The Galapagos is one of the most remarkable places in the world, distinguishing itself through its wild and rough beauty, an incredible mixture of amazing, rare species and an exotic marine life. About 650 miles west of Ecuador this ecological masterpiece in the Pacific Ocean already encouraged Darwin to formulate his evolutionary theory. One could consider it a peaceful paradise where various species have succeeded in adapting to a rather harsh environment living side by side – but it is not. Another species – mankind – has tried to commodify this extraordinary marvel and is now struggling with the attempt to regain a sustainable harmony. It is highly questionable whether this is to be achieved through dismissing local inhabitants and at the same time permitting an ever-growing tourism industry, an argument which will be discussed in this paper.

The astonishing eco-system of the Galapagos has stimulated the tourism industry, which turned ecology into economy, and is contributing to about a quarter of Ecuador’s foreign exchange earnings today (COHA, 2009). As a matter of course, Ecuador’s government embraces the opportunity and advocates the tourism cause. In 2008, 173,000 tourists visited the islands. Estimations by UNESCO indicate that this number will grow to 400,000 by 2021, provided that growth rates remain as significant (COHA, 2009). It goes without saying that tourism cannot possibly exist without a decent supply and service for the big-spending, demanding tourists.

The government thus came up with the ‘clever’ idea to not only permit, but also foster the development of residence on the Galapagos through providing subsidies for people living on the islands (e.g. low flight fares between the islands and Quito for Ecuadorians). The population has doubled over the past ten years to approximately 30,000 residents at present (Romero, 2009), which in turn requires constant infrastructural development. Besides official residents, illegal immigrants come to the Galapagos in desperate search for a better life by receiving a tiny share of the huge tourism cake. COHA (2009) states that compared to Ecuador’s mainland, the Galapagos provide better jobs, schools and wages (about 70% higher) in one of South America’s poorest nations. So isn’t that economical heaven on earth?

This would possibly hold true for several of the poor nations in the world, but, unfortunately, on the Galapagos development jeopardises the destination’s primary selling point: nature. In 2007, UNESCO registered the Galapagos on UNESCO’s List of World Heritages in Danger, symbolising the enormous and increasing threat of tourism and immigration on the unique natural wonder (UNESCO, 2007). How can development be sustainable? Doesn’t tourism always incorporate unsustainable aspects (Wheeller, 2009)? 

The Ecuadorian government tries to tackle the problem by focussing on the icing of the cake instead of the tourism cake itself: Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, steers towards decreasing the population through expelling existing inhabitants as well as impeding migration, trying to make up for the government’s mistake of allowing the tremendous growth of population in the first place (Foreign Policy Association, 2009). Correa, until present, resisted appeals to limit the visitor numbers, which ensures the tourism industry to continue prospering. Romero (2009) quotes María Mariana de Reina Bustos in the New York Times: ‘We are being told that a tortoise for a rich foreigner to photograph is worth more than an Ecuadorean citizen’. In 1998, the governmental national institute of the Galapagos (INGALA) established a ‘Special Law’ for the archipelago, involving several aspects on the conservation of the natural habitat. Those laws, however, only foster the reduction of migration, not of tourism (INGALA, 1998). The laws are now being modified towards making them more formal and government fosters strict implementation of the anti-immigration laws (COHA, 2009).

Overall, instead of a ‘modification’ of the laws (e.g. including visas for Ecuadorians to visit the islands), a ‘makeover’ might be more appropriate if wholehearted preservation is sought after (e.g. limited visas for visitors to the Galapagos). Environmentalists, public media and Ecuador’s inhabitants watch closely, while the government tries to circumnavigate the bombs in this political minefield. After all, it will be necessary to balance Ecuador’s people and the preservation of Ecuador’s crown jewel – nature. To achieve this goal, it will certainly be necessary to acknowledge economic regression for ecological development.