Once upon a time the Galápagos was a land rarely visited, with its remoteness and lack of infrastructure keeping most would-be tourists at bay while Ecuador struggled to bolster tourism to the region. Today the reverse is true; a well-developed network of cruises, flights, and tour agencies fed nearly 225,000 visitors into the islands in 2015, whose total landmass is roughly half the size of Connecticut. This number of visitors to the Galápagos has more than doubled in the past decade, leading the Ecuadorean government to consider doubling the price of entry (we heard rumors of this as well) to reduce the number of tourists and potential ecological damage to the islands.
This same narrative has played out in Puerto Ayora. Once a town of ~1,000 people reliant primarily on fishing, Puerto Ayora today has a population of over 10,000 inhabitants, most of whose revenue comes from tourism. There are murals and art displays (like the one above) that are familiar to beachside tourist communities everwhere. The waterfront is a mix of high-end restaurants of every cuisine and airy art galleries. Interspersed are souvenir stands, stocked high with a hundred of every type of keychain, magnet, map, and desk bauble you could possibly want, all of it made in some other country. How about thirty different shirts making jokes about “blue-footed boobies”? They’ve got you covered.
There are complaints that the tourist-ification of Puerto Ayora has devalued the natural beauty the Galápagos, and the reliance on tourism can certainly feel uncomfortable. The locals who live here certainly can’t afford to eat at the waterfront restaurants or shop in the art galleries. And if you came here expecting the town to be untouched by time and modernization, a reflection of the unspoilt landscape of the Galápagos, you’ll be sorely disappointed. You spent a lot of money for an authentic experience of another place, not to be sold keychains.
But Puerto Ayora’s history highlights how tourism has contributed to conservation in the Galápagos. Back in the late 80’s and 90’s, the primary jobs in the town were in the fishing industry. When tourism took off in the late 90’s, the Ecuadorean government enacted several resolutions limiting harvest of fisheries and sea cucumbers in hopes of maintaining the environment and the tourism boom. The fishermen of Puerto Ayora didn’t like this, and things got ugly. Mobs of fishermen attacked the homes of park officials, terrorized park staff and tourists, and destroyed research equipment and facilities. Radiolab’s podcast on the Galápagos reports that local fishermen even killed and hung Galápagos tortoises from trees, though I couldn’t verify these reports elsewhere online. Suffice to say, it was bad.
But today, fishing makes up an ever dwindling part of the Galápagos economy, as people realize they can make more money through tourism. Clashes between fishermen and the government over fishing regulations in the Galápagos have largely disappeared. While this has created its own problem of immigration to the islands, swelling their population and risking environmental damage, the residents of the Galápagos and the Ecuadorean government realize that the value of the islands comes from their pristine state. They’ve worked hard to preserve that. As we learned later on our cruise, only 2% of the Galápagos Islands’ landmass is open to visitors. The other 98% is restricted for scientific research and preservation.
The residents of Puerto Ayora, from park rangers to shopkeepers, recognize the value of the creatures in the Galápagos. They recognize that visitors come from around the world to see them, and so people protect the animals, even in town. Marine iguanas and seals rest unbothered on walls, sidewalks, and docks. While we were there, we witnessed a man shooing a marine iguana off a street so it wouldn’t be hit by cars. And at the fish market, animals gather eagerly to snap up scraps from the day’s catch. Conservationists advocating total isolation of animals and humans would be appalled, but it’s how the town has coped with going about their business while abiding by the national park’s restrictions. The animals are integrated into the fabric of life.
Even the made-in-China/Taiwan/other country souvenirs have a purpose. People may want authentic souvenirs from the Galápagos, but things made from materials found on the islands would require using those resources, perhaps to the point of destruction, to fulfill tourist demand. Is it not better, in buying your memento, to do no harm than have a verified piece of a place?
P.S. a fun potential solution to the souvenir authenticity problem would be one of the following:
- Import traditional handicrafts and souvenirs from mainland Ecuador
- Import raw materials to the Galápagos and teach people there to make local handicrafts