Galapagos Tourism & Population Growth

Tourism is undeniably the economic lifeblood of the Galapagos Islands and has played a critical role in their conservation over the last four decades. The tens of millions of dollars that tourism injects into the local and national economies annually provide the means and the incentive for the government of Ecuador to invest in the lasting protection of the archipelago. As Sir David Attenborough once said, “Without tourism, the Galapagos would not exist.”

In many ways, the Galapagos tourism industry is among the most carefully managed in the world. 97% of the total landmass of the archipelago is set aside as national park. Licensed guides must accompany visitors who must follow set itineraries that include a limited number of carefully monitored visitor sites. There are strict rules limiting how many tourism concessions may be awarded and to whom they are given. For example, only about 70 tourist boats are licensed to operate within the marine reserve, a number that has not changed significantly in years.

Still, the sheer growth in tourism, which has been fueled, in part, by the growing popularity of both shorter cruises and land-based tourism, has had an undeniable impact on the islands in recent decades. From 1990 to 2013, tourism arrivals increased from around 40,000 to just over 200,000. During that time, the population of the Galapagos increased from around 10,000 to just over 30,000, as Ecuadorians from the mainland migrated here in search of jobs and opportunities created, directly and indirectly, by the tourism industry.

Population growth in inhabited areas has created demand for new infrastructure, housing, automobiles, fresh water, sewage treatment and waste disposal. It has also lead to an increase in the number of new, small businesses in operation, which has further fueled immigration from the mainland.

The most serious consequence of population growth, however, is somewhat less obvious to the casual visitor than busy streets and new housing developments: invasive species. As tourism has grown and the resident population has increased to match, so have the number of flights and cargo ships arriving from the mainland. In the 1970s, a few flights arrived from mainland each week, compared to an average of six per day today. The number of cargo ships from the mainland has also increased dramatically. Flights, and especially cargo ships, are the primary vectors for new and potentially dangerous invasive species to arrive in the archipelago.

Other factors, besides tourism, have also contributed to the problem, including a stagnant economy on the mainland for much of the 1980s and ‘90s, huge oil subsidies, and a boom in sea cucumber fishing the 1990s.

The “Special Law of Galapagos,” which was enacted in 1998, sought to limit the size of the resident population through new immigration protocols. Unfortunately, growth continued virtually unabated due to loopholes in the new rules and inadequate implementation and enforcement. In 2007, after the World Heritage Committee placed the Galapagos on the World Heritage in Danger List, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa implemented a stricter set of rules designed to make the process for granting permanent and temporary residence more transparent. It also levied penalties for those whose status in the Galapagos was found to be “irregular” and made it easier to return them to the mainland.

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