Tourism in Galapagos: A Balancing Act

February 5, 2014

Sea lions bask on the beach as tourists pass by
There is much debate globally about the impact of opening fragile areas, often home to some of the world’s most unique animals and landscapes, to the ever-expanding tourism industry. For the Galapagos Islands, the challenge lies in finding the balance between:

  • Galapagos–based tourism, one of the most important industries for the entire country,
  • The needs of the local community, and
  • The mammoth task of protecting over 80,000 square miles of complex marine and terrestrial life that represent a living museum, and are renowned as a showcase of evolution.  

Who wouldn’t want to see such marvels in a place where you can interact with animals that are indifferent to—or even curious about—your presence?  As remote corners of the world become increasingly accessible, the reality is that soon follows pollution, impacts on natural resources and local communities, and the potential loss of the unusual, rare, or exotic beings that attracted visitors in the first place.

Despite the multiple challenges facing the islands, Galapagos stands out as an icon for what to do right. Here tourism combines a carefully choreographed dance of itineraries, restricted visitor sites, and strict regulations that monitor and control tourism activities while promoting a philosophy of giving back. This provides a real opportunity to be more than just spectators to a threatened environment.  Are you looking to enjoy a special place, but care that environmental and sociocultural impact is well-managed? Or maybe you just want to ensure that the tour company you choose demonstrates their commitment to the environment, is following the rules, and positively contributes to conservation and the well-being of local people.

Some companies have gone beyond the obligatory government requirements to emerge as a force for providing substantial project support and, in doing so, found that encouraging visitors to look beyond their trip is actually beneficial to good business.  In recent years, there have also been important shifts in tourism toward creating a sustainable lifestyle that includes hiring and training more local residents, and purchasing local products such as fish and vegetables. There has also been increasing interest from tour operators, travel agencies, and guides in the support of conservation in Galapagos, with many establishing their own conservation, environmental education, and training initiatives.  

The Charles Darwin Foundation recently announced that a staggering 60%-70% of their annual budget comes (directly and indirectly) from visitors, who know first-hand how unforgettable—perhaps even life-changing—the Galapagos experience can be. But what happens if we fail to understand the importance of protecting such places? The consequences of ignorance and indifference reach much further than any impact caused by responsible tourism. If we don’t act, we risk losing what we treasure most: a healthy planet full of amazing creatures and places.

Twenty-three years ago I came to Galapagos for a week’s holiday that changed my life. I feel privileged to have spent 5 of those years teaching, and the rest working tirelessly to protect my adopted home. For every one of us who loves these amazing Islands, it is our passion and perseverance that will ensure that Galapagos is preserved, protected, and restored.

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  1. Glad to hear that steps are being taken to minimize the impacts of tourism- as much as possible, anyway.

  2. As a grateful tourist myself, I support all efforts to be sure that tourism is carefully regulated so as to do maximal good and minimal harm. The only deserving tourists are those who care to do what is best for the Galapagos. Others should stay at home, or go elsewhere.

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