Course:FRST370/The co-evolution of tourism and community conservation in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

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The Galápagos Islands, one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, attract thousands of tourists each year[1]. Tourism is a major source of income for the islands, therefore, it is important to establish a sustainable tourism model that promotes the islands’ ecological integrity without compromising the livelihood of local communities. In this wiki page, we looked at the history of tourism in the Galápagos islands and examined the issues and conflicts created by the old tourism model. Using the case study of Floreana, a small island in the Galápagos, we concluded that community-based tourism (CBT) is a successful co-management tourism model because it not only satisfies the Galápagos National Park’s conservation agenda, but also the Floreanos’s demand for livelihood improvement and protection[2]. We also have recommendations for how tourism at the Galápagos Islands should look like in the future to ensure a balance between conservation and livelihood improvement.

Keywords: The Galápagos Islands, community-based tourism, conservation, co-management, Floreana


Geographical & Cultural Context of the Galápagos Islands

Map of the Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands is an archipelago of 19 volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean[1]. Located 906 km west of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands is regarded as an administrative province of the Republic of Ecuador[1].

In 1853, Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands and discovered that the combination of geographical isolation and periodic seismic activities of these islands have contributed to the evolution of distinctive and endemic species on these islands[3]. This observation later led to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection[3]. Today, the Galápagos Islands is one of the most famous tourist sites around the world for its scientific implications, natural environment, and biodiversity[3].

History - Evolution of Tourism

Although tourism accounts for 97% of the total profits of the Galápagos economy nowadays, in the early 1900s, the islands’ economy was mostly contributed to by agriculture and fishery[4]. Prior to organized tourism, Galápagos was a rustic, little known outpost, except in the scientific field. In the 1950s, the Ecuadorian government established the Galápagos National Park, which partially led to the islands' (eco)tourism boom[4]. This also contributed to the islands' significant population growth when huge numbers of migrants (especially those from mainland Ecuador) moving to Galápagos to seek employment opportunities in the tourism industry[4]. As tourism developed, the Ecuadorian government paid little attention and consideration to how the local communities on Galápagos were affected[4]. It was not until the 1980s when there was another significant tourism boom, that local farmers and fishermen started to engage in tourism activities by opening local businesses and aquatic transportation services[3]. Profits from agriculture and fishery were no longer a major portion of the Galápagos economy[4]. Instead, tourism revenue dominated[3]. However, the growth of tourism has led to many conflicts regarding issues of unfair benefits distribution, invasive species, and conservation between local communities in the Galápagos and the federal government[5][6][7].

Setting the Stage: Critical Issues of Conflicts

The Special Law

The Special Law was the first intact management framework first developed in 1998[5]. This set of public policies were designated to promote sustainable ecotourism in the Galápagos Islands[5]. The intention of this legislation was to provide a set of regulations that balances economic development and environmental preservation in the archipelago[5]. Tourism management prior to 1998 was simply piecemeal[8]. Although the federal government initiated general management plans for the archipelago, there were no entities that held a clear leadership role[8]. The combination of deficient enforcement in addition to the growth in tourism resulted in increased vulnerability to over-exploitation and environmental degradation[5][8]. In addition, greater tourist volume inevitably introduced invasive species which disturbed the local ecology[5][8].

The increasing disturbance to high endemic species raised the concerns of international conservation agencies[9]. Thus, to promote conservation and environmental preservation incentives, the Ecuadorian’s national debt was purchased by WWF in exchange for the Galápagos to follow a strict framework of environmental policies that prioritized conservation[8][9]. The goal of the Special Law was to unite parties, protect areas of global significance, and clarify global environmental principles, while still honouring state sovereignty[8].

