Galapagos fights temptation of lucrative mass tourism

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A group of tourists arrive by boat to Santa Cruz Island after crossing the Itabaca channel in Galapagos, Ecuador. (AFP)
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A Galapagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) sunbathe next to tourists at the Tortuga Bay beach on the Santa Cruz Island in Galapagos, Ecuador. (AFP)
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Above, giant cactuses (opuntia echios) that grow next to the coastline in the Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador. (AFP)
Updated 08 February 2018
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Galapagos fights temptation of lucrative mass tourism

PUERTO AYORA, Ecuador: With its iconic giant tortoises, crested black iguanas, huge ocean manta rays and a veritable menagerie of other cool creatures, the Galapagos Islands are one of the most beautiful places you will probably never visit.
Why not? Who wouldn’t want to go to a white sand beach and soak up some sun alongside a lounging iguana, or surf in waters with those lumbering tortoises swimming beside you and a rainbow of tropical fish below?
But in order to protect the flora, fauna and ecosystems of this Pacific archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Ecuador is in the odd position of having to turn away perhaps millions of would-be tourists each year.
Keeping a tight lid on tourism is the way the South American country has preserved this volcanic string of 19 large islands, dozens of islets and rocky outcroppings.
Authorities wage this fight as world tourism grows and grows — it was up seven percent last year — and they must resist the temptation to let in hordes of visitors, their pockets bulging with dollars.
“The Galapagos are the crown jewel, and as such, we have to protect them,” Tourism Minister Enrique Ponce de Leon said. “We must be drastic in caring for the environment.”
With a network of small hotels and ferries running between the islands, the Galapagos — about 1,000 kilometers off the coast — is an eco-tourism destination that is among the most select spots in all of the Pacific.
Flights from Quito or Guayaquil cost about $400 round-trip, and a one-week stay ranges from $2,000-7,000 per person.
The flow of tourists has risen to 245,000 per year and authorities say that’s pretty much the limit: the maximum the islands can withstand without harming their various ecosystems.
“The environmental, social and biological features of this place — which is like no other — forces us to set a limit, to manage tourism in terms of supply, rather than demand,” said Walter Bustos, director of the Galapagos National Park.
Preyed on in the past by pirates and whaling ships, the Galapagos these days confront illegal fishing, the effects of climate change and the arrival of intrusive species such as dogs, cats and rats brought over from the mainland.
The national park was created in 1959 to protect 97 percent of the islands’ land surface, and in 1978 UNESCO classified the archipelago as a World Heritage Site.
A marine reserve spanning 138,000 square kilometers (53,280 square miles) was also established.
And a 38,000-square-kilometer marine sanctuary in which all fishing is banned was set up between two of the islands, one called Darwin and the other Wolf. Those waters are home to the highest concentration of sharks on Earth.
The islands depend on imports from the mainland and have limited sources of water, so authorities make sure the human population does not grow. These days, only 26,000 people live on the four islands that are in fact inhabited.
By law, Ecuadorans from the mainland are treated as foreigners on the Galapagos. And to obtain permanent residency, such people have to have been married to a local for at least a decade.
For years, the authorities have been limiting construction and promoting the use of renewable energy sources and electric cars. Plastic bags are banned.
On the island of Baltra, which is the main port of entry, the airport runs exclusively on solar and wind power.
“The challenge is to manage tourism in a sustainable way, one that preserves the ecosystems and generates profits. We must not view tourists as the devil,” said Juan Carlos Garcia, conservation director of the World Wildlife Fund in Ecuador.
But of course, limiting tourism here is of no help to the broader Ecuadoran economy, which operates with dollars as the official currency.
And these have been lean years for hard currency in oil-producing Ecuador because of low global crude prices and accumulation of lots of debt. Tourism and mining have emerged as lifesavers.
Last year, visitors to this fabulously diverse country boasting volcanos and thick Amazon jungle shot up 14 percent compared to 2016, totaling 1.6 million. But that is small compared to other countries in Latin America.
President Lenin Moreno’s idea is for tourism is to prop up the economy, even more than oil.
For that reason, he decreed an open-skies policy a few months ago to free up air traffic and bring more tourists to Quito and Guayaquil.
And many of these travelers will want to go to the Galapagos. The state-owned airline TAM has announced more flights to the islands.
Will the island authorities be able to withstand this pressure?
“We need to stress quality, and have those who come now stay longer — have them tour the rest of the country, offering them package deals,” says the tourism minister.


Saudi Arabia’s one village in Al-Baha may have finally made it on to the world map

The village is home to dwellings made of polished stone, some four stories high, and a famous mosque. (SPA)
Updated 8 min 9 sec ago
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Saudi Arabia’s one village in Al-Baha may have finally made it on to the world map

  • Village of Zee Ain included on a tentative list within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

JEDDAH: While preserving and restoring national heritage sites is no easy task for any country, ensuring these treasures stand out on the world stage is a whole different ballgame. 
Thankfully, the efforts made by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) have paid off for one village in the Kingdom’s famous Al-Baha region.
The village of Zee Ain, Arabic for “city of springs,” was included on a tentative list within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after King Salman approved its nomination in 2015.
The SCTH has since put forth a multimillion dollar comprehensive restoration plan for the village to make it tourist friendly and shed light on its famous, locally made products.
What makes the village of Zee Ain stand out is its strategic location atop a mountain offering impressive panoramic views of the region’s farms.
The village is home to dwellings made of polished stone, some four stories high, and a famous mosque. The area, which is said to be more than 400 years old, was given its name from the permanent water source that flows into the area from nearby valleys.
The SCTH development plan, which has been underway for several years, consists of two stages. The first is restoring several structures to create an open-air museum overlooking the waterfalls, as well as revamping an existing museum.
The second is constructing a village garden and a visitors’ center, which will eventually include an exhibition of locally made products.

Hidden gem
The peak on which the village is built, which is also set against an impressive backdrop of mountain ranges, is renowned for fruit and spices, including banana, lemon, pepper and basil.
Tourists can also get a glimpse of the historic forts built around the village. Legend has it that the springs were dug inadvertently in search of a cane belonging to well-known local.
The development plan also includes carrying out research studies aimed at shedding light on the city’s unique architecture and the raw material with which doors and windows are made.
Zee Ain was home to many tribal battles before the establishment of the Kingdom. The area is also renowned for a battle in which two famous tribes defeated the Ottomans. As such, it is known among locals as the “site of Turks’ graves.”
Locals in Zee Ain have jumped on board the quest to get their hidden gem on the map. More recently, locals have introduced banana festivals in an attempt to attract farmers and tourists.
Its existence in a region already brimming with natural wonders, including Raghdan Forest, as well as traditional markets selling distinct handicraft, has no doubt boded well for the city of springs, which may one day rival the likes of France’s Mont Saint Michel and Italy’s Amalfi Coast thanks to the distinct vantage point it offers and the geophysical beauty with which it is surrounded.