging success with the eradication of some feral pest species and the recovery of some endangered species.

Perhaps even more positively, the Galapagos National Park Service seems to be using the $100 it collects from each inbound tourist to good effect, building some fine visitor infrastructure including walking trails and interpretation, carrying out extensive feral pest control measures and most importantly, strongly regulating tour operators (do I detect the dreaded hand of a planner?).  Tourism here has two main components, land-based and tour-boat based. Puerto Ayora boasts all manner of shore-side accommodation from luxury apartments to cheap hostels, but it is all small scale.  The bay bustles with tour boats coming and going; some small carrying perhaps 10-16 guests, others much larger and luxurious, but at least not huge, carrying between 40 and 100 guests. Visits within the park are tightly controlled by the park service, each mini bus/boat must carry an on-board, knowledgeable and trained guide and can visit only the designated sites around the island group.  There are only 149 such designated sites: 70 land sites and 79 scuba-diving or snorkeling sites. Small groups are allowed to visit in 2–4 hour shifts only, accompanied by their guide.

Tour boats: the good, the bad and the ugly.

In Puerto Ayora we are anchored in much the same place as I was first time around, but with so many tour boats and such a much larger town the water clarity has been badly affected. You can no longer see the iguanas diving under the boat.  You can no longer walk the cliff-top either; it has all been privatised and fenced, with classy water front residential and restaurant developments.

The fully privatized cliff-top.  Most of the island chain is unavailable for development (97.5% reserved) so prime waterfront like this must be very valuable.

But again, it’s a case of swings and roundabouts.  Current levels of tourism are no-where near as destructive as some previous uses.  For instance the Galapagos Giant Tortoise, pre-contact numbered perhaps 250,000, reduced to a low of around 3,000 in the 1970s, but thanks to conservation efforts has now recovered to around 19,000. A goat eradication program on Pinta, Santiago and northern Isabela islands has achieved vegetation rehabilitation outcomes that are little short of miraculous.

Way back in the beginning of all this tourism bonanza the Charles Darwin Foundation:
“... felt strongly that nature tourism represented the economic activity that was by far the most compatible with conservation of the archipelago’s biological diversity, evolutionary and ecological processes, and environment.”
Certainly nature-based tourism has been enormously successful in economic terms, but are the other outcomes being achieved?  From my reading I gather the jury is still out, but generally I’m impressed and optimistic.

As you can see reflected in the vegetation, the more recent lava flows skirting the coastline of Santa Cruz have practically no soil development or moisture holding ability.

For most visitors it’s the unique and uniquely tame animals that make Galapagos such an extraordinary place.

Anybody can become a wildlife photographer with these remarkably tame animals

Nina and friends

But for my money the marine iguanas are the most extraordinary of the lot.

Tourism Timeline
1535        the Bishop of Panama, sailing to Peru discovers the islands
1807        sailor Patrick Watkins is marooned becoming the first known resident
1835        Charles Darwin visits in the Beagle
1950s a little over 1,000 people live in the islands
1959 the archipelago becomes a national park with 97.5% of it protected
1969 organized tourism kick starts with a regular air service and tours
1970        5,000 visitors arrive
1978 Galapagos is declared one of the first 12 World Heritage sites
late 70s guidelines suggest tourist numbers be 12,000 pa – soon raised to 25,000
1980 to 1985 17,500 visitors arrive, growth flat
1986        a 70,000km² marine reserve is declared over the surrounding ocean
1990        41,000 visitors arrive
1998        the population of Galapagos triples from 1974, rising to 15,311.
2000        72,000 visitors arrive
2005        122,000 visitors arrive
present    180,000 visitors arrive annually.  There are more than 26,000 residents – most have work, mostly in tourist related jobs.  There are 1,300 registered invasive plant species.  Introduced animal species adding to habitat damage include horses, cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats, poultry, rats, mice, ants, cockroaches and assorted parasites.  Conservation remains a high priority...

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