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The Islanders Take Over

For decades, Galápagos was a backwater province, a place no decent Ecuadorian wanted to go. A few hundred hardy pioneers, half-cracked German settlers and irredeemable criminals in penal colonies scratched a meager living out of the volcanic rocks. They were subsistence farmers and fishermen, and thought nothing of eating the tortoises, birds and other animals that the islands are now famous for. The Ecuadorian government was far away and frankly couldn’t have cared less about them.

Tourism Booms

For years, tourism was limited to a few stray boats that visited, and there were really no controls. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that tourism began to be a serious industry in the islands, and not until the 1970’s that it started to show signs of the boom that it is now. Although tourism was embraced by some of the islanders, most notably the descendants of the salty German settlers of the early twentieth century, most viewed it with a mixture of suspicion and resentment. As tourism increased, Ecuadorian and foreign experts came to the islands and began telling the islanders what to do: “Don’t eat the tortoises! Don’t kill the sharks! Don’t plant non-native plants!” For a rugged people that had been totally ignored by mainland Ecuador for decades, this new do-what-we-say attitude was offensive.

Fishing Vs. Tourism

Conflicts between the two major industries – fishing and tourism – continued to grow. In the islands, the two are often at odds with one another: the aggressive fishing of sharks (for their fins) and sea cucumbers has crippled the island ecosystem, which in turn means less wildlife for tourists to see. Fishermen have been known to blockade certain islands in order to have their demands for more liberal quotas met by the government.

No Money for the Islanders

For most of this time, the biggest complaint of the islanders with tourism is that much of the money that comes into the islands does not stay there. Many visitors book their cruises and flights abroad, come to the islands, pay their park fee, and go right to their ship. Locals rarely see much money from these sorts of tourists. Only those who work on the ships or sell the occasional souvenir in town see any profit.

New Laws

In the late 1990’s, several initiatives were passed to allow the islanders to take more control over the tourism industry. One of the first laws to be passed was one specifying that guides must be Galapagueños, and could no longer come from abroad or the Ecuadorian mainland. This law had the desired effect, as many locals became guides and started to earn very good money working for the tour companies.

Unfortunately, the overall quality of guides suffered, because the foreign and mainland guides in general are better educated and speak more languages than the locals. Also, once the law was passed, the pool of available guides decreased dramatically and ships were forced to grossly overpay unqualified guides in order to meet park regulations. In some cases, guides that were repeatedly accused of sexually harassing visitors continued to easily find work, simply because there was no one else to take their places.

Ownership and new taxes

More initiatives have passed to benefit the islanders. In the future, all ships must have all-Galapagos staff and even be at least 51% owned locally in order to operate. A new $100 tax on all arriving tourists will be divided among the three towns in the islands: it should add up to millions of dollars. Even those non-native guides who were grandfathered in under the new law are being muscled out by aggressive unions. Within a few years, the entire tourism industry should be controlled locally.

Island Attitude

There is a new attitude among the islanders. They feel that for too long they were ignored or bossed around by the mainland, and now they are ready to seize control of the lucrative tourism industry for themselves. Ask any islander about it and they will rant and rave about the injustices of the past, when rich tourists came to the islands but all their money stayed in Quito and Guayaquil.

A good thing?

One of the first casualties of this movement has been some of the tourist services themselves. One example is the combination diving-cruise tour, which has been popular in the islands for decades. Now, ships must declare themselves to be either a dive ship or a land tour ship, but not both. This new law forces SCUBA divers to stay on the islands, which will increase earnings for hotels, restaurants and dive shops at the expense of mainland-owned tour operators and ship owners. That’s great for the locals, but bad for mainland businesses…and for tourists as well, who suddenly have less tour options.

The Good news

Those who view the changes optimistically say that this new control over tourism will bring with it education, and that the islanders, who love their home, will learn to take care of it better than any foreigner could. They say that with their newfound wealth, islanders will provide better facilities and services to visitors. The islands will never reach their full potential, they say, until the “bloodsuckers” from Quito and Guayaquil are out of the picture.

The bad news

Meanwhile, pessimists point out the example of the guides: what was a benefit for the locals nevertheless meant a significant overall decrease in the quality of service. If in the future, tour companies have to scramble to hire ship crews, cooks, and dishwashers from a limited population, the result will be higher prices for visitors along with poor service. As for improving the island ecology, pessimists only need to point out the islanders’ long history of apathy, ignorance and willful exploitation of nature to make their case that some things are better left in the hands of mainland experts or international organizations.

For better or worse, the islands will soon be in the hands of the islanders. Some see a rosy future, while others see a looming disaster: only time will tell who is right.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to The Galápagos Islands: Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Marine Iguana, Flightless Cormorant, Reptiles - Galápagos, Red-Billed Tropicbird, Spotted Eagle Ray, Punta Suarez, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Buccaneer Cove and Mammals - Galapagos.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
22 Apr 2011

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