The Future of Galapagos Tourism
Imagine you're returning to the Galapagos Islands after a long absence. As you approach the waterfront in Puerto Ayora, it is barely recognizable. All the familiar landmarks are gone. There is a flurry of activity as vans pick up passengers arriving at one of the many long piers. Far out in Academy Bay, three massive cruise ships are anchored. A cab driver leans out the window of his car. "Señor, where do you want to go...Sheraton, Radisson, Mirador?" Where there used to be small hotels, shops, and a dock for local fishermen, there are now upscale condos with gardens overlooking the bay. Spanish-style villas of the Galapagos Sport fishing Club stretch down the shoreline. There are stores everywhere, expensive boutiques, cafés selling gelato and coffee, artists' shops.
You soon learn that many other things have changed. New tourism demand, coupled with a serious downturn in the country's economy, became powerful political ammunition for opening the islands to more tourist arrivals. Why, it was argued, would the government deny income and jobs to people who desperately needed them? So the old limits were discarded.
Tourists, who used to visit many islands on small live-aboard boats, began to write on their evaluation forms that most of the islands seemed similar. They could see iguanas, sea lions, and birds on practically any of them. Further market research indeed showed that tourism potential would increase if fewer locations and more diverse activities were offered. In the end, small boat owners found it hard to remain competitive with big cruise ships. Many of them sold out, or just quit. International cruise companies had the marketing power. Big ships were cost-effective and brought a great deal of money to the port towns, at least in the beginning.
But locals tell you that business has not been that good in Puerto Agora for some time, nor in San Cristobal. Travelers complained about over-development. Now, Floreana and Isabella islands have new, "eco-friendly" lodges and resorts. There's even a small, upscale eco-lodge on Fernandina. You can fly from the mainland to any of these islands. This sad scenario may not be inevitable, but it's certainly not inconceivable. Some will welcome large scale development. But those who have a different vision for the future must ensure that Galapagos tourism is not a product of mindless growth. Below are some things to consider.
TOURISTS AS INVASIVE SPECIES
All human visitors to the Galapagos Islands are invasive. But some are more benign than others. Since the visit of Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands have attracted adventurous travelers who have a deep interest in natural history. For the first two decades of tourism, this was the typical visitor profile. Gradually, however, a new type of traveler began to appear, one who did not necessarily need nor expect such an in-depth experience. This traveler may be attracted as much by the casino on the ship as an iguana on the shore.
A veteran Galapagos guide recently told IGTOA about his experience on a cruise ship, where passengers have a choice of low, medium, or high intensity walks. Most choose the low, which is essentially a boat ride, or the medium walk. High intensity is the usual walk offered by smaller boats.
The guide was asked to report to the bridge by his manager, who had been reading evaluations. The manager carefully explained that this was a different kind of boat than the guide had worked on, and it didn't have the usual type of Galapagos traveler. Yes, passengers came to see the Galapagos, but they also came for the boat and its amenities, the gym, movies, and so on.
In particular, the manager told the guide not to bring up the topic of evolution. They have had complaints, he said, so never talk about it unless asked. If asked, the guide could have a drink with the passenger in the evening and discuss it privately. Just tell the passengers what they want to hear. (The guide subsequently quit.)
NATURAL SELECTION & TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
For many observers, including IGTOA, the entry of a 500- passenger ship in Galapagos waters portends a new, more dangerous stage of tourism development - the advent of mass tourism. Ecuador, in fact, has set a goal to increase tourist arrivals to three million visitors within ten years.
But it's a dangerous course. Attracting the wrong kind of traveler, and the wrong kind of promoters and developers, can launch a boom-and-bust cycle that has been repeated over and over again throughout the world.
Mass tourism is susceptible to fads, fashions, and fears. General interest tourists, especially those who book long cruises on luxury boats, want a cross-section of many places, not depth. They tend spend less time and less money in each place. Often, they've heard about a destination with little real understanding of where or what it is. As big boats arrive, the local economy gears up for an influx of shoppers, not understanding that a destination can be "in" for a while among mainstream tourists, then go out of fashion. When the big boats stop coming, local enterprises built around that business will fail. Ecuador and South America have been spared scary headlines in the world press, which has helped the recent growth of tourism. This is certainly true for Galapagos, which is seen as isolated from world events. But that can change. Large tour companies attract tourists by massive advertising and promotional campaigns. But when negative publicity appears, like an outbreak of disease, natural disasters, political unrest, a terrorist event, even sickness on cruise boats, these travelers are the first to abandon ship. Nor does it require a war or terrorist event in the destination itself to cause panic. After 911, more than ten million tourist jobs were lost worldwide.
