Course:CONS200/2019/Impacts of Ecotourism on the Galapagos Islands

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Geographical location of the Galapagos Islands
Tourists admiring the largest living species of tortoise, the Galapagos tortoise

The Galapagos Islands, also known as the Archipelago de Colon, are located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean.[1] Humans have introduced 1,579 alien terrestrial and marine species to the islands.[2] The Galapagos Islands gained their notoriety when Charles Darwin studied its biodiversity and thus, the islands became the foundation of his Theory of Evolution.[3] One of the Islands’ most valuable characteristics is the unusually high level of endemism in its biodiversity,[4] that of which is “restricted or peculiar to” the islands.[5] As a result of its historical significance in understanding evolution, a steep rise in ecotourism has transpired. Inevitably, this high level of eco-tourism has prompted wildlife, environmental, economic and social issues.

Biological Effects

The Darwin finch is among many species to become habituated to tourists Lorne Kingwell

Wildlife Effects

The Galapagos has been deemed a rare quadruple richness centre[6], a hot spot for mammals, birds, amphibians and plants. Its incredible biodiversity was noticed as early as when the Beagle and Darwin’s team landed there in 1835 [7], but continued human activity including eco-tourism has greatly impacted the native ecosystem on the islands, including the health and well-being of many wildlife species.

The greatest danger of eco-tourism in the Galapagos is not actually the people themselves, but the invasive species we have introduced in the process. Due to passenger and resource transportation in the tourism industry, both between the islands as well as from external environments, new methods for invasive species to reach the fragile ecosystems have been introduced. This includes planes, boats and land transportation which often carry stowaway individuals of foreign species. Although measures such as fumigating aircraft and vehicle inspections have been put in place to help reduce the occurrence of invasive organisms since the tourism industry started its acceleration in the 1970s, alien species have been introduced to the islands at a rate of 30 species per year. [8] Once these species were transported to the Galapagos, many of them became very successful in their new habitat, including goats and pigs [9], which have majorly modified the landscape. This often results in habitat fragmentation or degradation of smaller organisms that depend on those resources.

Physiological effects of ecotourism have also been recorded in Galapagos fauna. Increased human presence has led to certain species, including the endemic marine iguana[10] to become habituated to people. This decreases the levels of stress hormones the animals produce, and it could potentially be very dangerous for the species as a whole.[10] With repeated exposure to humans and reduced stress response, the individuals become less able to respond appropriately to threats such as predators. This means that the population may begin to see decline in abundance over time as the fitness of individuals is decreased, and perhaps lead to the further endangerment of key species in the Galapagos.

While there are clearly drawbacks of pursuing ecotourism for the Galapagos wildlife, the increased interest in the region has also brought some encouraging benefits. More than 80% of visitors to the islands have at least one university degree [11], and encounters with native animals ranks as the number one reason for tourists travelling to the area. [12] These statistics show that visitors are looking to engage with the natural systems of the Galapagos, which could be focused to raise awareness and funding for conservation. A group of tourists were studied and shown to increase their knowledge of local wildlife by 10% after their vacation in the Galapagos [13], a promising start to public education on the importance of native wildlife. Additionally, the interest of tourists has proven to local authorities that what they have is worth protecting, resulting in the creation of policies and protected areas such as the expansion of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. [14]

Environmental Effects

Designated human trail in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Lorne Kingwell

The beautiful landscapes and ecosystems filled with rich biodiversity in the Galapagos Islands have attracted more and more tourists in recent years. A major selling point for this new eco-tourism industry in Ecuador is raising awareness of the importance of conserving these diverse ecosystems while simultaneously funding their protection and preservation. However, most people do not realize that the ecotourism industry in the Galapagos islands is in many ways harming the very environment it wishes to protect. From the direct effects of pollution and habitat degradation to the indirect effects such as carbon emissions, the ecotourism industry has brought several new threats to the ecosystems on the Galapagos islands.

