How Much Tourism Can the Galapagos Tolerate Sustainably?

Luxury tourism vs land-based tourism in the Galapagos Islands

Declared a World Heritage Site in 1978, the Galapagos Islands are one of the best examples of effective conservation in the world, thanks to the comprehensive management actions carried out by the Government of Ecuador with huge advice and support from many international individual collaborators and institutions. The preservation of this global treasure has made it one of the most desired destinations for people from around the globe.

The main economic activity on the archipelago is tourism, which traditionally has attracted visitors to enjoy the islands’ wildlife and admire (and photograph) nature up close. What makes the Galapagos unique is the high endemism of species and variety of its landscapes. There are currently more than 70 landing sites for visitors around the archipelago, which are classified in different categories, depending on indicators such as bio-physical, social and management. The establishment of specific visiting sites, itineraries for the boats, naturalist guides training courses, and a system of operating permits have allowed the authorities to keep the ecological impacts to acceptable limits (ECOLAP, CI, 2008).

In the last decade, the number of tourists that stayed in hotels at the different towns of the four inhabited islands has increased. The number of tourists registered for entry into the Galapagos National Park indicates that in 2012 48 percent were not overnight passengers on cruise ships, staying instead in hotels on the different islands. In 2015 this number increased to 68percent (Galapagos National Park Directorate, 2012, 2016). Staying in hotels increases the demand for basic services, food, accommodation, and transportation, while also adding pressure on the natural attractions near the towns. Direct and indirect impacts that result from these activities include introduction of alien species, demand for  more energy derived from fossil fuels, and local population increase in limited areas.

Tourists visiting “Las Tintoreras,” located next to Isabela Island’s town. This s a small islet where it is easy to find sea lions on the beach and to watch whitetip sharks in a small natural rocky channel. Photograph by Johanna Carrion, 2012
Tourists visiting “Las Tintoreras,” located next to Isabela Island’s town. This s a small islet where it is easy to find sea lions on the beach and to watch whitetip sharks in a small natural rocky channel. Photograph by Johanna Carrion, 2012

All these indicators lead me to ask many more questions about tourism management: What is the tourism model we want for the Galapagos Islands? Do we want to continue increasing the pressure on the fragile islands’ ecosystems that are not capable of withstanding such a high demand for services from our visitors? What is the acceptable capacity of the visitor’s sites that are being mostly frequented?

Johanna Carrión works as a Relationships Coordinator at the Charles Darwin Research Station, she is a permanent resident of the Galapagos Islands and started working at the Station since 2013. The work that Johanna carries out aims to support the establishment and strengthening of strategic national or international alliances that allow us to continue developing science for conservation of the Galapagos Islands. Johanna is also responsible for the follow up of the Strategic Institutional Plan.


  1. Linda Rumfield
    United States
    June 5, 9:05 am

    I have a home in Alaska and Hawaii and have seen first hand what tourism does to two of the most beautiful ecosystems in the world. In Hawaii the green gecko that was introduced to the islands are slowly getting rid of the indigenous brown gecko. The pigs are rutting up the streams and the dirt is flowing down streams and ruining the corral and killing off species of fish. The small coqui frog has been the newest invader developing at such an alarming rate that it is devouring vital insects to pollination and providing food sources for rats. I can’t even begin to explain all that has happened to Alaskan fish due to tourism. If the Galapogos can get by without the tourism i strongly recommend it.

  2. Jack Nelson
    Puerto Ayora
    May 4, 11:59 am

    Galapagos is an oceanic archipelago, and should have an appropriate culture and economy. A basic problem is the treatment of Galapagos as any other provincia cualquiera. National tourism development policy promoting turismo con base local as applied in the islands has brought on all this recent development and concomitant introduction of species. Feral cats and dogs and goats, which have been here for a very long time, can be dealt with. But the wholesale introduction of geckos, frogs and insects and even snakes is changing the balance of life around the inhabited areas very fast, and these smaller forms will spread everywhere. We now have a mass market tourism model, giving high environmental impact in return for low profit.