Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Will Tourism Help or Hurt These Special Islands? Series: ECOTOURISM. SURVIVAL OF THE GALAPAGOS. Part 4 of a 4-Part Series. First of Four Articles Appearing Today

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Will Tourism Help or Hurt These Special Islands? Series: ECOTOURISM. SURVIVAL OF THE GALAPAGOS. Part 4 of a 4-Part Series. First of Four Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

IT'S easy to make ecotour operators slightly wild-eyed. Ask them if the last possible way to save the remaining pristine habitats in the world is to license ecotourists. Repeat: license ecotourists. If you don't qualify to go to the Galapagos Islands, you don't go.

You can hear tour operators screaming all over the world, not to mention the American Civil Liberties Union.

Of course, it will never happen. With a passport people can go just about anywhere in the world if they can afford it. Three cheers for the right to travel.

And that's the main problem, although not the only problem, when it comes to ecotourism and mainstream tourism. Tourism is rapidly becoming the largest industry in the world. Thus, how can the untrammeled, unsullied places on earth be protected from commercialism and curious crowds of humans?

David Western, the president of the Ecotourist Society and one of East Africa's leading conservationists, sounds the alarm heard on a global basis: "The biodiversity of life is now under threat ... we have a very short time in which to conserve that biodiversity."

For instance, along with tourist sites just about everywhere, the number of people who go to the Galapagos Islands continues to rise each year. The attraction is the opportunity to walk through a rare wildlife habitat and experience what has been called a "living laboratory." But it is also a fragile laboratory.

Those who administer and care for these extraordinary islands, both government agencies and private groups, have not kept pace for a number of reasons. The result is somewhat of a political, social, and conservation crisis.

One new response to the crisis is that a small number of foreign and domestic conservationists and tour operators have joined together and formed The Ecotourism Society, based in Alexandria, Va. The objectives are "to make tourism a positive force for conservation," and "to make certain ecotourism does not destroy natural habitats." The initial focus of the society is the Galapagos.

Well and good, says Oswaldo Munoz, president of Nuevo Mundo Expeditions in Quito, Ecuador. But he explains the dilemma of conflicting interests over the Galapagos.

"Somebody says let's organize to save the Galapagos," he says in Quito, "and this organization is made up of many companies. On the one hand, they want to protect the islands because of the inefficiency of the Ecuadorean organizations to protect the islands. And on the other hand, we (tour operators in Ecuador) constantly receive faxes and telexes from US operators saying, 'I need more spaces. I need a 20-passenger ship.' It's the business, and they're pressuring us to give them places on ships and planes. We want to save Galapagos and at the same time we want the business."

Faced with this kind of commercial pressure, will the Galapagos be "saved" 10 years from now? As mentioned previously in this series, Ecuador's President Rodrigo Borja established a commission a year ago to make recommendations for the future of Galapagos. He also put a temporary moratorium on granting permissions for new tourism operations. Currently, there are about 80 vessels operating in the Galapagos, but only an estimated 10 percent have fixed itineraries, which means boats crowd at the main sites in the islands.

Officials at the Charles Darwin Research Station say that President Borja has been sympathetic to Galapagos concerns and has acted fairly quickly in past instances. "He made the islands a whale sanctuary," says Fionnuala Walsh, assistant to the director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, "the first whale sanctuary in the world. But enforcement is the next step."

Borja's term ends this year and he cannot run for reelection. "Despite what government is in power," says Mr. Munoz, "we live on, the tour operators, the Charles Darwin Research Station, and the conservation organizations; we live on not only in a business sense but in preserving Ecuador forever. …

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