The major cause for negative environmental impacts on the islands stems from the growing population due to the ecotourism industry. The increase in population has brought growth in infrastructure, resource usage, and pollution.[15] Ever since the eco-tourism industry began there has been an unsustainable growth on the Islands, resulting in an increase in demand for fresh water, electricity, land and fuel to sustain the needs of the growing population.[16] The by-products due to industrialization have caused habitat loss due to the increase and unregulated land use and habitat degradation due to air pollution from motor vehicles causing an overall decline in the quality of the tourism experience.[17]

Another major indirect effect of eco-tourism in the Galapagos is the increased carbon emission adding to the world crisis of climate change and ocean acidification. Around 850,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline are shipped to the Islands to sustain the power demands.[17] Furthermore, the carbon emission used to transport the fuel, other products and the tourists themselves also increase the islands carbon footprint, since travel related activities make up one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.[17] The climate change crisis is causing immense damage to ecosystems across the globe and the Galapagos islands are no exception. The coral reefs that house one of the most biodiverse ecosystems around the islands are heavily affected by El Nino events (the cycle of warm and cold water temperatures) causing coral reef bleaching, essentially destroying the habitat.[18] The ecotourism industry has threatened the pristine landscape and habitats that attract so many tourists every year.

Tourists are able to explore the rich biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands' oceans

Economic Effects

Ecotourism is the fastest growing economic sector of the largest industry on earth and is strongly advocated by many major conservation groups as a way to conserve nature. In theory, by increasing local incomes through tourism[10] it allows locals to divest away from extractive industries and create incentive for conservation.[10]Under ideal circumstances, ecotourism creates infrastructure, employment, and increased revenues for local businesses - especially if locals are involved in the operations and management with community partnerships being developed.[17] Successful businesses can then make a stronger ecotourism sector, resulting in a positive feedback loop with benefits in rural development and communities.[19]

Ecotourism can also draw consumers into remote local markets and act as a low-cost mechanism for artisans to sell products, providing needed finances in depressed regions.[20] However, this model situation is not always the case and beyond the discussed environmental impacts of ecotourism in the Galapagos, there are economic implications as well. By creating economic disparities between ecotourism destinations and the areas that surround them, it creates pressures for migration and population growth to fill jobs linked to tourism.[10] The population of the Galapagos increased at an annual rate of 5.9% between 1982 and 1990 with most migration occurring in the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Isabela.[10] It was demonstrated that a 10% increase in tourist spending leads to a migration increase equivalent to 5% of the existing workforce - despite 90% of tourist spending going to the two airlines that service the islands and little expenditures actually going to locals.[10]

A share of local salaries larger than the share of tourist expenditures enters the Galapagos economy meaning that there is actually greater economic stimulation created through local spending than through ecotourism.[10]However, growing local populations and economies require trade of goods and services to support the life on the archipelago. This contradicts one of the primary goals of ecotourism which is to enable local residents to participate in the economic benefits of tourism, because the need for external products gives benefit actors of other economies.[10] Additionally, in the Galapagos there was concern that agricultural trade would introduce new competitive species into the fragile ecology which resulted in reduction of imports in the islands.[17] This resulted in upward pressure on local food pricing and shifted ecological concern from introduction of new species to conflict in resource use between food production and conservation use. In a growing population, balancing between resource use and conservation makes it difficult to manage impacts of tourism on population growth.[10] In summary, ecotourism poses positive prospects of economic development in the Galapagos, but in actuality impacts are mixed with little income actually going to locals of the islands and the challenges of population growth creating new issues.

Social Effects

Galapagos islands have an area of 8000-kilometres squared.[21] The tropical archipelago was a great inspiration for Darwin’s theory of evolution when he visited the island back in 1835. This is due to the huge variety of flora and fauna that can be found on the islands. Today the region attracts more than one hundred and fifty thousand visitors annually generating not only huge prospects for economic activities but also for vast ecological exploration.[22] But prosperous as the island is getting, the social and cultural changes that the region is facing cannot be ignored.

The islands have observed not only a steep rise in tourism since the past few decades but also a huge surge in resident population. In 1998, the government enacted ‘The Galapagos Special Law’ restricting legal residence on the island but this has also triggered a rise in illegal

Passengers from the Samba tour vessel in the Galapagos Lorne Kingwell

“undocumented” population.[23] This rise in population is leading to various social impacts on the life of people on the islands.

