UNESCO World Heritage Committee Once Again Sounds the Alarm Over Galapagos Tourism Growth

In its recently released 2023 State of Conservation Report, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has once again voiced its concern over tourism growth in the Galapagos Islands and has renewed its call upon the government of Ecuador to fulfill its commitment to implement a zero-growth Galapagos tourism strategy and to address the issue of land-based tourism growth.

(You can read the full Unesco report here. The Galapagos Islands section begins on page 105.)

Unesco has been sounding the alarm over Galapagos tourism growth for years, going so far as to add the archipelago to its List of World Heritage in Danger in 2007. At the time, David Sheppard, head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) delegation to the World Heritage Committee meeting in Christchurch said, “The main problems associated with the Galapagos Islands relate to the impact of tourism growth, which is driving immigration and overfishing. Adding the islands to the danger list is a positive way of raising the profile of these threats and highlighting the need for international action.”

Although Unesco removed the Galapagos the list in 2010 (citing headway made by Ecuador in combating threats posed by invasive species, unbridled tourism and over-fishing), visitor arrivals have continued to skyrocket. Statistics published by Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism show that arrivals increased by nearly 60% between 2010 and 2019 (from just over 170,000 to more than 270,000). While visitor arrivals plummeted during the pandemic (as they did globally), they are once again skyrocketing. In April, a Ministry of Tourism press release celebrated the arrival of 32,509 visitors in March, a 24% increase over March 2019, and announced a new flight to the islands from the city of Manta, which will only fuel continued tourism growth. If the current growth rate continues, the Galapagos will welcome one million annual visitors by 2041.  

The recent report notes that in 1998 Ecuador placed a firm cap on the total capacity of the Galapagos passenger fleet. This cap placed a de facto limit on the number of ship-based passengers that can visit the islands annually. This means that 100% of the growth in tourist arrivals since then is the result of the ever increasing popularity of land-based tourism in the islands, facilitated in part by a huge increase in the available number of available hotels and overnight rentals operating in the islands. 

Tourist arrivals in Galapagos by year: 2000 - 2019

(source: Government of Ecuador)

In spite of its apparent recent glee over tourism growth, the government of Ecuador itself has recognized the need to address the problem. In its 2017 report to UNESCO, it described its involvement in studies on various Galapagos tourism sustainability models and based on results of those studies, it committed to adopting measures that promoted a zero growth model.  

The World Heritage Committee is scheduled to meet in September. If the draft report is adopted, it could put additional pressure on Ecuador to take steps to address the issue.

Why is tourism growth such an important issue?

For one thing, like most remote oceanic islands and archipelagos, the Galapagos Islands have given rise to a large number of species not found anywhere else. These endemic species evolved in relative seclusion to thrive in the unique ecosystems of the islands and are thus highly susceptible to threats from introduced species. Most other remote islands and island chains around the world have had their populations of endemic species decimated by human activity and the introduction of new species. The Galapagos, however, remains relatively pristine and it's still possible to see many of the same species Charles Darwin encountered here more than two hundred years ago and which helped inspire his theory of evolution of by natural selection, including eleven different subspecies of giant tortoises, marine iguanas (the world’s only seafaring lizard), and flightless cormorants, to name just a few. For this reason, the islands are rightly celebrated as a unique living museum and showcase of evolution.

When new species are introduced to the islands (both intentionally and otherwise), they often prey upon and outcompete endemic ones or wreak havoc on local ecosystems. Feral goats, for example, which were first introduced by whalers in the 1800s, decimated native vegetation and pushed several species of giant tortoise to the brink of extinction. Wild blackberry, originally brought to the islands as an ornamental plant, has taken over huge swaths of the islands and decimated native Scalesia forests and has thus far proven impossible to eradicate. More recent and harder-to-see arrivals include a species of invasive fly whose larvae prey upon bird chicks in the nest, including the critically endangered mangrove finch. 

More people arriving and moving between islands, without concomitant improvements to biosecurity phyto-sanitary controls, greatly increases the possibility that new and potentially devastating invaders could come with them. And land-based tourism, according to the report, “carries even larger risks of introduction and dispersal of alien species compared with ship-based tourism.”

Beyond this, explosive tourism growth fuels migration from the mainland and necessitates more and more shipments of food and other goods from the mainland, a primary vector for the introduction of new and invasive species.

What IGTOA is doing

  • In August, I will be representing IGTOA at a Regenerative Tourism Workshop hosted by the Galapagos National Park. The goal of the meeting is to come up with concrete policy recommendations for creating a more sustainable tourism industry in the Galapagos Islands. High level representatives from Ecuador's ministries of environment and tourism will be in attendance and the recommendations will be presented to top decision makers within Ecuador’s government. 
  • We have repeatedly and publicly called upon Ecuador’s government to implement policies to regulate land-based tourism as effectively and admirably as it has managed ship based tourism and to adopt other strategies to curb visitor demand. Recently we sent a letter to Mauricio Efraín Baus Palacios, Ecuador’s permanent UNESCO delegate, asking the government of Ecuador to make good on its commitment to adopt a zero-growth Galapagos tourism strategy and to regulate land-based tourism as stringently and admirably as it has regulated ship-based tourism. Both Lazare Eloundou, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and Tim Badman, Head of the IUCN World Heritage Programme, received copies of the letter.  In it, we reiterated our public call to raise the park entrance fee to provide much needed funding for biosecurity and park management and to help curb ever-growing visitor demand. The $100 park entrance fee has not been raised in decades and is a fraction of what other top tier national parks around the world charge. 
  • We also continue to work to alert the media about the issue of explosive Galapagos tourism growth in the islands and its potential impact in order to raise public awareness. Our efforts have garnered widespread media coverage, including several articles in The New York Times. 
Matt Kareus

Matt is the Executive Director of IGTOA.

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