Increased Tourism Endangers Galápagos Islands

galapagos 001 Increased Tourism Endangers Galápagos Islands

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the Galápagos Islands are at serious risk. And they’re not talking about climate change or species extinction. It seems the planet’s first World Heritage site (and a major inspiration for Darwin’s theory of evolution) is being threatened by social and economic pollution.

A province of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands are known for their endemic species, like humpback whales, sea turtles, albatrosses and herons. While long considered a must-see on the list of travel destinations, it’s believed excessive tourism has led to the islands’ recently added spot to Unesco’s “in danger” list.

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But I thought tourism was good. It brings support to local businesses and boosts the economy. Evidently not when it grows out of hand and local establishments are squeezed out by larger foreign corporations. The Times cites a rise in the number of visitors to the Galápagos to the tune of a whopping 250 percent from 1990 to 2006. And it’s not just the number that’s changed. The visitors themselves have gone from “nature-loving tourists” eager to see the various species that inspired Darwin to so-called “eco-tourists” who require more luxurious accommodations and large scale tours – which evidently the locals are unprepared to offer. Call it Social Darwinism pushed beyond all limits.

Enter foreign-run companies, who swooped in and conquered 85 percent of the hotel and tour business. Some local boats – who were held to tougher environmental guidelines than the majors – have even lost their operation permits. And rather than enjoying the beautiful scenery the islands have to offer, tourists are now more likely to see large hotel-sized boats clogging the ports.

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Johannah Barry, president of the Galapagos Conservancy, summed it best by saying the Galápagos Islands have become “Disneyfied”.

“We have to think about the people and not just the plants and animals, or it will all collapse,” the Times quoted Dr. Graham Watkins, executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, as saying. “What we have here is an unsustainable model of development.”

Another unfortunate byproduct of the excessive tourism is the large number of Ecuadoreans who’ve relocated to the islands in the hopes of cashing in on the food and hotel trade. Such newcomers, according to the Times, put pressure on the Galápagos’ natural resources and also introduce invasive species. According to a Darwin Foundation report, “the Galápagos now has 748 species of introduced plants compared with 500 species of native plants,” with fifty-five of these risking “severe impacts to native biodiversity.”

None of the concerned parties wish to discourage tourism – they’re just hoping for more prolonged nature-appreciating visitors who support local businesses.

What’s certain is that something needs to change. The situation’s urgency was stated clearly by Dr. Watkins: “Unless we start to make fundamental changes right now, in the next 10 to 15 years we will see the Galápagos suffer from both economic and environmental degradation.”

Sounds to me like an unhealthy dose of another of Darwin’s theories – survival of the fittest.

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