Ecotourism in the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and Tanzania

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When it comes to the topic of ecotourism, most of us will readily agree that it is a less harmful alternative to mass-tourism and that it promotes responsible and low-impact travel to areas where flora, fauna and cultural heritage are the primary drawing power. Where this agreement usually ends, however, is on the question of what the impact of ecotourism actually is and what its long-term consequences are. Whereas some are convinced that ecotourism provides the basis for sustainable development, particularly in places that suffer from exploitation and excessive resources’ usage, and that could only improve the general conditions of the local people, others maintain that we are still far from true ecotourism, for many are those in the tourism business who market as ecotourism what is actually nothing short of a green varnished conventional tourism. In order to gain a deeper understanding of this thorny issue it is fundamental to examine the experience of the countries that have, at least in theory, profusely embraced ecotourism, evaluating its natural and social impact on fragile environments, and the national cases of the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and Tanzania provide notable examples of how the success, or failure, of ecotourism is greatly determined by the extent to which national laws and development strategies are implemented. Ecotourism is a form of tourism in which the conservation and preservation of the natural environment have a major emphasis, as well as the improvement of the well being of the local people and the building of cultural awareness through an ecologically and socially-centered behavior. These were the main motives behind the adoption of ecotourism in the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of beautiful volcanic islands located six hundred miles from continental Ecuador. As one of the most precious ecosystems in the world, the Galapagos are often cited as the place where ecotourism originated; in fact, as a guidebook puts it, “[t]ourists from Europe started coming to Galapagos Islands more than 150 years ago. They may have called themselves sailors, scientists or adventurers, but in many ways they walked like, talked like and looked like ecotourists” (121). The Galapagos have seen a sharp rise of visitors, immigrants, introduced species and other threats to their environment since 1835, when Charles Darwin stopped there during his sail around the world. Although many are the endemic species that were extinct throughout the last two centuries, the local and national governments took promising steps towards the conservation and preservation of this unique place. In 1959, Ecuador “declared 97 percent of the islands a national park and restricted human habitation to the remaining 3 percent” (124); seven years later, the CDRS, or Charles Darwin Research Station, began studies in the islands, and by 1998 the government declared the waters within forty miles of the coastline a marine reserve. Yet, in 2007, the number of incoming tourists grew tenfold, prompting UNESCO to add the Galapagos to the list of World Heritage in Danger sites. Significant forms of tourism in the volcanic islands were first seen in 1969, and over the years, the industry has been characterized by two contrasting segments: low-budget, mass tourism, and upscale, restricted ecotourism. It is hard to say which one has done more harm; the first type is dominated by and inclined towards locals and Ecuadorians, ensuring that a significant share of the profits stays within the archipelago and the national boundaries. However, by nature, this type of tourism is more concerned with quantity than quality, and its impact is generally large: the guides often speak only Spanish and lack scientific knowledge, therefore they cannot provide incoming tourists with much information about the local flora and fauna; sanitation and comfort tend to be on the low side, and safety is also an issue. For example, in 1990 a tour boat sank due to a fire caused...
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