I recently returned from a more than two-week vacation to Argentina and Brazil. A highlight of my trip was a visit to Iguazú Falls—the waterfalls of the Iguazu River on the border of the Argentine province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná. Together, they make up the largest waterfall system in the world. Think Niagara Falls times 10 with much less commercialization.
The falls were just beautiful but there were too many people on the trails, and it was a challenge to even take a photo without getting someone else’s Aunt Margaret in it. Overtourism certainly came to mind.
Showcasing our planet’s natural wonders is all part of the tourism experience, I get it, but there is danger in going too far. We have seen it happen here in the U.S. at our national parks. What exactly is overtourism is subjective, but a couple of articles posted on Green Lodging News this year address the topic. See article one and article two. Our industry is guilty for making it easier for overtourism to happen.
My trip and a press release that I received this week reminded me of the consequences of overtourism. The press release, which I will post in the next few days, was sent by the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA). It is calling upon the government of Ecuador to limit land-based tourism growth in the Galapagos Islands and to better regulate this rapidly growing sector of the islands’ tourism industry. The request comes on the heels of the recently released 2023 State of Conservation Report released by UNESCO, which raises concerns about unsustainable tourism growth in the islands.
The Galapagos Islands are of course where Charles Darwin was inspired to develop his Theory of Evolution.
Unabated Tourism Growth
Both IGTOA, and UNESCO have been sounding the alarm over Galapagos tourism growth and its potentially disastrous consequences for more than two decades. In 2007, UNESCO took the extraordinary step of adding the islands to its List of World Heritage in Danger, citing uncontrolled development of tourism as a factor in its decision. Although the islands were removed from the list in 2010, tourism growth has since continued unabated, the period of the pandemic notwithstanding.
Statistics published by Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism show that tourist arrivals have increased steeply, from just over 170,000 in 2010 to more than 270,000 in 2019 (nearly a 60 percent increase). In April, a Ministry of Tourism press release celebrated the arrival of a record 32,509 visitors in March, a 24 percent increase over March 2019, and announced a new flight to the islands from the city of Manta, which will only fuel continued tourism growth. If the current growth rates continue unabated, the Galapagos will welcome one million annual visitors by 2041.
While the number of ship arrivals have been limited, the increase in the volume of tourist arrivals is the result of land-based tourism in the islands, facilitated in part by a huge increase in the number of hotels and overnight rentals operating in the islands.
Marcy Patry, of CNH Tours, an IGTOA board member who has worked for the Charles Darwin Research Station and UNESCO, worries that the consequences could be dire if land-based tourism growth isn’t effectively addressed soon.
The Need for Well-Managed Tourism
“The Galapagos Islands are among the world’s most ecologically pristine and intact natural environments,” said Patry. “They are home to many species found nowhere else on Earth and they are incredibly fragile. Well-managed tourism can continue to play an important role in the ongoing protection of the islands. But it’s a double-edged sword. Uncontrolled growth and no plan to deal with it is a potential recipe for disaster.”
According to scientists, uncontrolled tourism growth poses several serious threats to the Galapagos Islands. Chief among them is the potential for devastating new invasive species to arrive as cargo shipments and passenger plane arrivals increase. Highly invasive Wild Blackberry, for example, has led to the loss of 99 percent of endemic Scalesia forests on the two largest islands, Isabela, and Santa Cruz. With any increase in land-based tourism comes more shipments of cargo, more infrastructure, more roads, and more pressure for continued growth, something that will only become harder to stop the longer it continues.
In any planning for a new hotel, there must be serious consideration given to whether it will contribute to overtourism and the degradation of precious natural resources or not. In too many places, tourism is bursting at its seams.
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