Education Is the Key to Sustainable Tourism in the Galapagos
An Interview with Barry Boyce
For many years careless tour operators and even more careless tourists put the unique biodiversity of the Galapagos islands in jeopardy. This situation is changing, however, as activists, the Ecuadorian government, and responsible tour operators have sought to protect and sustain the area.
Barry Boyce, owner of Galapagos Travel, www.galapagostravel.com, is one of the tour operators responsible for the creation of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, www.igtoa.org, a group dedicated to preserving the unique heritage of the islands. Transitions Abroad talked to him recently about sustainable tourism and the future of the Galapagos Islands.
Transitions Abroad: How did Galapagos Travel come into being?
Barry Boyce: My first visit to the Galapagos Islands almost 10 years ago profoundly affected me and I planned a lengthy return. Since there was no travel guide to the islands, I decided to write one.
As I wrote, I kept recalling conversations with passengers who were disappointed with their trips: they didn’t get to see the animals they had wanted to see; their guide did not provide them with enough information; a large part of each day was wasted. After having saved up for what they hoped to be a trip of a lifetime, they were disappointed.
I knew from my research that very few companies offered serious natural history trips that lasted long enough to get a feel for this wonderful place. It was then that I decided to form Galapagos Travel. I knew exactly what I wanted to provide and how I would provide it. At first, I led all the trips myself. Now, we do about three or four trips a month, and I still lead a fair number of them.
T.A. What’s different about the company?
B.B. Our workshop-oriented trips provide an in-depth orientation to the islands beyond the scope of most vacation-type tours. We do that in several ways:
• We spend a longer time in the Galapagos than most tour groups.
• In addition to the required naturalist guide, we provide a tour leader/biologist who lectures daily on natural history.
• Our two daily island visits are longer than most tours. We also go on shore earlier in the day (6:30 a.m. versus 8:30 a.m. for many groups) to increase viewing and photographic opportunities.
T.A. Why was the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association created?
B.B. With the abundant biodiversity in the Galapagos, it is not surprising that there are factions within Ecuador that continued to exploit these resources. A few years back, several of the Galapagos tour operators (including Voyagers, Inca Floats, Wilderness Travel, Galapagos Network, and Zegrahm Expeditions) thought our collective voice would be louder and more effective than the protests any of us could voice alone. So we formed the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (or IGTOA as we call it). Our mission is to have a direct voice to the Ecuadorian government.
T.A. Can you tell our readers about the Galapagos Travel Scholarship Program?
B.B. Basically, we have set up a research scholarship (Becario) program with the Charles Darwin Research Station to fund Ecuadorian students doing thesis research in the Galapagos. The areas that have been funded so far have involved research on threatened populations of iguanas and tortoises. The future of Galapagos is in the hands of Ecuador, and the islands need environmentally sensitive and educated Ecuadorians such as these excellent graduate students to speak out on the side of conservation.
T.A. What are the challenges that face responsible tour operators like GT?
B.B. The biggest challenge is to remain focused on the area that you are intimately involved with and to resist expansion into destinations outside your realm of expertise. It’s a challenge because your passengers want you to take them to other places. Galapagos specialty tour operators suffered financially during the recent El Niño, while the multi-destination companies could switch passengers to trips in other parts of the world. In spite of this financial incentive to diversify, we will continue to focus on the Galapagos.
T.A. Is tourism truly a sustainable industry in Galapagos Islands?
B.B. One of the great debates about ecotourism in the Galapagos is whether tourists actually interfere with the wildlife. I think that because of the presence of a licensed guide at all times, this impact is not significant. There is of course some impact, so to justify this it is essential to impart a feeling to everyone that “this place must be conserved.” Conservation is a natural product of love, and love grows with knowledge. Thus, I feel that an educational orientation is a necessary ingredient of ecotourism--education that is counter to the kind of ecotourism which promotes conservation “now, while there is still time.” To the extent that tourism in the Galapagos is primarily educational (as opposed to “fun in the sun”), tourism there will remain sustainable.