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

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, on Sweden Island, in Dubai

Updated 15 August 2018

Saudi Arabia, on Sweden Island, in Dubai

  • Yes, you heard that correctly. The World archipelago is taking shape off Dubai
  • Saudis are the most prominent buyers of its first residences in the Heart of Europe, including the world’s first floating underwater villas

SWEDEN ISLAND, THE WORLD, Dubai: Billionaire investors from Saudi Arabia are reportedly snapping up a slice of Europe — minutes from Dubai’s coast — as development on a luxurious man-made archipelago gathers pace.

On the emirate’s “The World” archipelago, the Heart of Europe project provides a series of island destinations, made up of opulent palaces, island villas and 13 luxury hotels on six small islands. Each offers a different aspect of European life and aims to bring European hospitality “with a Maldivian twist” to the Middle East’s Arabian Sea.

According to its developer, Joseph Kleindienst, chairman of the Dubai property developer Kleindienst Group, wealthy investors across the Kingdom are among the most prominent buyers of the multimillion-dirham properties being developed on the island, with nearly a quarter of all investments (23 percent) to date being made by Saudi nationals.

“We have a very, very good interest from Saudis in the Heart of Europe project,” said Kleindienst, speaking to Arab News during a private tour of Sweden Island. “Here in Sweden Island, soon you will find very, very famous Saudi names. It is not for us to disclose these names, but later on, as the development grows, you will meet very interesting Saudis here.”

The Heart of Europe is the first big project to go ahead as part of The World project, a 60-square-kilometer archipelago of more than 200 islands laid out in the shape of a world map, which was created from millions of tons of sand and rock. Currently, Lebanon Island is the only one open to the public; it operates The World Island Beach Club.

Construction of the Heart of Europe project was due to begin in November 2008 but was delayed by the global financial crisis. Development finally began in 2014. The project’s value has grown from an initial Dh1.5 billion ($408 million) equity undertaking by Kleindienst Group to Dh5 billion ($1.36 billion) after sales.


On Monday thousands of workers at Heart of Europe were busy across the islands striving to get the project ready in time for the completion deadline of 2020, ahead of Dubai’s Expo; with an initial focus on Germany Island and Sweden Island.

The Heart of Europe has 10 beach palaces on Sweden, 32 beach villas on Germany and 131 “Floating Seahorse” villas, marketed as the world’s “first luxury underwater living experience.” 

Kleindienst expects that all of the homes for sale across the Heart of Europe project will be handed over by the end of this year. 

In total there are 4,000 residential and hotel units that will eventually be available across the project, about 1,000 of which have already been bought by investors, Kleindienst revealed. 

Besides handing over residences to owners by the end of the year, The Heart of Europe is slated to have the first of its planned hotel “soft openings,” at the Portofino Hotel in Italy, in December this year.

Lying about five kilometers (3.1 miles) off mainland Dubai, the Heart of Europe will feature classic Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss and German architecture as well as landscaped gardens and streets that will, in some cases, feature artificial snow, due to advanced climate control technology. And, for those that miss the drizzly temperatures of Europe in the winter, some streets will also feature artificial rain. 

Sweden will feature 10 Scandinavian-style villas and, this week, the Kleindienst Group unveiled the first completed six-floor Sweden Beach Palace, which Arab News got a first look at.

With a price tag of Dh100million, the majestic villa comes fitted out Bentley Home interiors, equipped with seven plush bedrooms, a full gym and fitness center, an underground “snow room” that can be set as low as minus –5C, a Swedish massage room, an entertaining room and an observation deck — designed to mimic the upturned hull of a Viking boat — which provides 360-degree views of the Arabian Gulf.

Sweden will feature 10 villas in a Scandinavian style and, this week, the Kleindienst Group unveiled the first completed six-floor Sweden Beach Palace, which Arab News got a first look at.

With a price tag of Dh100million, the majestic villa comes fitted out Bentley Home interiors, equipped with seven plush bedrooms, a full gym and fitness centre, an underground “snow room” that can be set as low as minus –5C, a Swedish massage room, an entertaining room and an observation deck – designed to mimic the upturned hull of a Viking boat– which provides 360-degree views of the sprawling Arabian Gulf.

Each property has its own private section of beach. Uniquely the palaces fully-own a piece of the marine area plot, including a private coral reef.

Of the 10 that are for sale, three have already been bought by investors based in Saudi Arabia, said Kleindienst.

Saudis, along with other wealthy Middle Eastern residents, represent an important segment of the investors the Kleindienst Group are hoping to attract, he said. 

“Saudi Arabia is a very important market for us,” he said. “It is an excellent product for investors from Saudi Arabia because we are selling this ‘second-home’ concept here in the Heart of Europe. 

“People from Saudi Arabia can travel to Dubai and enjoy their time in the Heart of Europe. And when they are not here, we hope they can rent their homes out and produce an income from the property.”

Heart of Europe properties, Kleindienst stressed, are not for people to live in 365 days a year, but for the uber rich looking to snap up a second home in the Middle East, with a unique setting for the region.

He said that the project is Dubai’s first purpose-built luxury area in which UAE residents can own a holiday property in their own country, he said, rather than in the Maldives, Mauritius or the Seychelles. 

“The second-home market is a new concept for Dubai,” he said, adding that while New York has places such as The Hamptons and multiple cities in Europe have countryside and seaside getaways, Dubai has lacked a luxury weekender destination.

“The Heart of Europe is a unique and ambitious project aiming to develop Dubai’s luxury freehold second-home market in an idyllic island location,” he said. “Our journey to date has taken us to the unveiling of the Sweden Beach Palaces, one of the most luxurious freehold second homes in the UAE. Our vision is turning into reality as we make real progress on our project.”

Aside from Sweden Island, Saudis are also snapping up the Floating Seahorse vessels, which come with a slightly less eye-watering price tag of Dh16million, said Kleindienst. Of the 131 for sale, 60 have already been purchased, he said. Figures from April show that about 40 percent of the buyers are from the Kingdom.

On the tour, Arab News saw a completed prototype. The bespoke one, two or three-bed floating homes have below sea-level bathrooms and bedrooms so owners have just a pane of glass separating them from hundreds of fish and an abundance of coral and marine life as they sleep and bathe. 

Kleindienst hopes the Heart of Europe project will be the catalyst for world-breaking firsts — including a record he aims to break this year. 

The last quarter of 2018, he said, will see the soft opening of the 488-room Portofino Hotel, located on the Main Europe Island, despite only breaking ground on the construction site this year. 

“No one has broken ground on a hotel then completed it the same year,” he said. “We want to show that it is possible. That anything is possible. That there is the ability to build a hotel in a year on an island.”