As celebrated by fellow handpicked blogger Dave Hemming last week, this year sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of the 'Origin of Species. In the Galapagos Islands, which more than anywhere else have become associated with Darwin's development of the theory of evolution, these anniversaries have been marked by much marketing hype by tour operators hoping to cash in. Thus while many tourist destinations are currently reporting empty hotels and falling arrivals, the Galapagos are hoping to buck the trend and reach record arrivals of 180,000 during 2009.
While Ecuador will welcome the economic boost that this tourism will bring (if the hype overcomes the economic recession; there are some reports of lower bookings and discounting even here), increased tourism pressure brings its own problems. Visitor numbers have risen from 41,000 in 1991 to 173,000 in 2008, and many immigrants have moved from the Ecuadorian mainland to cash in. Over the past 20 years the human population has risen to more than 40,000. Many recent arrivals have been working illegally, and the Ecuadorean government has begun sending them back to the mainland. Problems associated with the influx of people include overfishing and a proliferation of introduced species threatening native wildlife.
The Galapagos is a unique wildlife destination, and this is recognised by 97% of the archipelago being declared a national park. Many species of animals and plants are endemic to the islands. But despite the protected status, many are still under threat.
About 95 per cent of the species that lived on the islands before humans arrived still remain, but often in much reduced numbers. There are 106 species on the islands and in the surrounding waters, out of around 450, that are now considered endangered or critically endangered, while another 90 have been officially declared as vulnerable.
Of the 168 unique plants found no where else in the world, 60 per cent are close to extinction and in the past 10 years alone, at least three species, including a mouse that bore Darwin's name, have died out. Darwin's Galapagos mouse was declared extinct in 1996, with competition from introduced black rats – which came to the islands as stowaways – one of the contributing factors.
"When Darwin visited the Galapagos, the number of animals would have been far greater," says Jonathan Rush, information manager at the Galapagos Conservation Trust. "The introduction of invasive species, tourism, fishing, development and pollution are the principal threats.
"The growing number of visitors has had an adverse impact and could destroy the islands if allowed to increase in an uncontrolled way."
But one of the world's most famous and authoritative wildlife broadcasters, Sir David Attenborough, says that the Galapagos Islands need tourism to survive. The broadcaster who first visited the islands in 1978 filming Life on Earth, and last returned on his 80th birthday, wrote in Lonely Plant Magazine (reproduced here in the Telegraph) that tourism is a necessary evil.
"Tourism is a mixed blessing for the Galapagos but the fact is, if there was not tourism to the islands and the local people did not get any income from it, there would be nothing left there now" he wrote. "It would all be gone. It is the lesson of conservation around the world that unless the people who live in such places, whose land they feel belongs to them, are on the side of conservation, you're doomed. So tourism, if it's evil, is a necessary evil and one that in this instance can be controlled."
Price is a factor that will prevent true mass tourism on the Galapagos. The average cost of a seven-night cruise – excluding flights and a stay in Quito – is £2,500. Tourists are guided at all times, kept to paths, warned to maintain their distance from animals and even told, while on their boat, to use biodegradable sun factor and shampoo. The government is said to be considering raising National Park fees from $100 to $135, while some say it should be much higher.
"In most Kenyan parks it's $70 a day, nearly $500 a week," one tour operator told Michael Kerr, who blogged about Galapagos tourism on the UK's Telegraph newspapers website recently. "That's what it should be in the Galapagos, and they should spend it on education, jobs and conservation policing." Some tour operators would also accept further limits on visitor numbers.
Broadcaster Andrew Marr, (President of the Galapagos Conservation Trust) speaking at a dinner at Christ's College, Cambridge to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, said that visits to the islands should be limited to once in a lifetime.
"The Galapagos islands are truly astonishing – home to many unique species," he said.
"But they are very delicate, and there is huge pressure on them because of tourism, development and the introduction of invasive species. That is why, having been to the islands once, I promise never to go back."
In a chapter of a recent CABI book, Durham (2008) describes the Galapagos as one of the original ‘laboratories’ for ecotourism as well as for evolution. Durham suggests that a combination of factors – uncontrolled migration in response to burgeoning tourism revenues, plus the multiple benefits of incumbency among tourism operators in Galapagos – have conspired to reduce the social and environmental benefits of ecotourism in the islands today.
Due to the isolation of the Galapagos islands, they do offer an opportunity to develop methods of managing tourism, the environment and economy that may then if successful be adapted to other destinations. A laboratory of ecotourism or, to return to Sir David Attenborough, a parable for the planet.
"The interesting thing is that what is going on there relates to man's exploitation of the world and what we are proposing to do about it" he wrote. "We can screw up the Galapagos in the way that we can very easily screw up the whole planet. These islands are an example, a parable, for how we treat the natural world."
Tourism threat to cradle of evolution. Handpicked blog entry, 12 April 2007
Fishing for solutions: ecotourism and conservation in Galapagos National Park. Durham, W. H. / Ecotourism and conservation in the Americas, 2008, pp. 66-90, 43 ref.
SmartVoyager: protecting the Galápagos Islands. Goodstein, C. / Quality assurance and certification in ecotourism, 2007, pp. 65-80, 9 ref.
Can ecotourism interpretation really lead to pro-conservation knowledge, attitudes and behaviour? Evidence from the Galapagos Islands. Powell, R. B. , Ham, S. H. / Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2008, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 467-489, many ref.
Ecotourism and economic growth in the Galapagos: an island economy-wide analysis. Taylor, J. E. , Hardner, J. , Stewart, M. / Working Paper – Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, 2006, No. 06-001, pp. 31