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.


Travel back in time at Jeddah’s cultural and heritage cafe

Cafe Magad is home to precious and rare historical antiques where tourists feel a strong sense of connection with historic Jeddah. AN photo
Updated 27 May 2018
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Travel back in time at Jeddah’s cultural and heritage cafe

  • The people of the historic area still hold their values and Ramadan traditions
  • Tourists can learn about the historical area over a cup of coffee

JEDDAH: Historic Jeddah is home to Cafe Magad, the cultural and heritage cafe. It holds many hidden treasures of the historical area. The owner and historical consultant Mazen Al-Saqaf explained how the cafe surfaced.

“It was created for visitors and tourists at the historical area of the city of Jeddah.
“Before we created the cafe, we looked at what visitors and tourists needed there, and we found that there was no restful place. Therefore we created a cafe that resembled the sitting rooms and salons in the old houses,” Al-Saqaf told Arab News.
Tourists can learn about the historical area over a cup of coffee, he said.
“It includes a small library that has books on historic Jeddah in Arabic, English and French, for tourists.”
It is also a popular destination among intellectuals and scholars. “Many historians, thinkers and literary scholars are quite fond of this cafe. They enjoy visiting it and writing about historic Jeddah,” Al-Saqaf said.
“I help historians who are writing about historic Jeddah. If anyone has a scientific paper on it, we assist them with rare photographs, rare documents, and rare books and sources,” he added.
“On the walls, you have old photographs of historic Jeddah. Visitors and tourists can see how the historic area was and how it is now. There are photographs of embassies: The American Embassy, the British Embassy, the French Embassy. When tourists visit, they can see their embassies. They used to be in these historic houses. There are also photographs of the Dutch Embassy and the Italian Embassy.
“And tourists feel some sort of connection between their history and historic Jeddah,” Al-Saqaf told Arab News.
The cafe is also home to precious and rare historical antiques.
“It holds rare antiques of historic Jeddah. For example, here we have a rare manuscript from the Mamluk period. It is from the year 800 H., and a telephone of King Farouk of Egypt, and a document of the first cheque in the Arabian Peninsula,” said Al-Saqaf.
“Every Saturday we hold a literary night, for historians, scholars and thinkers. We also have musical nights. We do all this to attract visitors from outside the historic area. We are contributing to enriching tourism,” Al-Saqaf told Arab News.
He explained that the cafe is relatively new, but the building is not: “The cafe is three years old, the building is over 400 years old.”
The people of the historic area still hold their values and Ramadan traditions.
“They gather here at the cultural and heritage cafe as one family. Each person brings a dish, and we experience Ramadan like the old days,” Al-Saqaf told Arab News.