How to Take a More Sustainable Tour of the Galapagos Islands
An interview with Jim Lutz, founder of Vaya Adventures and member of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA)
The 20 Passenger Eric in Tagus Cove, Isabela Island, Galapagos (Photo by Vaya Adventures)
What should environmentally-conscious travelers look for when choosing a Galapagos tour operator?
I think the right way to travel in the Galapagos is to think more broadly about the overall type of tourism you are supporting, rather than focusing exclusively on the self-described “green” or “sustainable” practices of any individual tour operator or hotel.
The main consideration, in my mind, is keeping tourism small scale, non-intrusive, and nature-oriented.
In practice, this means the best type of tour is with the smaller vessels that are licensed to operate live-aboard tours. The live-aboard vessels all have their itineraries managed by the Park Service and they are for the most part responsible companies that take their environmental commitment seriously. The vessels do have an impact in the islands, but the number of “berths”, or beds available on boats, has remained the same for several years and hopefully that will remain the case. If operated responsibly, which they largely are, I think a limited number of live-aboard cruise ships are consistent with a long-term sustainable tourism policy in the Galapagos.
Also, the longer the tour the better. Fewer people taking longer tours is better than more people taking shorter tours, because the coming and going of more people increases the chance of introduced species, requires more flights, fuel usage and other resources.
Is there anything in particular that visitors should avoid?
The thing I would avoid is a land-based tour, staying in any of the newer hotels. Patronizing hotels only gives incentive to those who want to build more hotels, and the last thing the Galapagos needs is more hotels. Land based tourism needs to be more controlled and regulated in order to reduce the pressure for continued immigration from the mainland and the resulting population growth in the islands.
Development in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands (Photo by Vaya Adventures)
There are some responsible hotels, such as the Finch Bay, that have been operating for several years. There is some place for a very limited number of hotels in the Galapagos, but the reality is that pressure exists for hotel development in the Galapagos and in my opinion it is not something that should be supported or encouraged. This is controversial to some people. I understand that the local population wants to have economic opportunities, but it can’t be the case that a pro-growth economic agenda takes precedence over a conservation agenda in the Galapagos, and long term those agendas are mutually exclusive.
If the government wants locals to benefit more from tourism in the Galapagos, it should consider raising the Park Fees on all visitors to generate more revenue for Ecuador. It shouldn’t do it by allowing endless expansion of tourism growth in the Galapagos, and particularly not land-based tourism growth, which involves more infrastructure development and promotes immigration. There are upwards of 30,000 people living in the Galapagos. The number of people living there has nearly doubled in the last 10 years.
Millions of people in Ecuador and around the world don’t want to see the Galapagos and its wildlife put at risk for the sake of making it a larger and larger tourist destination. At some point the growth has to be stopped. New hotels mean new stores, new restaurants, new infrastructure and building projects, and an increase in introduced species and demands on local resources, all of which threaten the uniquely fragile environment of the islands.
What are the main things travelers should look for in a tour agency for their commitment to conservation?
Talk to the people at the tour agency. What can they tell you about conservation issues in the Galapagos? Are they informed? Are they members/supporters of conservation organizations? Travelers can also look for certification programs such as Smart Voyager, which show that a company is taking its environmental commitment seriously, and trying to minimize its impact on the natural environment.
What do you think the biggest challenges are to sustainable tourism in the Galapagos?
I think the biggest issue of conservation and sustainability in the Galapagos is less about certifications and marginal improvements in environmental practices than it is about the larger trends and forces at work. Admirable efforts such as recycling policies, waste water treatment, solar panels, and other practices shouldn’t become a substitute for a comprehensive policy and approach to the real problem, which is excessive population growth and over-development.
When the new LEED certified expansion of the airport in Baltra is completed and increases capacity to over 300,000 tourists a year, it will be one of the great ironies in the history of sustainable tourism. The certification of “green” hotel practices and expansions of airports don’t do anything about the problem of too many people living in and moving to the Galapagos. This “LEED certified” airport will only contribute to the environmental problems in the Galapagos by making it possible for more people to go there.
Something that should be seriously considered is a cap on tourist arrivals to the Galapagos, which may be the only way to put a cap on the pressure for increased population growth and infrastructure and accommodation development in the Galapagos. Other destinations, such as Machu Picchu, have caps on the number of tourists who can visit at any one time, but the Galapagos has no limits in effect.
Are there any local conservation and sustainable tourism efforts that travelers can support during their trip?
Conservation organizations have been working tirelessly in the Galapagos for decades and have been instrumental in protecting the islands from over-fishing, pollution, over-development, and have had many important successes in elimination of invasive species, expansion of the protected areas, and improved regulation of the National Park.
The International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) is a good organization to support, which many responsible U.S. based tour operators are members of, and these tour operators can channel donations from travelers to IGTOA that will be used for specific conservation efforts in the islands. Also, the Galapagos Conservancy, WildAid, and SeaShepherd are very good organizations to support.
The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent or reflect those of IGTOA or any of its members.
More About Jim Lutz
Jim Lutz is the founder and President of Vaya Adventures. Jim developed a passion for Latin America while living and working in Ecuador after graduating from Harvard University. He has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in South and Central America. A native of New Jersey, Jim now lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and 3 young children. He serves on the Board of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, an organization dedicated to sustainable tourism practices in the Galapagos Islands.