Dig Deeper
November 11, 2019

By: Nick Dall

Fifty years on: How tourism brought the Galapagos back from the brink

Secondary Categories: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

This month we take an in-depth look at humans’ impact – good and bad – on the incredible natural laboratory that is the Galapagos archipelago. Featuring a Catholic Bishop, a British pirate fleet, a German Baroness, a US navy base, and Charles Darwin himself, it’s a tale so fascinating you couldn’t possibly make it up.

“The way I see it, conservation is the yin and tourism is the yang,” says amateur historian Klaus Fielsch, who worked as a naturalist guide on the islands for 14 years and still remains heavily involved with them. He then rattles off a list of conservation highlights: In 1969 there were 12 tortoises on Española, now there are over 1,000. Islands that had thousands of goats now have none. Rats have been eliminated. Scientists have done extensive studies on most (if not all) of the islands’ endemic species. All of this, says Klaus, has happened “because of tourism.”

Specifically, low-volume tourism. Despite 2018 being a record-breaking year, only 276,000 people visited the islands. Of those, a mere 68,000 visited the National Park which occupies 97% percent of the land area. “That’s smaller than a single football match,” enthuses Klaus. “Spread out over the entire year.”

Tourism in the Galapagos is heavily regulated. Only 69 ships are licensed to take tourists to the National Park, with the vast majority being small vessels (16 passengers or less). Fifty-seven of these ships are kitted out for liveaboard cruises with the total number of beds capped at 1,670. The remaining 12 vessels – with a combined capacity of 200 people – are licensed to take day trips into the National Park.

Bachas Beach on the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island.

Land visits to the 176 designated tourist sites within the National Park are strictly controlled. While on land you can’t eat, you can’t smoke, you can’t stray from the paths, and you certainly can’t touch the animals. One expert guide must accompany every 16 tourists, and each site can accommodate no more than six groups at a time.

“Even in the peak season over Christmas and New Year, says Klaus, “The National Park never feels crowded. Tourists know they are doing no harm…”

In the beginning

In the first 400 years after their accidental discovery by the Bishop of Panama in 1535, the Galapagos “were systematically depleted of their resources,” says Klaus. For the first few centuries, they served mainly as a nifty hideout for the British pirates who terrorized the Spanish fleet. While the pirates did their fair share of damage to the islands’ plant and wildlife, the real sucker punch came in the 19th century when hundreds of Nantucket-based whaling ships descended on the archipelago. Not only did they decimate the resident sperm whales, but they also discovered that the islands’ enormous land tortoises were the perfect long-life pantry food; stacking the still-living animals on the decks of their ships to eat at a later date.

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan at Monte Sarmiento, reproduction of R. T. Pritchett's frontispiece from the 1890 illustrated edition of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

When the new nation of Ecuador was granted dominion over the islands in 1833, they were used as a prison colony for a few decades. Between the whalers, the prisoners and other passing ships “hundreds of thousands of tortoises were killed,” says Klaus. The dodo was hunted to extinction, and other species – iguanas, boobies, and seals – were hunted and subject to random abuse.

But the humans didn’t only take from the islands. Whalers and other ships introduced goats, pigs, cats, rats, dogs, mice, and more. Goats, which numbered a quarter of a million at one point, hit the islands’ unique ecosystems particularly hard with their indiscriminate browsing and prolific procreation.

First thoughts of conservation

Just when the whaling was at its worst, Charles Darwin brought the islands’ intrinsic conservational value to the world’s attention with the publication of On the Origin of Species. (I won’t go into detail about how Darwin’s 1835 visit to the islands shaped his Theory of Evolution, as we’ve already blogged extensively about Darwin and the Galapagos here, here, and here.)

At the turn of the 20th century, things got so bad that the California Academy of Sciences voyaged to the Galapagos with the sole purpose of collecting as many specimens as they could. Preserving species through taxidermy or in chloroform so that future generations could appreciate what had been lost.

Improvements in tortoise breeding over the decades have made this one of the Galapagos' most successful conservation programs.

After a fire during the Great San Francisco Quake razed the Academy’s museum to the ground, the scientists returned to the islands to replace their charred collection. Thus, in 1906, the last Fernandina tortoise was killed in the name of science. (In a happy postscript, a female specimen was found on the island in February 2019, over a century after its supposed extinction!)

When WWI broke out, says Klaus, conservation had to take a backseat. Between the two world wars, the mysterious murder of a glamorous German socialite on Floreana Island made global headlines. And in WWII, the US established a navy base on Baltra Island. Troops stationed there “got real lucky,” laughs Klaus, “They had beautiful weather and idyllic beaches and they didn’t see a moment’s combat.”

