On a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands on G Adventures‘ Island Hopping Tour, I was humbled to experience one of the world’s most environmentally protected areas of land first hand. Even though it sees upwards of 220,000 visitors per year, you don’t see stray dogs or homelessness, or worry about pick-pocketing or hotel-room theft. This was refreshing after traveling to Thailand, Indonesia, and most of Europe, which has left me concerned about the negative effects tourism has not only on developing countries, but developed ones.
After traveling to more populated Galapagos islands like Santa Cruz and Isabela in the archipelago, I began to question if this utopian idea of “Leave No Trace” was just a myth. While still beautiful and environmentally conscious, small cruise ships took up the majority of Santa Cruz’s harbor and trash blew around the unfinished streets of Isabela.
“Galapagos needs to remain being Galapagos so that it doesn’t get destroyed like other places in the world have been because of tourism.” – Lelia Cruz, of Lelia’s Guest House, member of Project Floreana
While there’s certainly not one universal model for successful and sustainable tourism, Floreana, a tiny, 150-population island to the south in the Galapagos, brings a sliver of hope to what a small, susceptible community can do to manage the double-edged sword that is tourism. The 67-square mile island’s community development project is supported by G Adventures and its non-profit, Planeterra. The project is part of G Adventures’ 50-in-5 campaign, which is committed to integrating Planeterra projects into 50 of its trips by 2020.
When you step off the water taxi onto the concrete pier in Floreana you are surrounded by sea lions, marine iguanas, lava lizards, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and another dozen species that you can’t even see. This land is truly untouched—the first tourists started coming only eight years ago. Straight ahead you see a satellite tower in the foreground of the island’s highlands, and to your right, a rocky coastline dotted with black and white sand beaches and inlets—I quickly began to realize that it was very different than the other islands on our tour.
My small tour group and I hopped into an open truck and traveled less than three minutes on the gravel road to our community guesthouse. We split up and stayed in two separate, neighboring abodes. Both are run by the same family, the Cruz’s, a family of 12 brothers and sisters, all born on Floreana after their parents settled on the island in 1939, and many are involved in the community tourism project.
What Is Community Tourism?
In front of one of the homes were multicolored woven hammocks enclosing dozens of empty tables, making it look like a closed restaurant. The community guest houses only open themselves to tour groups on a rotating basis, so you can stay on the island only if you are with a tour company. Right now only G Adventures and Tropic Ecuador visit the island overnight.
“Tourism can be a curse or a blessing, so hopefully for Floreana it will become a blessing if it’s properly managed.” – Felipe Cruz, member of Project Floreana
I learned that dining works the same way. Each group rotates through the island’s five restaurants—eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a different one each meal. It was then that I began to understand what community tourism was. Instead of competing with each other, the community guest houses and restaurants share the responsibility of hosting the tour groups that stay on the island.
Because it’s farther away from the main tourist islands, Floreana wasn’t benefiting from hosting tourists. Instead, cruise ships have been coming to the northern tip of the island, allowing travelers to snorkel offshore briefly before leaving, which doesn’t benefit the community located miles away. G Adventures and Planeterra noticed this unfortunate trend and the potential of the island, and decided to support this community tourism project, initiated in 2015.
The Island of Floreana
The small island offers most everything the rest of the Galapagos archipelago does—a black sand beach, snorkel spots, beachside cabins, a tortoise enclosure, highlands with trails, native species like flamingos, rays, and sea turtles, two volcanoes, and on top of its natural offerings, an entertaining history. Think Pirate’s of the Caribbean meets murder mystery. Clearly there is no reason why Floreana shouldn’t be competing for visitors.
“Floreana is the only island that still has the island style, which has been lost on the other islands due to tourism.” – Felipe Cruz, member of Project Floreana
In its current state, the community wouldn’t be able to handle an influx of tourists without some preparation, training, and infrastructure. There is only one source of water on the island, limited electricity, Internet is not easily accessible (although the community guest houses and restaurants do have Wi-Fi areas), and there isn’t a reliable way to get around if you’re traveling without a group or guide. The project can’t support hundreds of overnight visitors, but they would still rather have 30 people staying for one or two days versus 150 people coming into town just for a day trip.
The Future of the Galapagos and Community Tourism
In speaking with members of the Cruz family, I have no doubt that they and this community will be successful in transforming and preserving the island’s beauty—especially as the other islands become more tourist-ridden. While right now there are only seven community guesthouses and five restaurants, a camping site is in the works (supported by Planeterra), and final steps are in place to make Floreana Community Tours a legal tour operator. In the future they hope to manage hikes, snorkeling, kayaking, and diving, and to eventually connect the northern part of the island (where cruises anchor) to the main town. Offering more expensive and higher end hospitality and dining options are also a priority, and could create more job opportunities for the island’s residents.
“If the community gets involved, then perhaps the larger operations might not find it easy to come into the island in order to protect the lifestyle that they have here.” – Felipe Cruz, member of Project Floreana
Our tour leader, Jose, emphasized the importance of the island hopping tour style. Since most Galapagos tours are marine-based, visitors only see the islands on day excursions and stay on small to mid-sized cruise ships. He thanked us for choosing the island hopping tour, and allowing the communities on the islands to directly benefit through nightly rates, meals, shopping, and tips. While there are government restrictions on the size and quantity of cruise ships, in particular for Floreana, the islands reap little to no benefit if visitors don’t actually come into the main town.
Only time will tell how Floreana develops and protects its lifestyle with community tourism. I hope the concept of community tourism can be extrapolated to other developing communities around the world, to offer a more genuine and responsible experience for both visitors and locals so they can truly experience an exchange of culture as I did.
Editor’s Note: Tourism is one of Ecuador’s main sources of income and is instrumental in helping the country recover from the earthquake in April, which devastated a large part of its coast. Traveling through a sustainable tour company is a great way to donate to the country and communities affected, or consider making a donation here.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Dream Trips You Can Actually Afford in 2016
- To Uncover the Magic of Sri Lanka, Go Small
- Discover the Galapagos Islands in Less than 60 Seconds