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Tourism and Population Growth

Tourists disesmbark their plane at Baltra Airport. (Photo by Lori Ulrich)

Uncontrolled tourism and population growth was among the 15 issues identified by the World Heritage Committee when it recommended that Galapagos be placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger.

Up until the early 1970s, residents numbered approximately 4,000. Between 1991 and 2007, the resident population more than doubled to more than 20,000. The population stands at just over 25,000 legal residents, 1,800 temporary residents and up to 5,000 residents whose status in Galapagos is characterized as “irregular.”

Since its beginnings in the 1960s, tourism has been the most important factor contributing to population growth. Over the past 15 years, gross income generated by tourism has increased by an average of 14% each year. This growth is reflected in the increase in available beds (in both hotels and on tourist boats) from 1,928 in 1991 to 3,473 in 2006 and the rise in the number of visitors to Galapagos from 40,000 in 1990 to more than 145,000 in 2006. At present, Galapagos tourism generates $418M annually, of which an estimated $63M enters the local economy (equal to 51% of the Galapagos economy). The growth in tourism requires ever-increasing infrastructure and human resources. It has also resulted in the growth of local small enterprises, which, in turn, contribute to increased immigration.

Other drivers of growth have included heavy government expenditures during Ecuador’s oil boom (1972-1983), a week economy in mainland Ecuador during the 1980s and 1990s, and a boom in the sea cucumber fishery (1993-2000). From 1999 to 2005, the population in Galapagos grew by 60%. During much of the 80s and 90s, the population was increasing at more than 6% per year, compared  to about 2% on the Ecuadorian mainland. This rate would double the population in Galapagos every 11 years. For more information, see Taylor (2006).

The Galapagos Special Law of 1998 laid out immigration protocols which sought to limit the size of the resident population. However, loopholes and incomplete and inconsistent implementation of the Law resulted in continued growth.

Impacts of population growth

In the larger protected areas and at visitor sites, the impact of increased numbers of visitors and residents has been fairly well managed through standard protected area management techniques, including trails, guides to accompany visitors, fixed itineraries, and a limited number of tourism concessions (MacFarland 2001). The Galapagos National Park Service monitors visitor sites and can close sites, increase necessary infrastructure such as stairs or walkways, or change itineraries in response to growing pressures.

The impacts in the inhabited portions of the archipelago have been much more pronounced. Increasing numbers of visitors and residents have resulted in a rapid growth in physical infrastructure and ever-increasing demands for public services.

As the human population in Galapagos has grown, the number of airports in the islands has increased from one to three, the number of flights from the continent have increased from a few flights per week in the 1970s to an average of six flights per day today, the number of cargo ships and the amount of cargo continue to increase, and increasingly more fuel is brought to the islands increasing the risk of oil spills such as that of the cargo ship Jessica in 2001. Commercial flights to Galapagos increased by 193% from 2001 to 2006 and more private flights are arriving from other countries (Cruz, Martínez and Causton, 2007). New access routes overcome natural barriers that protect the islands from the arrival of new species. Any increase in flights, new access routes, and cargo ships will potentially bring an increasing number of invasive species – the greatest threat to the archipelago. Invasive species links to the page focusing on that issue

Subsequent to the World Heritage Committee Mission Report in 2007, the Ecuadorian government under President Correa implemented a policy known as “Zero people on irregular status in Galapagos,” which involved the implementation of a system of Transit Control Cards for visitors, a more transparent process for granting permanent and temporary residency status, and penalties (such as a one-year ban from entering Galapagos) for those whose status in Galapagos is found to be “irregular.” In 2009, 263 irregular residents were returned to the mainland, 694 were informed of their irregular status, and 257 were banned from returning to Galapagos for a period of one year. For more information, see the complete 2010 report of the World Heritage Center/IUCN commission.

While progress is being made in the area of population control, it is generally believed that the pressure for more illegal and temporary immigrants to help serve the tourism sector will continue until tourism is better managed and more efforts are made to build the capacity of the local workforce.  

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