A different kind of survival of the fittest

The Galápagos archipelago, like many other unique places across the globe, has to contend with more people’s curiosities. 

by Vittoria Traverso

Environment 14 December 2020

When Charles Darwin first stepped foot on the remote archipelago of the Galápagos Islands in 1835, after a four-year-long voyage aboard the British sea vessel HMS Beagle, he was not impressed. Tired from his days at sea, Darwin described the island of San Cristobal as “deserted” and “isolated,” lacking the tropical habitat he was expecting. 

Yet, it is in this remote group of islands, located 600 miles from Ecuador’s coast, the then 26-year-old amateur naturalist made the observations that led to his world changing theory of evolution some 45 years later. Darwin noticed that the species encountered on the archipelago were slightly different from the ones he had just documented in mainland South America. Tortoises were much bigger, birds had different beaks. Soon enough, Darwin realized that species came with place-specific traits on each of the islands: The Spanish governor who showed Darwin around could allegedly identify the island of origin of giant tortoises by looking at the shape of their shells.  

These early observations eventually led to Darwin’s most famous insight, explained in On the Origin of Species (1859): That species change over time and evolve to adapt to their external environment. 

Discovered by accident in 1535 by a Catholic bishop, the 19 volcanic islands that make up the Galápagos have remained relatively unspoiled until the start of the twentieth century. The only human visitors were sperm-whale fishermen and occasional poachers looking for seals and tortoises. In 1932, they were annexed to the newly formed Republic of Ecuador and in 1959 the government declared the islands a National Park, banning construction and human activities on 97.5% of their territory. Five years later, the Charles Darwin Research Station was opened on the island of Santa Cruz as a research outpost. That’s also when the first tourists started to make their appearance. 

A New York Times story from 1970 called the Galápagos “as exotic a dateline a tourist can find on today’s contracting globe” where “the mildly adventurous tourist can now walk in the company of Darwin.” Yet, 50 years later, tourists are now putting at risk the very unspoiled ecosystem that attracted curios travelers. 

In the 1970s, most visitors toured the islands aboard one of the few live-in boat cruises organized by tour operators four or five times a year. Itineraries and activities were decided in close cooperation with the Charles Darwin Research Station, which printed a set of rules for each boat, and the Galápagos National Park, which equipped each vessel with a trained guide to teach visitors about conservation and monitor their behavior. 

In 1970, an estimated 5,000 people visited the archipelago. Last year, around 200,000 people did. Much of this growth happened in the past 15 years, with the Galápagos National Park registering 39% growth from 2007 to 2016. And most of it was driven by land-based tourism, which experienced 92% growth over the same period, from 79,000 to 152,000 annual visitors. Unlike ‘floating tourists,’ who visit the islands on a boat, land-based tourists usually fly into the far-flung archipelago via one of the airports in Baltra or San Cristobal islands and stay in hotels or guesthouses. From there, they can book daily boat tours to some of the islands that can cost as little as $100 compared with the average cost of $4,500 per person for an eight-day cruise. 

Out of the hundreds of tour operator agencies offering land-based tours of the Galápagos, most focus on tamed conservation activities like hikes around cactus-dotted trails or visits to the Charles Darwin Center to watch tortoises snacking on salad leaves. But others focus on providing an ‘adventurous experience,’ like camping, fishing or snorkelling through lava formations with sea lions, which can actually undermine conservation. Sunscreen, which most tourists wear during adventurous swims, can contain chemicals that kill coral and damage alage, fish, and even larger mammals like dolphins. 

The threat of over-tourism is not unique to the Galápagos. From Venice to Machu Picchu, many designated World Heritage sites are becoming victims of their own success. Visitors often rush to get the perfect Instagram selfie without realizing that some of their behaviors undermine the reasons that makes those places part of the “irreplaceable heritage of humanity.”

In the Galápagos, that should be prevented by the zealous work of trained National Park guides (each boat must have one on board) who teach tourists the importance of preserving the area’s biodiversity. But educating people about Darwin’s finches, blue-footed boobies, and flightless cormorants might not be enough to prevent over-tourism damage. According to recent reports, basic guidelines such as maintaining a six-feet distance from wildlife are routinely ignored. And more visitors on daily boat tours means that national guide patrols can no longer exercise full control of each boat. It can take as little as mooring anchor in an unauthorized location to disrupt the delicate marine ecosystem. 

Land-based tourism is also affecting the islands indirectly. Land-based travelers are driving up the number of hotels — there are currently more than 300 of them, up from 65 in 2006 — which put pressure on the limited infrastructure of the three main islands. Waste disposal is a particularly pressing issue. Facilities in Santa Cruz can recycle up to 45% solid waste, the highest rate in Ecuador. Yet, more tourists ordering packaged snacks and beers on land can easily drive up the volume of waste produced. In 2018, an estimated 6,100 tons were left by the city of Santa Cruz compared with 5,000 in 2015. Accounts of empty plastic bottles found on remote hikes or sea lions trapped in plastic bags are now common on tourists blogs. 

The growth of land-based tourism is also driving an increase in permanent residents as people from mainland Ecuador move to the archipelago to work in the booming tourist sector. In 1970, there were roughly 6,000 people living on the islands. Today, residents add up to 30,000. With each new resident, pressure on the island’s infrastructure increases. And since the islands depend on the mainland for everything from fuel to food, more residents and land-based tourists result in more frequent visits by cargo ships who can often carry invasive species. 

The New York Times reporter who in 1970 praised the Galápagos as one of the last unspoiled places on earth, wrote that there was no concern about the sustainability of tourism because of the limited number of tourists: “Opening up the Galápagos Islands is so strictly controlled by the Ecuadorian government and the Darwin Institute, and the places the tourists are permitted to go and what they are allowed to do on the islands is so carefully watched, and their number so limited, that the preservation of the islands is assured.”

But while the government has put a cap on the number of ‘berths,’ beds on live-in cruise ships, which are allowed each year, there is currently no limit to the amount of tourists who can choose to stay on land. 

Local associations are asking the government to step up its efforts. In February of 2018, the International Galápagos Tour Operators Association — a group of 35 tour operators founded in 1995 to require better legal protections for the archipelago —  wrote to Ecuador’s tourism minister, Enrique Ponce de León, to express concern about the unrestrained growth of land-based tourism. The president of the group, Jim Lutz, has also asked tourists interested in a “beach holiday” to choose different locations, leaving the Galápagos to those who are truly interested in biodiversity. Similar tactics have been proposed by residents of Venice or Barcelona, who hope that a different tourism model that diverts tourists to nearby locations could help reduce pressure from over-tourism. 

For the Galápagos, which are also experiencing simultaneous threats from climate change and ocean plastic pollution, finding a more sustainable tourism model could be a matter of life or death. “If Ecuador wants the Galápagos to continue to be a unique place that attracts visitors from all around the world, and brings in hundreds of millions of dollars every year and supports tens of thousands of people, then they have to make a decision” Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “Otherwise, the Galápagos risks going from being a unique place to being a very common place like so many others that have been destroyed through short-term interests.”