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Loving the Galapagos to Death

It would be wrong on its face to say that tourism is the biggest problem facing the Galapagos today. Simultaneously, it is accurate to say that the growth in tourism in the one-of-a-kind archipelago is the primary reason the islands are “in danger.” Those are not my words, but UNESCO’s, in 2007 … the same year Ecuador’s new president claimed the islands were at “great risk” and signed a decree making their protection a national priority. You get the sense that just defining the exact problem facing the Galapagos, for both locals and outsiders, is tricky.

With ninety seven percent of the islands off-limits and under national park protection – small, guided tours limited to 60 designated sites – the system that introduces tourists to the nineteen Galapagos islands has long been regarded a model of eco-tourism. But the success of that model is what puts them at such risk today: In 1991 there were 41,000 visitors, this year there will be close to 200,000; during that same period human population has risen from a few thousand to 40,000. Those are a lot of combined footsteps – as well as ship and plane traffic — for such a fragile eco-system (the so-called “Mona Lisa of biodiversity”).

The sudden arrival of so many people from so many parts of the world introduces parasites which threaten both flora and fauna; permanent residents arrive desirous of re-creating their mainland lifestyles, including cars, dogs and cats, and air conditioning; tour operators are pushing to expand their offerings to include sport fishing and skydiving. The Ecuadorian government has tried, with limited success, to limit migration and is considering raising the national park fee paid by every tourist from $100 to $135, an attempt to slow the numbers.

Jack Nelson is one of the Galapagos’ most-veteran tour operators, coming to the islands to live permanently in 1967. Like others like him, in different settings around the world who have watched their own personal paradises become overly popular, he is alarmed. “To a tourist, things look good. You still see a lot of animals, and not many other people,” he says. “But get outside those controlled (national park) parameters, and you’ll find a big mess nobody can figure out what to do about.”

While we were filming in and around the islands we met longtime Galapagos guide Sylvia Vargas on a few occasions. A native Ecuadorian, she’s been coming here for more than twenty years and has lived in Puerto Ayora off and on since first visiting as a teenager. She feels both blessed to be working in such an incredible place and worried that tourism and migration may be taking too big a toll.

“Personally, I think tourism should be capped for the moment. Higher entry fees haven’t worked to slow the growth. One tour operator I work for recently told me that the people who are coming to the Galapagos today are coming with a different idea about the place – they don’t ask as much anymore about wildlife, their first questions are about the comfort of the ship. They want more air-conditioning, more service, nicer cabins, a massage, a more comfortable mattress and expect a lot of chemicals on board to keep things clean and tidy … all of which have a direct impact on the Galapagos. More energy used, more garbage created, more pollution.

“I came first in 1984 when there were two thousand people living in town and two cars. I knew everyone on the street and was offered food by friends every day. The electricity on the island used to shut down at night. Now there are twenty times as many people and two hundred times as many cars. And we have electricity twenty-four hours a day. I miss the peacefulness of back then.

“But I have talked with people who work as guides in other places and they always say that we Galapagos guides are spoiled because we see such incredible wildlife every day. I guess they are right. But for me the most popular sites are too crowded, sometimes there are so many people I feel … embarrassed.

“My biggest worry is that more people living here means more demand for everything. I don’t see people thinking about having a different lifestyle than what they have on the mainland. They will tell you they came to the Galapagos to live in a peaceful place, but they expect to have exactly the same things that they had on the mainland. Why would you have a pet dog or cat here? Why would you have a car if you live in town? Why would you build a new house with air conditioning, when electricity is so hard to create? At Christmas on the mainland we decorate our houses with lots of outdoors lights and now they do the same thing here even though the power comes from a gas generator and the gas comes from far away.”