Photo by Pete Oxford
From a die-hard ecologist's standpoint, the unequivocal answer is simple:
Tourism invites hordes of people to trample over the delicate island ecosystems, the ever-growing industry attracts migrant workers to join an already unsustainable population which combined with the gaggle of visitors usurps the Galapagos' limited resources. Not to mention the extensive fossil fuel-frying air travel you'll most likely have to undertake to get here.
And yet—show me a naturalist who claims he wouldn't love to see firsthand the rampant biodiversity that inspired Darwin, and I'll show you a flaming-pants liar.
Herein lies our conflict.
An Ideal Galapagos
I've been receiving comments (some angry-seeming) on my series of dispatches from Galapagos with suggestions like only scientists should be allowed entry, and I'm a sicko for walking on the beaches with sea lions. According to that argument, I suppose the 40,000 residents on the islands would leave, a team of super-scientists would arrive to eradicate all the non-native species, and the island would return fully to its singular grandeur under their watchful eyes.
Suffice it to say that this is infeasible.
No, tourists will continue to arrive by the boatload for the foreseeable future—but under certain conditions that's not necessarily bad news for Galapagos.
Sustainable Tourism in Galapagos?
This line of thought stems back to a point made by Professor Arturo Keller, of the Bren School for Environmental Science and Management: it's all about finding a balance between access and protection. The tourist industry on Galapagos generates huge sums of money for the Ecuadorian economy—and that depends directly on there being pristine islands around to visit. Thus, Ecuador has a major economic incentive to regulate the behavior and amount of tourists allowed onto the islands and to maintain sound environmental policy. Of course, that's easier said than done.
There are currently so-called restrictions to the number of tourists allowed into the island every day, though nobody can produce an actual figure for how many that actually is. And at the moment, most of the money generated by tourism doesn't actually end up in the Galapagos, where it could potentially benefit conservation programs or resource allocation solutions—instead, much of the revenue goes to the cruise ship and hotel owners, who live mostly in mainland Ecuador.
A proposed solution is to increase a Galapagos-specific tourism tax that would directly go to funding for the islands.
Galapagos on a Guilty Conscious
For the time being, an environmentalist visiting the Galapagos could do lesser deeds to better the island during his stay—charter all boats from local Galapagueno businesses, spend money at non-profits like the Charles Darwin Research Center http://www.darwinfoundation.org, and conserve water at all costs.
Of course the super-scientist scenario would be ideal for the preservation of the island, but pending proper regulation enforcement, a careful influx of tourists may actually end up providing the very funding needed to adequately protect the Galapagos.
So from a measured pragmatist's standpoint, the answer is more complex:
Yes. But go cautiously.
30 of the top teachers in the US are making 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'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders on modern day Galapagos.