Part of the inspiration to travel is to see the world, not only for the beautiful spots, but also for the unusual and the simply amazing. Bearing witness to the majesty of nature has been a reason for travel, tourism and adventure since the dawn of time. The Galapagos Islands are one of the most amazing places one could ever visit. Travelers can enjoy an up-close-and-personal experience with nature — from snorkeling with sea lions and Galapagos penguins on the Equator, to hiking alongside 800-pound tortoises, to observing marine Iguanas swim through crystal clear waters. It’s one of the few places where nature lovers can literally get within inches of so many creatures that are found nowhere else in the world!
But the very act of bearing witness is, in no small way responsible, for the ongoing destruction and loss of that very beauty. Tourism and immigration may be destroying that beauty. The question can’t be avoided: If you can visit the Galapagos to see the most unique and beautiful place in the world, should you?
The Influx of Tourism
Cruise ship stops to the Galapagos have increased 150% over the last few decades, triggering UNESCO to list the Galapagos as an endangered heritage site a few years ago. There are also now 30,000 permanent residents of the islands, mainly from Ecuador, and this constant human contact and development is what’s made people fearful that we may someday soon lose a significant amount of the natural and vital ecosystem of the Galapagos.
The Galapagos islands are special and fascinating because their unique geological history had huge implications for the evolution of the endemic wildlife and flora. The islands are basically the tops of volcanoes and were never connected to the mainland. This means that the flora and fauna that reached the islands had to survive at least 600 miles of ocean and once they arrived — no mammals did — they were able to evolve in compete isolation from predators and outside influences for millions of years. As a result, 96% of the reptiles, 47% of plants and 37% of the fish from Galapagos are found nowhere else in the world! Thus the islands became a living laboratory as Charles Darwin later recognized when developing his theory of evolution.
One of the really cool things about Galapagos is that, because there are no predators on the islands, the creatures never had to learn fear in order to survive, meaning that visitors can get extremely close to the animals to observe. It is not uncommon, for instance, to see a bird land on the head of a tourist wearing a hat! Of course, this lack of fear poses a danger to the wildlife as some visitors do not behave respectfully.
Signs of Hope
You can still travel to the Galapagos, and new procedures seek to limit the negative impact you’ll have. In some ways, tourism has actually helped the situation. All visitors to Galapagos are educated by their guides on the importance of conservation and many end up contributing to Galapagos conservation causes way beyond the park fees they already pay. And upon returning home, many tourists become advocates for conserving Galapagos. Some tour operators also help out: members of The International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) voluntarily pay substantial additional fees for each traveler, and these fees go toward conservation as well.
The stopper is out of the bottle: There are people living on the Galapagos Islands and there is a thriving tourist trade. If tourism and adventure companies do their part, there is no reason that we cannot keep this treasure available for future generations – unspoiled and properly managed.