guests walking on beach in Galapagos near hotel
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Is the Evolution of Hotel Based Galapagos Touring Positive?

Land-based travel is good for the Galapagos and why you should choose it…

Hotel-based travel in the Galapagos Islands has undoubtedly had a rough start. Since the mid-2000s, hotels grew rapidly and incoherently against the conservation objectives set out by UNESCO and the Galapagos National Park. Today, almost half of visitors opt for land-based tours. So, is it really sustainable, and what is really going on in Galapagos hotel-based travel?

There are several differences and advantages in choosing a hotel. The obvious one is the size and comfort of your room, compared to any medium sized or large boat cabin. But there is also greater flexibility to move around town to meet the locals, and an option change around your itinerary, if the weather isn’t cooperating. For some travelers, not having to deal with motion sickness is a strong enough incentive to choose a land adventure over a boat. But as far as sustainability is concerned, the most important consideration may be to support the local Island community.

Since the early 1980s, a wave a migrants (mainly from poor coastal communities) moved to the Galapagos Islands in order to make a better living. Population swelled from just a couple of thousand to almost 25,000 inhabitants in the space of 20 years. This number may not seem large in overall terms, but in a delicate ecosystem, the growth of an unorganized community can potentially wreak havoc. During this period boat operations nearly doubled, the Islands where illegally fished and hotel development went out of control.

Thankfully, in the last 10 to 15 years the situation has been contained, with the government stepping up to regulate and monitor every facet of land-based operations in the Galapagos. Illegal migration has been stopped, with new migrants only accepted by marriage or after a 10 year “approbatory” period. The establishment of new hotels or additional rooms in existing hotels has also been halted. Tour activities are carefully managed with patents that are renewed yearly and continuously monitored by the National Park Rangers. These and other issues related to land-based travel are explained in greater detail below.

However, some believe that supporting the local community is the underlying reason to choose a land-based tour. “Any community that does not have a means to subsist, will undoubtedly go against nature to make ends meet” says Marcelo Meneses, CEO of Neotropic Expeditions and former president of Ecuador’s Ecotourism Association. The local community has come a long way from being a semi-subsistence fishing community to relying on tourism for their income. Along the way, they’ve nurtured a new generation of guides, boat operations, restaurants and small hotels.

There are still many challenges to be addressed in the Galapagos. But it seems the most pressing ones have been handled. There is new optimism and a wave of responsible tourism helping safeguard the future of these enchanted islands.

Reasons to Choose Land-Based Galapagos Travel

If you’re thinking about visiting the Galapagos Islands, here are a few reasons why you should choose land-based travel:

1. Sleep steps away from a stunning national park

Just 3% of the Galapagos Islands are inhabited by humans, the other 97% (7,970 square kilometers, or over 3,000 square miles) is protected national park-lands. That means that almost the moment visitors step out of their hotels, they’re met by sea lions, iguanas, boobies and an ocean filled with wildlife. A few minute walk from these small towns, one can find awe-inspiring landscapes: pristine, white beaches, imperious volcanoes, eerie Scalesia forests and vibrant wetlands. The neighbors are likely to walk on four legs or none at all, with black marine iguanas, slippery sea lions and sedate tortoises at home among the human populations.

2. Travel smoothly across and between the islands

Land-based travel was initially slow to take off in the Galapagos Islands due to a total lack of infrastructure. But between 2007 and 2016, the number of visitors on land-based tours rose 92 percent from 79,000 to 152,000 according the Galapagos National Park. Consequently, during this time period infrastructure grew with improved connectivity from the continent, from one island to the next, and on the islands themselves. Roads have drastically improved on the islands, boats are safer and more comfortable (with better service), and there are swift and easy internal flights.

Island Coffee Culture

Santa Cruz island has been growing coffee since the 19th century. The twice-yearly, cold, nutrient-rich winds of the Humboldt Current combine with the island’s fertile volcanic soil and strong equatorial sun to allow Bourbon coffee plants to flourish – despite normally only growing at altitudes of 3,000 feet. Today the plantations form a UNESCO-recognized, ecologically sustainable source of employment and income for locals, sensitive to the delicate Galapagos ecosystem. Travelers can visit the plantations, learn how the coffee is produced, and sample the results for themselves.

3. Regulations are in place to minimize impact

The Galapagos National Park entry fee can feel pricey, as it costs non-Ecuadorians US$100. This is partly because there are lots of controls and regulations in place which help to manage and mitigate the effects of tourism.

All visitor sites, water and land activities are regulated – tourists don’t just go anywhere they please! There are hundreds of visitor sites across the archipelago and the national park authorities carefully limit numbers visiting the uninhabited islands. Aside from implementing regulations, there are also park wardens in place at sites on inhabited islands.

Licenses to operate in the Galapagos are strictly controlled. For example, almost no new licenses for cruise vessels have been issued for over a decades and land tour operators are subject to tight controls. Kayaking and stand up paddle boards are also regulated, with certain number of so-called “patents” per island where schedules, routes and snorkeling sites are defined.

