Responsible tourism in the Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands National park was one of the first to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978, so it was a shock when this remote archipelago with its unique ecosystems was put on UNESCO’s “red list” of endangered sites in 2007, with concerns about booming population and tourism, overfishing and the introduction of invasive species.

As a result of the Ecuadorian government plunging vast investments into building and supporting nature tourism here in the 1980s, tourism numbers went from 11,000 in 1979 to more than 270,000 in 2019. Most of them packed onto, what was thought at the time, to be the good, ecological answer: floating hotels. Luckily, action was taken quickly; the number of boats reduced and the population boom of Ecuadorians coming to live here in order to cash in on the cruises has eased off, resulting in its UNESCO danger warning being removed in 2010. It is still one of the most spectacular places to visit on this earth, but just go carefully.

Environment & wildlife in the Galápagos


In recent years there have been global concerns about the size and operations of Chinese distant fishing fleets (those operating beyond territorial waters), which could number up to 17,000 vessels, dwarfing even that of the USA. The United Nations has claimed that China is responsible for around 20 percent of the world’s annual catch – in the region of 15 million tonnes of marine life every year. That level of consumption risks becoming seriously unsustainable.

In 2020, there was alarm when a huge fleet of Chinese fishing vessels appeared just outside Ecuadorean waters off the Galápagos Islands. It’s been estimated that between them the ships logged some 73,000 hours of fishing in one month, and caught thousands of tonnes of squid and fish. This scale of fishing is potentially catastrophic for the many marine species in the Galápagos Islands that depend on a stable food supply, not to mention the local fishing industry. The fleet didn’t actually cross into Ecuadorean waters, but it was right on the line, close enough to raise hackles and prompt calls for action.

The Ecuadorean government is now proposing that the marine reserve around the Galápagos Islands is expanded by 60,000km², connecting it with similar protected zones in Costa Rican, Panamanian and Colombian waters to create safe migration routes. It’s a move strongly backed by Galapagueño communities, not least because it’s likely to result in better catches for local fishermen.

The plan is for the expansion to be funded by a ‘debt for conservation’ swap, where a developing nation has some of its debt forgiven in exchange for investing in conservation initiatives. Colombia and Costa Rica have both managed this in the past, while Belize and the Seychelles have proposed their own.

Invasive species

Another primary concern in the Galápagos is invasive species that come in via boat and people. It is vital, therefore, to adhere to ‘biosecurity’ rules and regulations, such as having your aircraft fumigated, being asked to stay within marked trails, and never touching animals.

What you can do

While the Chinese fishing fleet is easily the largest in the world, it is hardly the only culprit when it comes to overfishing. To shop seafood sustainably, use the Marine Conservation Society’s regularly updated Good Fish Guide. In the Galápagos Islands, look out for vacations and tour operators that explicitly say they source their seafood from local fishermen, and when on land aim to eat at restaurants which serve fresh catch from small boats. Stay at least 2m away from the animals. Do not feed or touch the wildlife. When taking photos of the animals, do not use flash photography. If you are a professional photographer, you need special permission to shoot here. Guides are obliged to file a report within 15 days after the end of each trip, so if you think anything is amiss, you can report it to your guide, knowing that there is a legal procedure for follow up. Don’t stick stones, black coral, shells, volcanic rocks, animal parts, native wood or flora in your pockets as souvenirs. Smoking and campfires are strictly prohibited within the Galápagos National Park, as they are a danger to the flora and fauna.

Cruise ship issues

The Galápagos is one case where we can definitely say that we do not need a bigger boat. Or, indeed, another boat. Once thought of as the most ecologically sound way to bring tourists into the national park, it can be like rush hour at Heathrow Airport runway out there sometimes.

There has been a strong movement to discourage the use of big high-end cruise ships and thankfully the Ecuadorian government intervened and the national park now restricts the size of the boats allowed to cruise the islands to 100 passengers maximum. Some islands, such as Genovesa, are limited to boats with no more than 40 passengers.

The boats are strictly policed. One cruise operator was stopped for having lobster in its freezers outside of the lobster season. It was also the subject of Channel 4’s Dispatches, which uncovered alleged unethical and illegal working conditions.

What you can do

Fishing is prohibited from all tour boats and you should report anyone doing so to the national park. This is something that is taken seriously, with livelihoods depending on the islands staying clean and green. There are speedboat trips available around the archipelago which are wrong on so many levels. Our partners will use small boats to get around, but they don’t speed.

People & culture in the Galápagos

Conscious community tourism

There has been so much focus on the cruising industry in the Galáápagos that small locally owned businesses on land have been jumping up and down for attention, but not managing to create the waves they need to. They are harder to market, especially if they are not linked to one of the cruise companies, as some hotels are, so do check out our excellent selection of Galápagos land based vacations.

These support local communities, allow you stay and explore the islands long after the daily cruise passengers have left, are a great option for those traveling with children, and are often cheaper than staying onboard a boat too. So do a Darwin here and just go exploring.

Covid impacts in Galápagos

Most inhabitants of the Galápagos Islands are either directly or indirectly involved in tourism, whether that’s working in hotels, guiding cruise groups, or selling their fish to restaurants and ships. So this is a destination that is extremely dependent on tourism profits, especially as those profits contribute to scientific and research projects, and conservation initiatives. The Covid-19 pandemic naturally put a very big spanner in the works.

As the pandemic spread, many foreign scientists, researchers and interns were repatriated, with the projects they were working paused indefinitely. And with tourism at a standstill, many small local companies went out of business, affecting people who didn’t have many other options for work in the islands.

Local guides

When you are traveling within the national park, you are pretty much guaranteed to get an excellent guide, because it is the law. First, it is the law that you must have a guide to begin with, and second, it is the law that guides must be fully trained. They must also be locals. Courses are led by the Directorate of the Galápagos National Park where students train in history, ecology and conservation, geology and volcanology, environmental interpretation and ethics, to name but a few.

What you can do

The Galápagos Islands, its people and its vital scientific research projects all depend on tourism. Our vacations often support research and conservation initiatives, as well as providing useful data. So if you’ve always dreamed of exploring this wildlife watching destination then don’t put it off, but do choose a tour operator that explains how it gives back. Our partners use local suppliers as much as possible. They’ll source their seafood from Galapagueño fishermen, and their chip’s crews will often be made up of born and bred islanders. All of which means that while you’re having an incredible and unforgettable vacation, your money has massive benefits to local communities. The Galápagos Islands steal much of the attention in Ecuador. But going to Ecuador and not spending at least some time on the mainland is a bit like going to Sicily and never bothering with Rome, Florence, Tuscany or the Dolomites. So, yes, go for the iguanas and islets, but don’t go all that way and miss the Andes and Amazon, World Heritage cities and coast.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: pantxorama] [Cruising for a bruising: Aaron Logan] [Camping at Puerto Grande: Michael R Perry]