The Special Law consisted of intricate rules ranging from quarantine policies that aimed to prohibit invasive species to limiting Ecuadorian mainlanders from holding jobs or fishing licenses[10]. The law strengthened institutional power of the Galápagos National Park and won the support of local leaders[10]. Nevertheless, it was not successful in achieving its goals[11]. Local communities on the Galápagos were entitled to their lands and deemed government conservation policies as “alien and inappropriate”[10][12]. The locals believed that their lifestyles were not at fault for the environmental implications of tourism[10]. Feelings of marginality and antagonism were enhanced when conservation purposes led to the establishment of the Galápagos Marine Reserve and restricted local traditional fishing practices[5]. Ultimately, the dissatisfaction led to the fishing industry’s wide-scale slaughter of the endemic Giant Tortoise by fishermen and intentional arson within the national park[4][10]. This failure reflects the necessary consideration of local interests when finding the balance between local livelihoods and environmental conservation.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise

The Galápagos Giant Tortoise is well-known by the tourists who visit the Galápagos Islands. This species has a slow reproduction rate, so it is important to care for their livelihood.

The Galápagos Giant Tortoise is one of the most well-known species among the tourists around the world[13]. The species also raised conservation interests for various NGOs and Galápagos conservation organizations[13]. Since the 1990s, the Galápagos National Park, Charles Darwin Research Station, and Galápagos Giant Tortoise Centers have started their conservation programs aiming to restore and maintain the Giant Tortoise population and habitats[13]. Though successful, the programs created conflicts with local communities. Farmers complained about crop-raiding and fence damages done by Giant Tortoises. Local fishermen were also unsatisfied with the conservation programs because their tortoise hunting practices became prohibited[14]. These Giant Tortoise conservation programs led to protests by fishermen, who symbolically slaughtered Giant Tortoises to make their voices heard[14]. This captured significant attention from conservation organizations. Many NGOs and researchers formulated potential solutions regarding this conflict: (1) integrate agriculture and fishery with tourism, (2) involve the local communities in the tourism industry, and most importantly, (3) develop community-based tourism and make sure tourism benefits are distributed fairly[14].

The Case of Invasive Species and Tourism

Tourism heightens the risk of invasive species due to increasing contact between the islands and the external world[7]. The Galápagos' main source of invasive species risk is from the number of “tourist-days”, the number of day tourist visits per day[7]. Researchers and local communities/governments suggested two strategies that managers can use to reduce the negative externalities of tourism: an educational strategy by providing information about the negative externalities and a pricing strategy by imposing surcharges on less desirable trips[7]. Researchers also encourage longer trips for the tourists that are consistent with the educational mandate of the Park: to inform visitors about the ecological value of biodiversity[7]. Short trips, by contrast, are believed to be favored by casual tourists unlikely to gain much appreciation for the islands’ ecological value[7].

Through the three aforementioned issues, it is clear that the old tourism model had three key issues:

  1. It had low educational value,
  2. Did not benefit local communities, and
  3. Heightened the risk of invasive species.

Therefore, a need for a new tourism model that requires multi-level dependence and collaboration to soothe the relationships between different stakeholders emerged.

Floreana and Community Tourism Management

What is Community-based tourism (CBT)?

Entrance to the famous Galápagos National Park

Community-based tourism (or CBT) refers to the local involvement of project planning, development, and management of tourism in a community[2]. It is based on the assumption that local involvement in tourism projects will lead to a more stable local socio-economy and sustainable conservation results[15].

In Floreana, an island in the Galápagos, CBT is expected to satisfy the Galápagos National Park (GNP)’s conservation agenda and the Floreanos community’s demand for livelihood improvement and protection[15]. More specifically, CBT on Floreana aims to directly involve local Floreanos in co-managing tourism (with GNP), improve the quality of tourism by decreasing tourist-days and opening more spaces within GNP for tourism, and diversify economic activities on Floreana[15].

What Led to the Establishment of CBT on Floreana?

Tourism on Floreana boomed in the 21st century: the number of visitors to the island increased by 15 times from 1979 to 2011 (from less than 12,000 to over 180,000 visitors)[2]. With the GNP legally owning 98% of the land on Floreana, GNP was allowed to establish strict boundaries of protected areas and exclude Floreanos from utilizing or accessing these protected areas[2]. GNP was also free to determine areas for tourism and what type of tourism was implemented in the region without consulting local communities[15]. This led to locals being locked out of the land and resources that they previously had access to, forcing them to move from an economy dependent on agriculture and fishery to one that depends on tourism[2][15].