Furthermore, new vehicles cannot be imported into the Galapagos. Motor transportation is all about sharing the few local cars that have already been admitted. Most recently, electric vehicles and motor bikes are allowed to help alleviate social and business needs. But most people just move around on bicycles or simply walk.

Waste management and the proper use of resources like fresh water have been challenges in the past. But each port-town now has a water management program and recycling scheme in place. An important step in improving waste was recently passed into law: Single-use plastics (like bottles, bags and straws) were banned from entering the islands. Hurray!

4. Renewable energy powers your stay

San Cristobal Island functions up to 50% on wind energy (depending on the wind) and two solar parks are being planned on Santa Cruz and Isabela Islands. The efficiency of these new solar plants is still to be seen but the efforts and initiatives appear to be working for the benefit of the islands as a whole. In addition, the Santa Cruz Airport is the world’s first LEED certified sustainable airport.

Man with a spiny lobster.

5. Support the community and meet the locals

Responsible land-based tour operators ensure that 70% of the money visitors spend in the Galapagos goes directly back to the local families and community, whether they’re buying food, souvenirs or extra experiences. What’s more, the high-end operator always works with people from the local community, like Godofredo. The former fisherman now takes visitors on sustainable fishing expeditions and then invites them into his home to experience authentic Galapagos home-cooking. Once a predator to the environment, he now dedicates his life to protecting it while earning a better living in the process.

The benefit of this is twofold. Visitors come to understand and appreciate Galapagos culture and broaden their horizons to a new way of life while finding connection and supporting local people. On the other hand, locals earn a living in a way that safeguards the islands for future generations.

CASE STUDY: Godofredo

The Galapagos native fisherman-turned-local guide explains how community tourism provides sustainable employment in the islands.

“I have been working with Neotropic for around 10 years as a local guide. Before that, I was a fisherman. I was also a guide but there was not much tourism work – there weren’t many tourists! So most of us were working in fishing.

The responsible operators changed everything, they made things better. My life has improved – financially speaking. I still fish a little but it is purely demonstrative, I don’t go for a great quantity. I show visitors what I do and they love it. We do ‘experiential fishing tourism’, which allows tourists to catch a maximum of three fish. Then you give the fish to the tourist, or they can take it to a restaurant to cook for them – everyone’s happy! We can catch long fin tuna, wahoo, lots of different kinds, but you can’t catch sharks or anything like that, as they are protected by the marine reserve.

I also give visitors lunches or dinners in my home and they share in our culture: how we live, what we eat, and they love it. Little by little I’m learning English so we can understand each other. It’s an exchange, which is beautiful.

I have three children and I want them to be involved in tourism too. They’re going off to study tourism – one is in Canada studying.

Working with responsible operators don’t just provide more alternatives in tourism, but in fishing, shops, restaurants, and taxis. Everything takes off with tourism.”

6. Enjoy the freedom of a flexible itinerary

With a land-based program, visitors are free to customize their itinerary depending on their traveling pace and interests, as well as extend their stay for as long as they choose. Love kayaking? Spend a whole day paddling around coastlines! Crazy about penguins? Go out in search of them every day. Like to take things slow? Move at the pace of a giant tortoise if you like. Within this flexibility is the opportunity for downtime and hazy afternoons on the beach, the perfect antidote to action-packed days of mountain-biking down volcanoes and boat expeditions in search of giant manta rays.

7. Adventure in comfort

There are just over 300 hotels across the four inhabited islands. But the vast majority are basic home stays with an average of three rooms each. There is now an incentive for these home stay hotels to group together and create larger hotels (maximum 35 rooms). The condition is that the quality of services should improve significantly. In time, the objective is to attract more high paying (hence more profitable) guests in order to create a better standard of living for the local inhabitants. For now, you have to reserve early (especially in high season) to get a room in one of the few quality waterfront properties that currently operate in the islands. Alternatively, you can book with an operator that can manage your logistics, such as Neotropic Expeditions and Opuntia Hotels.

Family relaxing on the beach.

8. Bond with all the family

Land-based programs are great for keeping all members of the family happy, eliminating the worry of small children running around the deck of a yacht. Most boat operators won’t even allow children under six to board their vessels. A better option is to rely on an experienced operator with top-level guides who will weave fun, kid-friendly activities into every excursion, such as setting up treasure hunts and species check-lists. They can provide basic surf lessons, organize beach football with local children and stargazing walks, as well as chocolate-making workshops and expertise according to your family’s profile.

9. Lessen your carbon footprint by choosing land over cruise travel

As Galapagos land-authorities strive to promote renewable energy on the islands, many vessels used for cruises continue to consume fossil fuels in great quantities. According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study in 2012, 59.3% of carbon emissions from electricity generation and general transportation in the Galapagos Islands came from diesel from live aboard boats. Although some cruise operators now make an effort to off-set their carbon footprint with eco-friendly initiatives, it is land-based tourism that presents the greener way to travel.

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