Tourism in the Galapagos Islands: how can we minimise our footprint?

Travel Advice

The Galápagos Islands are home to thousands of species, representing a fragile ecosystem where responsible scientists are committed to balancing the needs of conservation and tourism. Whilst the environment has remained strikingly unchanged since Darwin's visit in the mid nineteenth century, there are challenges dating back nearly 500 years since the discovery of these isolated islands, after which passing ships dropped off non-indigenous invasive species such as domestic animals as provisions for subsequent calls.

We have seen evidence around the world - including here in the UK - of delicate natural balances being thrown off course by something as seemingly innocuous as the grazing habits of a newly arrived creature.

The Galápagos National Park was established in 1959, and nowadays visitors to any protected areas within the Galápagos National Park must be accompanied by an authorised naturalist guide.

Other activity in the islands under the auspices of the national park includes scientific research, restoring natural environments, and re-introducing endemic species into those environments.

One of the potential threats to the region is of course the local people (3% of the region is inhabited and excluded from the National Park) and alongside that, tourism, which is something of a necessary evil, as it provides an economic incentive to the local population for conservation, rather than turning over more of the land and seas to agriculture, fishing, development and so forth. The people on the islands remain heavily dependent on tourism.

Likewise, many of the greatest supporters of the work to maintain this pristine environment are people who have been to the Islands on holiday, and then been moved to get involved with their conservation on returning home. The result is a slightly uneasy but mutually beneficial relationship between conservation and the travel industry in Galapagos.

For visitors concerned about their footprint, the next question is whether it is better to visit the islands on land or by ship? Cruise ships touring the islands are very highly regulated. They have to be owned by an Ecuadorian entity, carry no more than 100 guests, carry authorised naturalist guides on board, and furthermore are strictly limited as to where they can anchor and land passengers.

Land-based tourism is arguably more challenging, as it's much harder to control where people go, and they can put more strain on things like local sewage and waste disposal services. Also, land-based tourism creates pressure to build more hotels, roads and other infrastructure. The specific threat to the wildlife from cruise ships in Galapagos is small, and it pales in comparison with the threat from unsustainable/illegal fishing in and around the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

Figures suggest that the islands offer 7700 land beds against 1690 cruise beds from 69 vessels, with 51 of those carrying 16 pax or fewer.

Furthermore, the land figure is the 'official' figure - increasingly there are things like Airbnb flying under the radar. All those land beds are crammed into the 3% of the Islands that aren't part of the National Park.

So, in short, what are the benefits of bringing tourists to explore the Galapagos Islands by ship? They bring prosperity to the local people and incentivise them to protect their environment by means of a substantial contribution to the local economy.

They raise awareness of the important work being done in the National Park and support it with their entrance fees. And they return home as ambassadors for these incredible islands, raising money and awareness for their future protection.

Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Adventures. Her most recent adventure was a cruise on Silver Origin and she has also sailed with Seabourn, Ponant and Aqua Expeditions. Her favourite adventure destination is the Galapagos however she's also enjoyed cruises in the Middle East, East Africa & Indian Ocean, Brahmaputra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Mekong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Arctic. When she’s not travelling she loves reading, food and wine.

More about Edwina

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