Traveling sustainably to the Galápagos Islands has never been easier, or more important.
One of the most beloved tourist destinations in the world, the Galápagos Islands emerged out of covid like much of the rest of the globe. But protectors of the islands made famous by Charles Darwin’s theory on natural selection are now emphasizing another sort of evolutionary theory: ousting unsustainable travel habits. In an effort to protect the fragile biodiverse region, the Galápagos is putting an emphasis on tourists to travel sustainably.
Last year, actor Leonardo DiCaprio announced a $43 million contribution to the islands—an effort in partnership with his organization Re:wild to increase conservation and protection for the popular tourist destination. As part of the campaign, the Oscar winner lent his social media accounts to the cause, inviting a wildlife veterinarian and island restoration expert to educate his followers on the importance of the Galápagos.
Why are the Galápagos Islands important?
Crowned the world’s first UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site in 1979, the Galápagos island chain is most notable for being the backdrop to naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory on evolution. The exclusive nature of the islands has kept many of its native species in a state of homeostasis—mostly unchanged since prehistoric times. Evolutionary adaptations have not been necessary because the Galápagos Islands are a biological bubble.
These islands, six hundred miles off of Ecuador’s coast, are home to animals and plants found nowhere else on the planet including the Galápagos penguin, Darwin’s finches, fur seals, marine iguanas, the giant tortoise, flightless cormorants, and lava lizards.
Covid brought a boon to a number of ecosystems across the globe, and the Galápagos’ wild animal populations boomed too—for some species, it brought the biggest population increases in 40 years. Both the Galápagos penguins and flightless cormorants saw population spikes as the throngs of tourists subsided. Penguin populations spiked 34 percent and the cormorants saw a 16 percent increase.
“Lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic have had a paradoxical impact on the Galápagos; native animal species have thrived as a result of limited disturbances but the halt in tourism has had a devastating impact on local businesses, with many struggling to stay afloat,” Michael Eiseman, co-founder of Touring Galápagos told Travel Pulse. “That’s why it’s important that we get tourists back to exploring the area as soon as possible, but in a way that is both sustainable and educates them about the fragility of the habitats.”
Tourism is big business for the Galápagos. It makes up about 85 percent of the local economy. Covid cost the archipelago more than $850 million in tourism losses between March 2020 and March 2021.
Between 2007 and 2016, tourists visiting the islands increased by 39 percent, according to the Galápagos Tourism Observatory.
Tourism to the islands was long done primarily by cruise ships. And even though cruises are one of the least sustainable ways to travel, the industry was well regulated in the Islands. It was only once land-based tourism increased that the islands began to feel the impact of hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region every year.
Traveling the Galápagos Sustainably
The $43 million from DiCaprio will fund restoration efforts including the Floreana Island, home to 54 threatened species. It will also help to reintroduce 13 locally extinct species, including the Floreana mockingbird. This is the first mockingbird Darwin documented. The partnership will also address ocean pollution and work to protect threatened marine resources.
Ninety-seven percent of the land area in the Galápagos is classified as a national park. Paula A Castaño, an environmentalist who DiCaprio handed over his Twitter account to said conservations are not trying to “remove” humans from the picture. “We are trying to all work together to rewild these ecosystems, and support the community as well. They want to be able to continue to thrive together with nature.”
Now, as tourism ramps up after an 18-month hiatus, experts are urging visitors to take extra precautions to visit the region in the most sustainable way possible. This includes finding sustainable travel providers, accommodations, and supporting local buying and eating habits while visiting the area.
Both the Galápagos National Park Directorate and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism require tour providers to make their businesses as environmentally friendly as possible. This includes efforts to conserve water and energy, recycle and treat all waste material, source locally whenever possible, and employ locals paid fair, liveable wages.
Sustainable travel partners to the Galápagos include Celebrity Cruises, Silversea, the International Nature & Cultural Adventures, Go Galápagos, and Mountain Travel Sobek.