How to Travel Responsibly in the Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands is a remarkable place in danger of being ruined by its own fame. It is famous for its amazing wildlife—giant tortoises the size of cows, blue-footed boobies that stare you down, and sea-going marine iguanas that sneeze out salt. These animals evolved their unique characteristics due to the isolation of the archipelago over thousands of years. Now, that isolation is disappearing as hundreds of thousands of tourists arrive every year.

If seeing the Galápagos is on your bucket list, it’s time to consider how you can visit this amazing place without contributing to its demise. Before going, travelers need to understand the conservation issues, decide whether or not to visit at all, and how they can make responsible choices if they choose to do so.

two giant tortoises standing in sand
Giant tortoises in Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado. Photo © Lisa Cho.

Understand the Conservation Issues

Unsustainable growth in population and tourism is the foremost issue in the Galápagos. Tourism has grown from 40,000 visitors per year in 1990 to over 200,000 today. The resident population has also grown, from 15,000 people in 1998 to over 25,000 today, despite strict restrictions on immigration. This growth strains the islands’ limited water supply, pollutes the water and air, burns thousands of gallons of fuel, and has occasionally led to oil spills. Most importantly, it requires more supplies to be imported on cargo ships, and though cargo is inspected, invasive species sometimes get through with it. Now, in many areas of the National Park land, introduced blackberry bushes crowd out the native escalesia, introduced flies eat finch eggs, and introduced rats prey on giant tortoise eggs, making it necessary for scientists to breed the giant tortoises in captivity.

Meanwhile, in the marine reserve, fishing threatens to disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Illegal fishing boats come to poach lucrative products like sea cucumbers, shark fins, and even sea lion penises to be sold as aphrodisiacs on Asian markets. The National Park has difficulty patrolling the extensive marine reserves due to limited funds. Even legal fishing can harm the marine reserve, as fishermen lobby for fewer restrictions.

There are no simple solutions to these problems due to conflicting interests. Tourists in increasing numbers want to see the Galápagos. Tour operators have invested millions and want continued return on investment. Galápagos residents want economic opportunity. Fishermen demand higher quotas, and have rioted repeatedly to get what they want. Conservationists want limits, but its key organization has lacked consistent leadership: the National Park has gone through fourteen directors since 2002. But all these groups depend on the islands retaining their rich yet fragile ecosystem, and must come together to protect the Galápagos.

a boat in the water of Puerto Ayora in ecuador
Puerto Ayora has undergone significant expansion and now has a population of over 12,000. Photo © Lisa Cho.

Consider Whether You Should Go

All visitors contribute to conservation via the $100 National Park entry fee, which funds conservation and research, but the growth in tourism has created many more problems than the fee can solve. Conservationists fear that if the pace of growth continues, the Galapagos will eventually turn into little more than a wildlife Disneyland or beach holiday destination.

Travelers need to start questioning their reasons for going. There are plenty of other places where you can lie on the beach and snorkel among tropical fish for much less money and environmental impact. Is the Galápagos just a checkmark on a list? Do you want to go just because you read an awesome travel guidebook (pardon the shameless self-promotion)? Or are you going to genuinely appreciate the unique adventure?

Choose the Most Responsible Way to Visit

If you’ve decided to go, the next step will be choosing how to visit. The cruise-vs.-land-based-tour debate continues to be controversial, and each option comes with its own impacts that you should consider.

Most environmentalists say that small cruises are the best way to visit the Galápagos. Cruises are the traditional way to see the Galápagos, and in fact they used to be the only way. They are generally well-managed to minimize the impact on wildlife. The remote islands of Fernandina, Genovesa, and Española, accessible only by cruise, are still the most pristine areas of the archipelago. The number of tourists on cruises has effectively been managed because the National Park has not issued new permits. Cruises are not without problems, however: they consume huge amounts of fuel, and they rely significantly on imported food. In the past, cruise operators have also been criticized for excluding the local population from sharing in the profits, since most of the owners are from mainland Ecuador or abroad.

eric yacht in the water
The Eric was one of the first boats to be certified by Smart Voyager (a well-respected sustainable tourism program in South America). Photo © Lisa Cho.

In the last couple decades, land-based tourism promised a compromise. Tourists could stay on the islands and support local businesses with day tours, hotels, and restaurants. Ideally, the tourists could support locals as they created better livelihoods for themselves and became better guardians of their natural resources. As one example, many people who used to earn their living fishing now work in tourism. However, hotels and hostels have proliferated, along with restaurants and souvenir shops. The reliance on imported food was not resolved, because the demand from tourists and residents exceeds the output of the islands’ farms. Green energy efforts such as windmills and solar panels have made progress, but the land-based tours still consume huge amounts of fuel.

Though the flights and entry fees remain expensive, land-based tourism and the availability of cheap hostels democratized trips to the Galapagos. It brought many visitors who would not have been able to afford a cruise. Growing land-based tourism has indeed provided opportunities for the locals. However, the benefits have not been distributed equitably, and it has fueled unsustainable population growth, illegal immigration, and construction on the islands.

No matter what way you choose, the best way to travel is to find responsible ecotourism operators. Be aware that there is a significant amount of “green-washing” that happens in the Galápagos. Even the hotel infamously constructed on National Park land against regulations calls itself a sustainable tourism operator. Look for companies who are specifically committed to the following:

  • Employing locals
  • Buying local food when possible
  • Reducing waste
  • Recycling
  • Contributing financially to conservation efforts
  • Reducing fuel usage
  • Avoiding significant new construction on the islands
  • Third-party certification by Smart Voyager, a well-respected sustainable tourism program in South America

Ask a lot of questions, and if you get vague or unsatisfactory answers, look elsewhere. Your choices will help decide the future of the Galápagos.