The Galápagos islands have just been taken off the list of World Heritage sites in danger. But should we be going to environmentally sensitive regions at all?
This glorious archipelago off the coast of Ecuador is one of the world’s natural wonders with more than 2,000 endemic species – from blue-footed boobies and penguins to iguanas and giant tortoises.
The islands were put on the list in 2007 because their delicate ecosystem was being threatened by ever-increasing tourist numbers, and as a result over-fishing and invasive species brought over from the mainland (often unwittingly).
Galápagos protected by strict controls
I visited the Galápagos on a superb island-hopping cruise last year, and have to admit I would still have booked the holiday even if I had known that it was on this list.
The area did seem to be sensitively controlled, though. At the airport all luggage was screened for plant and animal products. No one was allowed to enter the national park area (which is 97% of the whole land area) without a guide, and even then, tourists are strictly marshalled along the few paths. No food could be taken onshore, and we always had to wash our footwear in disinfectant before arriving at a new island.
Should tourists stay away altogether?
Is this enough? I didn’t feel at all guilty at the time, but however well-intentioned tourists are, it doesn’t take much to upset the ecological balance. India, for example, has seen a big decline in its tiger numbers recently, blamed on the tourist surge to its national parks.
The Everglades in Florida has just been added to UNESCO’s list of sites in danger. Does this mean tourists ought to stay away now?
Of course, some ecologically sensitive areas need the money tourism brings to help fund conservation measures, so I think visiting is fine as long as these locations are properly monitored.
Still, at the very least, we should question the responsible tourism credentials of companies before booking a wildlife trip. Otherwise, the wildlife may not be there when we arrive.