THE EVOLUTION OF TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
For the past thirty years, Dr. Stanley Plog has tracked and analyzed the rise and fall of tourist destinations. In a now classic paper, entitled "Why Destination Areas Rise and Fall in Popularity," he presented a psychological profile of travelers and described the evolution of travel destinations.
He shows how a destination's original attractions and traveler base can be destroyed by runaway development. Many of us know this intuitively, or have even witnessed such things happen. But Dr. Plog goes much further and documents the process in detail from observations around the world. He has frequently been called upon to help destinations that have suffered serious declines. In a chapter entitled "The Path of Self-Destruction," in his book, Leisure Travel, he describes how the rise and fall happens:
At the outset, a destination is discovered by a few intrepid travelers, who he calls "venturers."
Its popularity eventually grows and spreads among another group of travelers, the "centrics."
"Destination growth begins when venturers return from a new place they have visited and tell their near-venturer friends about the great trip they had. The near-venturers are likely to put that on their list of the next place they want to visit. Near-venturers, in turn, talk about their fabulous trips to their centric friends, a number of whom have venturer leanings. Very rapid growth now occurs because ventures and centrics total slightly over 30% of the population.
At this point, "everything seems rosy at the destination. Each year, tourist arrivals increase as more people learn about the exciting new place to visit. Politicians...believe there is no end to the gravy train. But the seeds of destruction and decline have already set in, unnoticed by almost everyone...as tourism development occurs in a largely unplanned and uncontrolled manner."
He breaks down the process into three stages:
Stage 1: "The quality of the experience offered to visitors usually improves, rather dramatically and more gradually during the early part of Stage 2. The first group to visit, the venturers, prefers almost everything in a natural state."
Stage 2: "This represents a long period of stability, and most local politicians and citizens think that everything is going well, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But the high-quality experience typically won't last long. The destination, now attracting more and more visitors, also creates interest among developers. Most important, the character of tourists who arrive also has changed. Since changes occur gradually, typically over several decades, few notice what is happening. A destination that once had everything going in its favor now faces a declining and difficult future."
Stage 3: "There is a continuing decline that transforms the character of the destination. It no longer provides the experiences that made it unique and special to its earlier visitors. Centric travelers decide it's become too touristy. New travelers stay fewer days and spend less on a per diem basis.
He describes "a consistent pattern of economic change, with more investors, rising property values, and unchecked growth leading to sprawl. Because of more competition, rates tend to fall. With decreasing margins, there is little for maintenance and repair." He states that this stage can happen quite fast. Eventually, tourism revenue starts to drop. But "the number of visitors does not decline in direct relationship to deterioration in the quality of the destination or visitor yield, however. In fact, a place can continue to grow in visitor counts at the time it is already on a downhill path. This image time lag creates a false sense of security for most locals."
DESIGNING THE FUTURE
The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador can benefit from the lessons of many other destinations that have experienced the downward spiral that uncontrolled development ultimately brings. In a chapter called "Learning from Past Mistakes," Dr. Plog writes:
"Those who have responsibility for a destination must think far in the future and address important critical questions. 'What makes this place special and unique?' 'How can we preserve or protect those qualities?' 'What must be done to convince others where we live and work about the benefits of destination preservation?' 'How can we get more people to be aware of what is happening when a destination reaches a turning point and could be heading downward, even though everything seems to be going quite well?' Good tourism planners must have sufficient self-confidence to stand up and speak out on these issues long before others recognize the dangers."
Galapagos is a fragile destination. We need to carefully maintain and nurture a stable, benign traveler base that helps to conserve the islands and marine reserve. And we need to insist on careful planning and implementation of appropriate and responsible tourism. The time to do this is now.
Biodiversity and Conservation Biology Department
University of the Western Cape