Galapagos Field Report

February 2007

Cruise Ship M/V Discovery:
The Self-Destruction of Tourism in the Galapagos Islands?

Arrival of the large cruise liner, M/V Discovery, to the Galapagos Islands in January 2007The number of people visiting the Galapagos Islands continues to rise every year at exponential rates (census estimates reach 130,000+ per year). Indeed, it is considered one of the top ten eco destinations in the world and perhaps the last of the remaining "natural laboratories" on this planet. In January, the islands saw the return of the large cruise liner, M/V Discovery of Discovery World Cruises, Inc., with a capacity to hold up to 500 passengers and 315 crewmembers. At first glance, this can be seen as having socioeconomic benefits to the local residents, but what we must ask ourselves is at what possible cost to future generations?

The local residents of San Cristobal embraced the arrival of the M/V Discovery as it represented many opportunities for local shops to increase sales. Indeed, the major source of income to the islands is tourism, and we support tourism, but it must be sustainable for future generations to experience and enjoy.


Local residents take advantage of increased sales
due to arrival of M/V Discovery

"Opinions are quite polarized among residents of the Galapagos, - on one hand we have the economic benefits to the current generation of local residents, but on the other hand we have to consider the conservation of the natural systems that sustain the tourism industry for future generations" states Galapagos Director, Sean O'Hearn-Gimenez.

After the second voyage of the M/V Discovery to the Galapagos Islands, in less then a year, many unanswered questions remain about the long term environmental impact of large cruise liners in fragile ecosystems such as the Galapagos. In a press release issued by the Galapagos National Park after the first visit of the M/V Discovery, it stated that environmental contamination as well as introduction of invasive species remain as real threats. Prior to its arrival in Galapagos, the M/V Discovery traveled from Antarctica to Chile, Peru, and mainland Ecuador making it a transporter of potentially invasive species that could destroy these islands. A recent study conducted by the Charles Darwin Research Station onboard the M/V Discovery reveals that these large cruise liners represent a real threat to the fragility of the Galapagos Islands. The study further states that 42 percent of the insects collected onboard the ship were of species not yet registered in the Galapagos and considered it to be a "...a risk to the biodiversity and the economy (agriculture and tourism) of the islands if they were to be introduced." (Quoted from Terrestrial Invertebrates Collected onboard the M/V Discovery, "A Serious Threat to the Biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador," 2007 Investigation Report of the Charles Darwin Research Station)

The International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) warns of the dangers seen over and over again throughout the world with uncontrolled mass tourism. In a special report published by IGTOA, it states that large ships, such as the M/V Discovery, provide a quick upsurge of the local economy but with the consequences of "...not understanding that a destination can be 'in' for a while among mainstream tourists, then go out of fashion. When the big boats stop coming, local enterprises built around that business will fail." (http://www.igtoa.org/newsletter/2006/january/)

Will it be uncontrolled tourism, and not overfishing, that eventually destroys the Galapagos Islands? If this trend is not reversed, we are potentially seeing a boom and bust of the tourism industry in the Galapagos as overdevelopment and short-term economic benefits fuelled by greed will take priority over preservation and conservation which are essential to keeping these fragile islands unique and special.

"There is a reason why the United Nations has declared this unique archipelago of volcanic islands and the 40 miles of water surrounding it a World Heritage Site. In fact, many tourists are attracted to the Galapagos because there is simply nowhere else on this planet like it. The tourism industry is on the path of self destruction as this type of instant gratification tourism will reduce the biological diversity and will make this destination no different then visiting Hawaii or the Caribbean," states O'Hearn-Gimenez.

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