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.


Five historic mosques to be restored in Asir province

The historic mosques will be restored and renovated so that they can receive worshipers again. (SPA)
Updated 17 November 2018
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Five historic mosques to be restored in Asir province

  • Abdullah bin Ali Al-Asmari, a 100-year-old resident, said that he had served and supervised the mosque’s services 40 years ago and ascertained that according to some books, the mosque was built 400 years ago

JEDDAH: Five mosques in Asir have been added to the first phase of a SR50 million ($13 million) project to restore historic places of worship in the Kingdom.
The mosques have been added to the “Mohammed bin Salman project for Developing Historical Mosques” project, which includes 30 historic mosques in 10 of the Kingdom’s regions.
The historic Asir mosques will be restored and renovated so that they can receive worshippers again.
They have been abandoned in recent years as worshippers became used to visiting modern mosques in the light of urban development in the Kingdom. Some older mosques have been neglected and destroyed despite their historical value.
The historic Al-Mudfat in Abha is one of the mosques included on the list of buildings to be restored. Abdullah bin Ali Al-Asmari, a 100-year-old resident, said that he had served and supervised the mosque’s services 40 years ago and ascertained that according to some books, the mosque was built 400 years ago.
Al-Asmari said that the mosque consisted of a musalla that was six meters wide and 20 meters long, standing on five pillars of juniper trees; 92 branches of juniper trees were used to cover the ceilings.
The musalla has an entrance on the southern side, and an outdoor guest room with an old minaret where the muezzin stands. The lake was removed during previous restoration works and replaced by a modern water tank, he said.
Saudi resident Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Asmari said that the mosque is characterized by the ablution spaces, like the rest of the area’s historic mosques.
The second mosque to be renovated is the archaeological Sadreid Mosque in the north of Al-Namas governorate. The mosque’s features are very similar to those of the rest of the mosques in the area, but it is characterized by historic inscriptions. Saudi resident Mansoor bin Saad Al-Aajlan said that these inscriptions show that it is one of the oldest mosques in the Arabian Peninsula, built in 728, according to credible historical sources.
The Al-Sarou is the third mosque that will be renovated in Asir. Residents said that the history of the mosque remains unknown but that it is very old.
The Aaqisa Mosque in the old village of Asir is also on the list. This mosque is situated near an old fortress and houses and is considered to be very old, according to information from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH).
The mosque occupies an area of 72 square meters with an outdoor space and a lake for ablution.
Al-Nusb Historic Mosque, the fifth on the list, is situated in the center of Abha city.
A local resident, Bandar bin Abdullah Al-Moufarreh, said that the mosque was built in 1744 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Moufarreh and later restored in 1841 by his grandson Sheikh Mohammed bin Ahmed Al-Moufarreh, and again in 1897 by Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Moufarreh.