In this period of time, tourism on Floreana was also called “whistle-stop tourism”, where only tourist-days were allowed[2][15]. These visits were organized by external operators from mainland Ecuador or an entirely different country[2][15]. These operators then hired Floreanos and paid them a fixed price for their services[2]. This led to many price wars among local service providers while barely 20% of revenue generated from tourism actually stayed on the island[2].

Ultimately, the Floreana community assembly unified and petitioned for the protection from external operators and investors, and to propose a new CBT model[2]. Their first draft of this model outlines 3 main objectives:

  1. Stop “whistle-stop tourism” in Floreana by reducing tourist-days and promoting overnight stays,
  2. Open more spaces in the GNP for tourism,
  3. Establish a local organization representative of all Floreanos to co-manage tourism with GNP with hopes of preventing external operators/investors from exploiting local services[15].

A Brief Timeline of CBT on Floreana

Year Event
2011 The Floreana local government drafted a document to form a “Pre-association for development and tourism in Floreana” without consultation of the local community[2].

The document included details of a CBT organization, future tourism plans, and commitments by all households to lead more “environmentally sustainable” lifestyles[2]. The document was not signed by the majority of Floreanos[2].

2012 Government officials considered opening new spaces in the GNP for tourism[2].

Workshops were organized for GNP staff and Floreanos to set ecological guidelines for the construction of new tourist areas and use of resources[2]

2014 The Floreana Community Centre (CECFLOR) was legally recognized to be Floreana’s local community tourism organization[2]. It is entirely composed of local households who work within the tourism sector on Floreana[2].
2015 GNP and CECFLOR signed an agreement to co-manage tourism in northern Floreana[15]. Another agreement was signed in 2018 that expanded this co-management to the majority of the island[15]. The agreement allowed local Floreanos to offer services such as kayaking, camping, and scuba diving[2].

This historical moment marked the first time that GNP signed a co-management agreement with an entire island community[16].

2016 CECFLOR established the Floreana Post Office Tours Cia. Ltda. tour operator, which is based in mainland Ecuador and organizes CBT on Floreana[2].
2017 GNP continues to support the development of CECFLOR and Floreana Post Office Tours[2].

The collective organization of Floreanos contributed to increased community empowerment, control over tourism on the island, and overall improved local livelihood and natural environment[15].

Stakeholders and Power Analysis

Affected Stakeholders

The Floreana Community Centre (CECFLOR)

Amblyrhynchus cristatus - the only marine iguana on Earth, an endemic species in the Galápagos

CECFLOR is an affected stakeholder because it is a non-governmental organization made up of 71 Floreanos who are representative of all 30 households involved in tourism in Floreana[15]. It is the only local organization legally authorized to manage tourist-days and CBT in Floreana[15][17]. CECFLOR is the intermediary link between external operators and local tourism entrepreneurs: it subcontracts group visits to Floreana to external operators and ensures that the demand for local services such as accommodation and food are equitably distributed among its members[15]. It implements a rotation schedule to make sure all local businesses are financially supported by the flow of tourists, regardless of their size[15]. A communal fund is created using 10% of the total tourism revenue, which CECFLOR keeps for administrative purposes and communal investments like hospitals, roads, and schools[15]. CECFLOR later established the Floreana Post Office Tours, a tour operator based in mainland Ecuador, to help organize CBT on Floreana[15].

Aside from GNP, CECFLOR has the highest importance and influence in Floreana because it has legal authority to manage tourism in Floreana and the power to directly affect the land with its decisions.

Local Tourism Entrepreneurs

Locally owned restaurant in Floreana

It is important to note that tourism in Floreana is mostly facilitated by local families and households[15]. Many restaurants and hotels are also communally owned, generating many local employment opportunities and fostering social capital among community members[15]. Communities with high social capital have a high level of trust and accountability[18]. In Floreana when businesses are owned by many households, Floreanos are more willing to take care of their homes collectively and follow rules as everyone is monitoring each other.

