I've just returned from spending two weeks traveling through some of the most fragile, intricately weaved ecosystems in existence—the Galapagos Islands. Many took issue with my being there at all. Some believe such habitats should be hermetically sealed off in some sort of giant bubble and tended to only by scientists. Some think we should be free to visit the earth's wonders if we did so responsibly. Most were unsure about how tourism and conservation should intersect, exactly. Count me among the last group.
Pristine environments like the Galapagos certainly haven't benefitted from the intrusion of man—pirates killed the rare tortoises for meet hundreds of years ago, livestock introduced on the islands have crowded out endemic species, and sea lions are under attack thanks to a black market penis trade. But can we find a way to sustainably visit the ecosystems we've both imperiled and been inspired by? Perhaps. Here's how we can do our damndest.
I myself haven't arrived at any resoundingly correct conclusion to the tourism question—but I've decided it's best to grapple with what's feasible given the current situation. People are going to tour the Galapagos for the foreseeable future. That's an ironclad fact. What we can do is make sure that when we head to such environments, we not only leave as small a footprint as possible, but that we stimulate the local economy charged with protecting the natural treasure. Tourism isn't all bad, see—it can provide income for preservation (not a paradox, I swear) and inspire visitors to adopt conservation practices back home and in other environments. Here's a quick guide to responsible eco-touring.
The Guide to Eco-Touring in Imperiled Environments
1. Support local businesses that are most concerned with the ecosystem
This is perhaps the most important rule to follow in the bigger picture—money from tourism is direly needed to fund conservation efforts, local education, and an adequate quality of residents who serve as gatekeepers for their pristine habitat. Chartering a massive cruise ship owned by a businessman in Miami to haul you between the islands keeps much-needed funding from flowing into the local economy. In the Galapagos, all of the major cruise vessels available are such ships—charter a smaller boat (even a sailing yacht like the Golondrina for maximum greenness) and make sure to call or email beforehand to ask if the owners and crew are residents from nearby the habitat you're visiting.
2. Conserve resources—especially water
Water is in massively short supply on the Galapagos, and many other isolated island destinations. Restrict your daily usage and cut back on showers—the point is to enjoy a pristine habitat, not win a hygiene contest.
3. Obey park rules and your common sense
This one might seem obvious, but once you finally arrive somewhere with wildlife as alluring as the Galapagos, I can promise you it'll be tempting to venture of the trail "just a little bit" in order to frame that perfect photo of the blue-footed boobies. Don't. Tour groups arrive in droves every day to hotspots like the uninhabited Galapagos Islands like Isabela and Fernandina—it's imperative that you stay on the trail and respect the park's guidelines regardless of that priceless photo op. If there aren't any written guidelines, some good rules of thumb are to stay 10 feet away all animal life, and to never veer from the trail.
4. Enter habitats with an accredited, informed naturalist
This is required by law for visiting the uninhabited Galapagos Islands, but serves as a good pointer elsewhere. Obviously, if you're familiar with your state parks and are going backpacking for a weekend, this doesn't apply—but if you're entering a foreign ecosystem a local naturalist will be invaluable in pointing out potential problem areas during hikes or tours. He or she will also be able to provide a wealth of knowledge about the habitat you're observing, and will be able to chide (gently, of course) members of your group who might stray off the path or attempt to eat some strange berries. Plus, supporting the trade promotes an interest in local, eco-friendly work. Strongly suggested for group tours or amateur ecoists of all stripes.
5. Watch your waste
This is another obvious one, but it can't be stressed enough. The tiny island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos generates 11-12 tons of waste every day. The cruise ships in the area muster 2-3 tons. Avoid wrapped snacks, extraneous goods, and follow the timeless backpacker's credo of "take out what you take in"—even when you're on a cruise ship or in a 3-star hotel. The waste is exponentially more difficult to deal with in isolated locales, and the landfills on the islands (yes, they're there) are running out of space.
30 of the top teachers in the US made a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I traveled alongside the educators to report on the threats and wonders present in modern day Galapagos.