The cultural environment of the islands is changing. This is due to a very high population growth (as high as 6%).[23] The migrant population on the islands has been observed mainly from mainland Ecuador. People come to the island for better employment conditions, higher pay rates as well as better access to technological resources when compared to mainland Ecuador. The migrants then settle, have kids and thus foster their own culture by expanding their families. The main concern is that they spread their own methods of managing land which affect the growth of native species. Moreover, some areas of the Galapagos feel more like major cities than nature havens.[23]

Crime and drug use are increasing on the archipelago compared to the mainland. A study by Business Insider reported the seizure of 458,000 pounds of cocaine being brought to the island during 2018.[24] The illegal migrants often have poor living conditions and lack basic amenities. According to 2015 World Bank report, poverty stands at about 25% on the island.[25] The island also has high rates of domestic violence. More than 50% of women on the island have reported violence or abuse during their life.[22]All of these can also be linked to poor education rates on the island. A government report suggests that only 60% of the adult population on the island have had access to good quality education.[23]

Benefits of tourism and economic activities have positively impacted only some sections of society. As the migrant population on the island is increasing, local workers are finding it harder to find jobs because of increasing competition. Migrants who come from the mainland tend to work harder than the local population on the island. They are also ready to work for lower pay (which is still usually higher than what they earn on the mainland) than the locals because of which they are preferred highly by their employers such as hotel owners, farmers etc. In research conducted by Conservation and Society, the researchers found that the fishermen who used to get about 50% of earnings of their catch now face direct competition from migrants who are ready to accept only 30%.[23] This is creating a sense of income insecurity among the locals. Thus, whereas the workers consider immigration of people as a threat to their livelihoods, employers consider the migration important to the economy of the island because they need people who can work harder to meet the ever-increasing demands for goods and services on the island. They also earn higher profits because they pay low for more work.

Thus, the ecotourism industry is having a huge impact on the lives of people of Galapagos islands and these impacts cannot be ignored.

Opportunities for Mitigation

A native blue footed booby with invasive feral goats being removed by boat Lorne Kingwell

While ecotourism continues to have big impacts on the biological wellness, economic stability and social dynamics of the Galapagos islands in Ecuador, there are several methods that can be used to mitigate the negative human effects of ecotourism on the irreplaceable region.

An important element to continuing protection of the island is increasing monitoring and patrol. Attention should be given on growing immigrant population. A good proportion of those migrants are often undocumented and tend to stay illegally on the island. In 2007, National Institute of Galapagos (INGALA) estimated around 7000 migrants to be living illegally on the island.[23]

While there are regulations in place including only allowing 90 visitors on land in certain tourism dedicated zones[26] and restricting cruise ships to 16 passengers [27], there is not currently sufficient staff to properly implement these policies. This leads to small tourist establishments to be easily overlooked as they cause continued damage to the environments of the visitor zones by surpassing the recommended human capacity. Having stricter regulation and monitoring of land use, decreasing the growing and sometimes illegal deforestation for agriculture and urbanization, would also help minimize the negative impacts of tourism and the preservation of the surrounding ecosystems.[16]

Another way to mitigate the effects of ecotourism is to produce more resources locally on the islands instead of importing them from Ecuador’s mainland. [28] This change could reduce the effects of increased human presence in the remote areas, therefore limiting the transportation of goods through sensitive habitats and using many smaller operations that would be less destructive to the animals living in the area. Reducing the need to import goods from the mainland would also reduce the carbon emissions and footprint caused by the transportation of these resources [16]. This could also improve economic conditions, keeping increased household income on the islands and in the community - an important objective of ecotourism. Finding sustainable ways to use a wider variety of resources on the island could prevent illegal over-exploitation in certain areas as it would allow for the increasing population to sustain themselves from the island relieving the surrounding ecosystem from the negative effects that ecotourism brings to the islands.[16]


While ecotourism raises awareness, brings about wildlife policy, and results in the maintenance of ecosystems, it has its costs. Ecotourism also introduces invasive species whilst resulting in habitat loss and physiological stress on the ecosystem. A byproduct of the ecotourism industry is the rise in severe threats to the ecosystems on the Galapagos islands such as pollution and habitat degradation. Ecotourism does present a future for economic development in the Galapagos, however the fact that only a small portion of income goes to locals shows that the majority of the benefits revolving ecotourism do not greatly favour the natives of the islands themselves. Additionally, a steep rise in tourism has resulted in a surge in island population. In terms of social impacts, this has made it harder for locals to find employment.

While ecotourism can negatively affect biological wellness, economic stability and the social dynamics of the Galapagos Islands, methods such as increasing its monitoring and the local production of resources can be used to mitigate these negative impacts.


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Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Will. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.