For most Floreanos, tourism is just instead an extra source of income[15]. All of the tour guides on Floreana are Floreanos, legally authorized by the GNP to take tourists to certain protected areas of the national park[17]. These Floreanos are also involved in crop farming, livestock farming, constructions, and public administrations and services[15]. For example, some households in Floreana have small restaurants for tourists where the served food comes directly from their agricultural fields[15]. Others use their earnings from tourism to develop new farming strategies, thus improving food security on the island and keeping the soil productive[15]. Evidently, despite the fact that the number of households engaged in tourism rose by 40%, the number that are engaged in crop farming remains steady (if not also increased) from 2011 to 2019[15]. This also means that more generated revenue gets to remain inside the local community rather than into the pockets of external operators or investors.

Non-tourism Floreanos

Households that do not work in the tourism sector in Floreana are also affected stakeholders in this case study[2]. Some of these households are strictly farmers, fishers, or work in other services[2]. These stakeholders, similar to all affected stakeholders in Floreana, see tourism as a means to an end[2]. They believe that tourism should be an engine to strengthen, not dominate over other economic activities in Floreana[2].

These stakeholders have low importance and low influence on tourism management on Floreana because they are not part of CECFLOR[15]. While they can support tourism with their agricultural or fishery products, these Floreanos have relatively little say on how tourism is distributed and managed on the island[15].

Interested Stakeholders

Galápagos National Park

The GNP is mostly interested in conservation[2]. While authorized Floreanos are allowed into some parts of the protected area for tourism purposes, most of it is closed off for extraction and access[15]. The Director of GNP develops technical reports and approves feasibility of projects that intersect with the protected areas on the Galápagos[19]. The GNP falls under the jurisdiction of Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment[2].

The GNP has the highest importance and influence in Floreana because it occupies 98% of Floreana[2][15]. The GNP gets to decide which parts of the 98% are open for tourism and who is authorized to access these areas[15]. Most importantly, it makes the final decision for all parts of the national park to be closed for extraction by all stakeholders[15]. On the contrary, the state government in mainland Ecuador has high importance but low influence in this case study because while it has legal authority to make decisions, it is not directly involved in tourism in Floreana[2].

Floreana Local Government

The local government of Floreana seeks for the unity and collaboration of the local community of Floreanos[2]. It supports the notion that development on Floreana should not be over-dependent on tourism, and tourism should be used as a tool to diversify economic activities on the island[15][7].

Charles Darwin Foundation

The Charles Darwin Foundation is a federal organization interested in conservation and local Floreanos’ livelihood[19]. While it has low importance, the organization has high influence on the management of tourism on Floreana. This is because it conducts research, writes scientific reports, and advises the GNP and the Ecuadorian government on issues relating to environmental sustainability and local livelihood[19].

External Tourism Operators & Tourists

Under the CBT model, external investors cannot establish any services such as restaurants, hotels, or tours on the island[15]. Before the establishment and recognition of CECFLOR, external tourism operators contacted local service providers directly[2][15]. This led to many conflicts, thus they now have to go through CECFLOR to gain access to local services[15].

Tourists drive services demand on Floreana and directly influence tourism activities on the island. However, many tourists, especially day tourists, have limited connection and care for the long term well-being of the land[7].

Both external operators and tourists, though have low importance, can highly influence tourism on Floreana with their demands for local services.

Tenure & Bundle of Rights

There are 3 different types of tenure on Floreana: state-owned, freehold, and leasehold. 98% of the island is state-owned and is protected as part of GNP under the regime of environmental conservation[2][15][7]. The other 2% are freehold and leasehold, including urban areas and agricultural fields legally owned by the first settlers of Floreana, who claimed title to the land before GNP could fence and label it as protected areas[15].

