“It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it; but I ought, perhaps, to be thankful that I obtained sufficient materials to establish this most remarkable fact in the distribution of organic beings”
For a century following the first colonization in 1832, the little-developed economy of the Galapagos Islands was based on agriculture and fishing. Prior to organised tourism only a few scientists would visit.
The first ‘cruise ship’ to stop at the islands was probably the Trans Pacific cruise ship Stella Polaris in 1934. In 1959 the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was incorporated in Brussels and the government of Ecuador declared that unsettled islands, and designated areas of some of the populated islands, were to be incorporated into a national park. The last primitive settlement on Isabela was closed in 1959 and higher levels of protection for the Galapagos archipelago were enforced. Early studies by experts concluded that there was a significant but incalculable potential to develop nature-based tourism in the islands. The CDF felt strongly that nature tourism represented the economic activity that was by far the most compatible with conservation of the archipelago’s biological diversity, evolutionary and ecological processes, and environment.
In the late 1960s the fuel depot, docks and one of the airstrips on Baltra were refurbished to promote the development of tourism. Two flights per week carried tourists, colonists and scientists to the islands from the mainland. A few small local vessels were available for charter. In 1968 the first regular multi-day cruises began.
During the early 1970s the ‘floating hotel’ model of tourism which was supported by conservationists was quickly developing and tourists could access designated sites within the National Park accompanied by knowledgeable trained guides. Onshore, the living conditions were relatively primitive. Limited electricity and poor communications meant that tourism remained mainly on cruise vessels. Subsistence agriculture, fishing and commerce were the primary sources of employment for the locals. A few hotels and restaurants catered for the occasional passing tourist. A small number of residents worked for the government, the CDF and the National Park Service.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that tourism began to expand dramatically. Santa Cruz quickly grew into the industry hub, as it is central in the archipelago, is adjacent to the airport on Baltra, and is the location of the Park headquarters and the Charles Darwin Research Station. During the 1970s the number of tourist vessels grew from 5 to 40. The number of flights between mainland Ecuador and the islands increased, and as time passed international entrepreneurs tapped into the tourism opportunities and started controlling larger portions of the Galapagos economy.
Improvements in infrastructure and public services made the islands an increasingly desirable place to live and visit. In 1978 Galapagos was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Six years later the National Park was recognised as a Biosphere Reserve. These labels placed on the archipelago promoted a great deal of interest from nature enthusiasts throughout the world, increasing the demand to both visit and protect the islands.
In 1980, 18,000 tourists entered the park despite restrictions being capped at 12,000. The limit was then raised to 25,000 after evaluation. Between 1980 and 1985 visitor numbers averaged 17,500 per year. This deceleration in the growth of tourist influx was caused mainly by economic recessions within many developed nations. During this period international investors in the tourism economy changed their target market to allow mainland Ecuadorians to holiday in Galapagos along with young backpackers travelling on a small budget. Land based facilities began to improve which triggered cheaper access into the tourism industry from local people and resident entrepreneurs, but with a cost to the environment, as land based activities were not as ecologically sensitive as the ‘floating hotels’. This transition triggered an economic boom which fuelled a demand for cheap labour resulting in an increase in immigration from the mainland. Ecuadorians had always believed Galapagos to be home to the infamous penal colonies with little reason for visiting, but now the archipelago was viewed as a land of opportunity. Farmers left the rural highlands to open businesses near the ports and many fishermen converted their boats to carry tourists.
In 1986 the Galapagos Marine Reserve was created to conserve the biologically rich seas surrounding the islands. The number of tourists visiting the archipelago per year rose from 18,000 in 1985, to 41,000 in 1990, to nearly 72,000 in 2000. By 2005, 122,000 tourists per year were visiting Galapagos, which rose to 145,000 in 2006.
This increase in tourism promotes a vicious cycle of growth on the Galapagos, which in turn, affects the valuable biodiversity on the island. This cycle can be compared to similar processes occurring at many other prime nature-based tourism locations around the world.
The main reason people visit the Galapagos Islands is to view the wildlife and take in the beautiful environment. The wildlife of the Galapagos has been well conserved in general. Furthermore, with the revolution in conserving whole ecosystems, often including human beings, as opposed to just individual species, many of the habitats remain untouched. The Galapagos Islands are the world’s last oceanic archipelago that still retains 95 percent of its original biodiversity. This means it represents the global ‘gold standard’ for biological and ecosystem integrity.