Galapagos, Ecuador

Ethical Implications of Ecotourism In the Galapagos

Research conducted by Steve Clipman ‘13

Advised by Candace A. Grand Pre

The Galapagos Islands are epitomized as a pristine natural environment and the birthplace of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. This location, therefore, has historical significance to people that study science and evolution. The scientific importance of this location, combined with its natural beauty, attracted over 173,000 tourists in 2009. Ecotourism, specifically, is a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas, intended as a low impact and often small-scale alternative to standard commercial tourism. Ecotourism differs from other types of tourist activities in that it often weaves in themes of conservation and preservation into the tours. Indeed, the average “ecotourist” is someone that is usually concerned with the environment and wildlife protection.  Visiting these pristine natural environments, however, is also leading to their destruction. The boat traffic and oil lead to reef destruction and industrialization is disrupting the land. The rising numbers have led to a boom in the construction of hotels and a surge in imports from mainland Ecuador. The presence of so many people on the islands has impacted the wildlife behavior and constant imports have caused sharp spike in the number of alien species arriving in this fragile ecosystem: 112 were recorded in 1900 but by 2007 the total had leaped to 1,321. How can a more sustainable ecotourism model be developed? What are the long-term environmental, ethical and ecological implications, of transporting hundreds of thousands of people into an isolated island environment? Will ecotourism create the very opposite environment of what was once the allure?

I aim to examine these questions and establish a better understanding of the impact and implications of ecotourism. The Galapagos Islands provide invaluable insight into human values and ethics and how the earth can be both respected and conserved but sold-out and exploited at the same time. I hope to use the Islands as a case study to develop a more balanced and sustainable ecotourism model. I will conduct interviews with people from mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos’ Quichua indigenous communities to explore their values and how ecotourism has affected their lives.

Many Latin American indigenous communities, notably the Ngöbe and Boruca tribes, have sold their history and culture to tourism. This has greatly impacted the preservation of the culture. Ecotourism has the amazing ability to promote understanding and appreciation of nature while opening one’s eyes to the incredibly biodiversity on earth. Exposure to these experiences are instrumental in leading people to live more conscious and connected lives with the environment. Like everything, however, these things come at a cost. It is unclear where ethics come in and we draw a line or whether there are alternative better ways to conduct ecotourism. Ecotourism has become a business and those in charge suffer a corporate disconnect. Interviewing the locals and indigenous people will provide valuable insight on current ethical issues and how ecotourism has impacted their lives and culture. Assessing this human aspect of ecotourism can provide the backbone for establishing more conscious and sustainable policy. I plan to explore the possibility of shifting responsibility to the indigenous communities to create a more localized and fair-trade structure of ecotourism.

It is my hope to document these matters and present them in a film focusing on the environmental concerns and ethical issues surrounding ecotourism. The Galapagos are a prime example of the ecotourism paradox. I hope to then show my film on the F&M campus during the Fall 2012 semester to raise awareness of these critical issues that threaten the people and environment. Traditional western “vacations” or cruises promise to show you exotic places but the experience doesn’t genuinely reflect the culture and environment of that place. Tourism has had such a strong impact on commercialism and indigenous cultures that it has effectively reshaped the essence that once defined a place. Many people are unaware of this and I hope that this research will provide perspective and a better understanding of how we can promote culturally, environmentally, and ethically sustainable tourism. This research will help provide a different and more human perspective of environmental science while examining issues from a global and cross-cultural viewpoint.

Check out Steve’s blog posts about his research in the Galapagos!