The following strands in the bundle of rights are available to the State government, members of CECFLOR, non-tourism residents of Floreana, and first settlers:

Table 1: Available strands in the bundle of rights for different stakeholders in Floreana[2][15]
State government Members of CECFLOR Exclusively non-tourism residents First settlers
Access Yes Yes - private lands (2%) and limited protected areas that GNP allows Yes - private lands (2%) and limited protected areas that GNP allows Yes - private lands (2%) and limited protected areas that GNP allows
Withdrawal N/A No No No
Exclusion Yes - majority of protected areas (98%) Yes - private lands (2%) Yes - private lands (2%) Yes - private lands (2%)
Management Yes Yes - private lands (2%) Yes - private lands (2%) Yes - private lands (2%)
Alienation N/A Yes - private lands (2%) Yes - private lands (2%) Yes - private lands (2%)
Duration N/A N/A N/A Indefinitely
Bequeath N/A Yes - private lands (2%) Yes - private lands (2%) Yes - private lands (2%)
Extinguishability N/A No No No

Assessment of CBT in Floreana - Success or Failure?

Pelecanus occidentalis - Native Galápagos endemic bird species

CBT is a multi-level co-management system that involves the local community, the tourism industry, non-governmental and federal organizations, and the State government[15][2]. The basis of CECFLOR is similar to that of the Caboclos’s community associations in Varzea Forests, Mazagao, where instead of fighting to get contracts from external operators, local service providers work together to become price-makers[20]. Most importantly, CBT in Floreana was proposed by locals for locals[2][15].

In theory, all tourist services should be managed by CECFLOR[15]. This leaves no opportunities for external investors to establish businesses in Floreana, effectively making all tourism services owned by Floreanos[15]. In practice, Floreanos involved in the tourism sector can silently bypass CECFLOR and contact their previous customers directly to avoid the 10% fee that CECFLOR takes from their revenue[15]. This also incentivizes these local businesses to lower their services price by 10% when contacting previous customers, causing unfair competition within the community[15]. In addition, many CECFLOR members also questioned the organization’s logic in distributing customers and ways to ensure consistent quality amongst the different service providers[15]. This is because while tourism services on Floreana differ by sizes, quality, facilities and features of accommodation, they all receive the same number of customers per rotation[15].

Nevertheless, CBT on Floreana is an overall successful tourism management model. The locally-established organization CECFLOR is legally recognized by the Ecuadorian government and has signed tourism agreements with GNP to co-manage tourism in Floreana[15]. This tourism model empowers local entrepreneurs by giving them control over the economic activities on their lands, while at the same time ensuring sustainable income flows into the community[15].

CBT also succeeded in reducing tourist visits by one third, from 23,500 visitors in 2011 to 9,000 visitors in 2019[15]. The proposed model successfully persuaded GNP to open 3 more de facto sites in the national park for tourism, which helped increase chances of tourists staying for several days and generated more demand for food and lodging services, guides, and other activities such as sailing, scuba diving, and snorkeling[15]. This is also environmentally beneficial as less visit days would directly translate to less risks of invasive species being brought to Floreana[7]. Extensive research was conducted before the opening of these sites, and rigorous guidelines were established for how tourism in these areas should be carried out by GNP and CECFLOR[15].

Through CBT, Floreana also met its objective of a diversified economy[7][15]. Members of CECFLOR are not excluded from economic activities[15]. In fact, many tourism entrepreneurs complement their tourism services with agricultural and livestock farming or fishing[15]. In conclusion, tourism on Floreana is not seen as an end in itself, but rather an additional means to improving the livelihood of local Floreanos[2][15].

What the Future Holds for the Galápagos & Recommendations

Evolution of Relationship Between Conservation and Tourism

As demonstrated by the Special Law of 1998, conservation purposes became relevant when mass development in tourism outdated the pre-existing management[8]. The legislation initiated a fortress conservation model, where the federal government takes complete control over which lands are protected and confirmed GNP’s institutional power[21]. Approximately 97% of the Galápagos land area is under the jurisdiction of the Ecuadorian federal government[6]. This resulted in locals being removed from their own lands under the rigorous conservation regime[21]. Conservation initiatives were incompatible with traditional fishing and agricultural practices, which led to many violent and costly acts of protests[5][10].