Conservation take two

After WWII it was once again possible to talk about Galapagos conservation. Working under the auspices of UNESCO (which had just been established), the Austrian ethnologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and American ornithologist Robert Bowman pushed the world to protect the Galapagos. Thanks to their efforts, on 4 July 1959, the National Park was declared. A year later the Charles Darwin Research Station was established on Santa Cruz Island.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Bowman were adamant that the only way the National Park could work (a 1930s attempt had proved successful only on paper) would be to use tourism to fund conservation. At the time this was quite a controversial point of view, explains Klaus, as “many people thought it was really weird to bring tourists to a national park.” In 1966 an extensive feasibility survey found that tourism could work – with a few caveats:

  1. Tourists must sleep on ships
  2. Tourists must always be accompanied by wardens when on land
  3. Clearly demarcated paths that avoided sensitive areas must be established

The birth of tourism

The first tourists to visit the Galapagos did so on (very long) day trips! Starting in Quito before the sun rose, they took a charter flight to the islands, breaking the 850-mile journey at Guayaquil. Once there, they were treated to a short boat trip around Baltra and surrounds before flying back to Quito.

A year later, in 1969, two ships – the Lina A and the Golden Cachalot – took the first Galapagos passenger cruises. Back then there were no wardens (the first naturalist guides were recruited by the cruise owners from universities around the world) and no trails. Between 1969 and 1972 a team from the Department of the Interior laid out the network of trails which is still in use today.

Galapagos Islands, surveyed by Captain FitzRoy and the Officers of HMS Beagle, 1836.

Even Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Bowman must have been surprised at how quickly their vision became a reality. By the 1980s, the Galapagos had a fully-fledged (and tightly controlled) ship-based tourism industry. The income from tourism assisted in funding conservation, and research efforts and a number of species bounced back from the brink of extinction.

The human problem

The economic bubble of the Galapagos attracted thousands of ‘immigrants’ from mainland Ecuador, with the human population of the islands almost doubling (to 30,000) in the 1990s. “While normally perceived to be a valuable asset to any evolving economy,” observes a Council on Hemispheric Affairs report, “In the case of the Galapagos, development is particularly detrimental to its integrity, as it directly threatens the thousands of native species in the islands’ unique ecosystem.”

In response, the Ecuadorean government passed the 1998 Special Law of the Galapagos (SLG), which curbed mainland Ecuadoreans’ ability to live, work, and own property in the Galapagos. Klaus saw the benefits of the SLG first-hand. “When I started as a guide, for sure, people were part of the problem, he recalls. “The fishermen were on a greedy path of extraction,” and town dwellers saw tourists as nothing more than walking credit cards.

The SLG forced travel companies to hire local Galapagos people. Working in tourism exposed them to conservation ideas and they shared these ideas with their communities. At the same time, all of the islands’ fishermen were given a once-off chance to swap their fishing permits for tourism permits. They had to spend a bit on improving the safety and comfort of their boats, but ultimately it meant more income for less effort. “Hotels now complain that it’s really tricky to get fish because there aren’t enough fishermen!” says Klaus.

The way ahead

Despite being “fully invested in the mission,” Klaus does have a few concerns for the future of tourism in the Galapagos. While visitors to the islands are increasing every year (between 2017 and 2018 there was a 20% jump!), the number who actually enter the National Park has been flat/declining for the past decade or so. The influx of visitors is great for the local business owners, but it does place increasing strain on the water and food-scarce archipelago, and it also makes conservation trickier.

All SA Expeditions travelers visit the National Park. Either on a liveaboard cruise or by staying in a high-end hotel that works with one of the 12 ships licensed to carry day trippers. (The Galapagos Habitat, which has its own dedicated yacht is a great example.)

A friendly sea lion posing for the camera during a snorkeling excursion. (Photo: Alicia Moreno)

The problem comes in, says Klaus, at the more budget-conscious end of the market where tourists stay in hostels and pensiones (rooms start at $16/night) and do some ‘lite’ wildlife viewing on public beaches, at harbors and on so called ‘bay tours’ where boats are allowed to approach the pristine and uninhabited islands, but never to go ashore.

While all visitors to the Galapagos do pay the National Park entry fee, Klaus worries that the high-value, low-impact tourism model which is responsible for the islands’ incredible success story is in danger. Hopefully, Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Bowman’s vision will stay intact for another half-century (or more)!

To book your high-end, sustainable Galapagos experience, check out our top cruise and hotel itineraries or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting your own.

Recent Posts