Park service staff enter information in an integrated database that is organized by tourism site and kind of activity, such as hiking, snorkeling, diving and panga (dinghy) rides. After identifying changes in the conditions of certain sites, park wardens can literally click a button in the database to allow or eliminate access to a certain type of activity at the site.
For centuries, the Galápagos Islands were considered inhospitable for human settlement; just 50 years ago, fewer than 2,000 people lived there. Today, the islands are home to 25,000 people, primarily mainland Ecuadorians who migrated largely to benefit from the ever-growing tourism industry – an industry that brings nearly 200,000 visitors to the Galápagos every year.
But tourism does more than attract visitors and provide the basis for local livelihoods. Without regulation, it can cause irreversible damage to the environment that inspired it. That is the question facing the Galápagos: How can you attract the tourists needed to sustain the local economy without impacting fragile ecosystems and damaging the incredible beauty that visitors seek?
IN DEPTH: The Galápagos Trust Fund, Ecuador
Working with the Ecuadorian government, the Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS) and the Institute for Applied Ecology of the San Francisco de Quito University (ECOLAP), Conservation International (CI) is helping to improve tourism management across these vibrant but vulnerable islands.
Opportunities and Threats of Nature-Based Tourism
Since Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, descriptions of the Galápagos Islands have captivated nature-lovers around the world. From marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) to Galápagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) to a diverse seabird population, the islands are home to unique species and landscapes that have evolved over millions of years in isolation.
The islands hosted 170,000 tourists in 2009, a majority of whom were interested in visiting the same sights within Galápagos National Park and Galápagos Marine Reserve. Too much tourist traffic can cause stress for wildlife, contribute to ecosystem degradation and spoil the raw wilderness tourists come to experience. “Some time ago the park saw the need to make new decisions regarding tourism management,” said Edwin Naula, director of the Galápagos National Park. “And these decisions need to be based on scientific and technical parameters.”
In 2007, the park service started gathering information on a variety of factors, such as the number of tourist groups, the number of people in each group, the number of permits and boats allowed at marine sites, and how much tourists and tour operators should be charged – as well as how the park service can best synthesize all this information together in an understandable way.
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To expand the coordination and impact of these efforts, CI and ECOLAP have contributed technical research and financial resources to this study, and continue to advise the GNPS.
Managing Tourism’s Impact
Under a new Visitor Management System, also known as SIMAVIS, park wardens, tour guides and volunteers observe and record the changing conditions in more than 200 terrestrial and marine sites around the islands. More than just one tool, the system can better be described as a “tool box” that consolidates different types of information, including:
- Ecological – the impact that tourism is having on nature (incorporating conditions that include erosion, vegetation coverage, introduced species and pollution)
- Social – the effects of the number of tourists on the “tourist experience” (e.g. how many tourism groups can be present in one area before the tourism activity is negatively impacted
- Infrastructure – the amount of construction and modification of natural areas that is necessary to meet tourist needs without causing significant impact on ecosystem health
These site monitors report back to the park service, where staff enter the information in an integrated database that is organized by tourism site and kind of activity, such as hiking, snorkeling, diving and panga (dinghy) rides. After identifying changes in the conditions of certain sites, park wardens can literally click a button in the database to allow or eliminate access to a certain type of activity at the site or determine the need for immediate action by the park service (such as the discovery of invasive plants on tourism trails).
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In one recent example, reports of erosion on Tower Island – known for its red-footed boobys (Sula sula) and other seabirds – led the park to reduce the number of visitors allowed to visit at one time. Previously, boats of up to 100 people were allowed; now that number has been reduced to 40. Similar changes are taking place at sites across the islands.
Expanding to New Sites
SIMIVAS represents an entire restructuring of the local tourism management system which allows more up-to-date targeted control over tourism activities. Magaly Oviedo, the technician in charge of tourism management in Galápagos National Park, says, “It used to be that everybody wanted to see the same few sites. The new system will spread out visitors to lessen the overall impact on any one place.”
As a next step, the park service plans to use the database to help inform key stakeholders as they strive to make responsible development decisions. Since Galápagos has proven to be a promising model site for the implementation of SIMAVIS, the Ecuadorian government is already implementing the system at two other protected areas on the mainland. In the words of Fernando Ortiz from CI’s Galápagos team, “This is the breakthrough place.”
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