In the case of Giant Tortoise conservation, tortoise hunting is strictly prohibited by the GNP and federal government because these tortoises are considered as symbolic creatures and tourist attractions[13]. Fishers already allocated with fewer permits found this act frustrating and disrespectful to their traditional practices[13]. The government’s narrowed interest in only preserving tourist attractions without local involvement denied the values of local communities. Ironically, this promoted a disconnection between Galápagos local residents and conservation, which later even developed into resentment[2]. This is evident in the acts of protest by intentional poaching of the protected Giant Tortoises and intentional arson within the national park[4][10]. These conflicts made apparent that there is an urgent need to address local concerns. More importantly, these conflicts emphasized the power asymmetry between the federal government and local communities in the Galápagos. Although the Special Law aimed for equitable ecotourism, the failure to involve local residents in the decision-making process also led to further conflicts and adversity. This demonstrates that conservation cannot evolve independently from local engagement. Locking local residents out of their land and forbidding them to practice their way of living is not the solution to achieve successful and effective conservation goals.

More recently, CBT in Floreana underscores the significance of local engagement in sustainable tourism co-management[15]. The proposal of CBT by Floreanos was supported by the GNP, Ministry of Environment, and other government authorities[16]. Tourism distribution is managed by CECFLOR, the legally recognized organization consisting entirely of Floreanos[2]. The establishment of CEFLOR is a profound act of community empowerment since the Special Law and Giant Tortoise conservation programs because not only were locals directly engaged in the management process, they also became part of the decision-making machine that determines the duration, quantity and the overall experience of tourism in Floreana[15][16]. The effective reduction of tourists and promotion of longer stays created more economic opportunities and reduced the potential exposures to invasive species[7][15]. The inclusion of CELFLOR members in complemental economic activities promised diversification in the economy and well-rounded local perspectives[15].

Tourists engaging in ecotourism in the Galápagos via local boats

Shifting away from the top-down management gives CELFOR a more powerful role to play in tourism management in the Galápagos. Active involvement of CECFLOR empowers the Floreanos community by raising demands for local business, ensuring local livelihoods and securing revenue within the community[15][16]. In addition to community empowerment, enabling locals to perform in the tourism industry substantially ties their interests with ecotourism and makes them a contributor rather than a independent opposing party they were forced to be. CBT in Floreana exemplified local involvement as crucial for the success of tourism management: community livelihood and conservation efforts can symbiotically thrive.

What Tourism in the Galápagos Should Look Like & Future Trends

Over-dependence on a single economic activity heightens the vulnerability of the Galápagos’s economy. Evidently, quarantine measures during COVID-19 had heavily impacted the islands’ tourism sector, especially cruise-ship and single-day tourism models (authors’ field notes). In addition, climate change calls for less CO2 emissions from flights and large cruise ships to and from the islands (authors’ field notes). These issues can be resolved through diversifying economic activities in the Galápagos[15]. CBT models such as that present on Floreana will help integrate tourism into traditional practices such as fishing and farming, and increase the resilience of the islands’ economy[15].

Tourism in the Galápagos should also follow the high value-low volume model, where less visitors should be allowed on the islands, but those visitors are provided with better-quality experiences[7]. Instead of promoting tourist-days that will increase risks of invasive species, the Ecuadorian government and GNP should encourage longer stays through new policies[7]. Not only will this allow more time for tourists to connect to the islands’ natural environment, demand for local services and local employment will also increase[2][7]. This can heighten tourists’ environmental awareness and generate more revenue that stays in local communities[7]. A potential problem is that this type of tourism experience would require higher charges, which may lead to inequitable access to the islands.

The future for community tourism relies on government input, local involvement and incentives for locals to protect environmental integrity. As evident in this case study, successful conservation on the Galápagos requires local involvement and support. The Ecuadorian government should not only focus on conservation in the Galápagos, but also on empowering and improving the lives of local communities.


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This conservation resource was created by An Hoang, Viola Zhao, Zoe Li. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.