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New Settlers, More Tourists Challenge an Ecosystem

In the Galapagos Islands, one of the few pristine places left on Earth, people and pollution have not yet spoiled the land, creatures, and water

IT was a used tea bag tossed carelessly overboard after lunch. It drifted slowly away from the tour boat anchored in sparkling blue water. On the starboard side, several people saw it and pointed with concern. "I wonder who did that?" someone said in mild anger. It was too late to retrieve it.In Galapagos, a sodden, lowly tea bag is hugely symbolic. Bobbing on the water, it takes on the meaning of one small ecologic step backward for mankind. Spend a week going from island to island in this archipelago and any bit of floating garbage or plastic is a glaring, startling offense. These islands are one of the few pristine places left on Earth where trash, garbage, people, and pollution have yet to greatly befoul the land, creatures, and water. The reason? "The total number of national park tour sites [on the islands] is 43," says Craig MacFarland, the president of the Charles Darwin Foundation and a specialist in wild land planning and management. "That's less than 1 percent of the total land area of 3,000 square miles. [It's the 1 percent] where visitors are having an impact. The vast majority of the islands are still pristine." Twenty years ago, the Ecuadorean government made the islands a national park and decreed a limit of 10,000 tourists a year. It established five zones for specific uses, including an intensive-use zone for tourists. The rules were: All tour groups have a trained guide and sleep on board tour boats. No touching or feeding the animals. No removal of plants. Walk only on the marked paths. Take only photos and leave only footprints. Overnight camping allowed in limited places and under strict conditions. "We knew that tourism could only survive with certain limitations," says Eduardo A. Proano, president of Metropolitan Touring in Quito, Ecuador, the first company to offer Galapagos tours in 1969. "We established a positive model, but obviously it has deteriorated," he says. With little manpower or structure on the part of the Ecuadorean government to enforce the limit, the numbers grew over the years to an estimated 45,000 last year. On the whole, tourists have behaved themselves. Yes, the sea lions become a little more agitated these days, and some tourists wander off the paths. Tourists and crew members do throw refuse overboard, but no one expected a perfect symbiosis. "Tourism is not the main problem in the islands," says Jorge Anhalzer, director of CETUR (Corporacion Ecuatoriana de Tourismo) and a member of the commission established last year by Ecuador's president to shape the future of the islands. "It is the urban growth," he says, "the migration from the mainland, that is the problem. The little towns don't have the infrastructure to handle [it]." Dr. MacFarland goes further and calls the growth and infrastructure problems a "crisis." Among the many problems, he cites: The resident population grew from 4,700 to 10,000 over the last 10 years; at least several dozen new species of animals have been introduced; the number of tourism boats has doubled, a second major tourism center has been established, and a third is being developed on another island; pollution has increased three-fold; and basic services such as potable water, solid-waste disposal, sewage evacuation, and electricity are poorly planned and overtaxed. A scientist at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora says that a Galapagos "gold rush" mentality exists for some Ecuadoreans drawn to the islands. "They think the popularity of tourism here means easy access to the tourist dollars," he says. "The islands are sort of a mirage," agrees Mr. Anhalzer, seated in his office in Quito. "It's a tough life out there, with hardships despite the beautiful conditions. It takes certain sacrifices. A lot of people have gone there and been disappointed." Fionnuala Walsh, the assistant to the director of the Darwin research station, says, ve been here three years, and the number of tourist shops and boutiques between the front gates of the station and the central plaza in town has grown from 10 to 35; yet the number of tourists hasn't grown much over the last three years." But the islands are no mirage to the government, now faced with mounting pressures from all sides. Recently, when the government hinted that it was going to raise the tourist entrance fee for Galapagos National Park from $40 to $80, and also raise the annual tour operator fee for each passenger berth from $10 to $400, the tour industry protested. A full-page "open letter" appeared in a Quito newspaper. One of the signers of the letter, Oswaldo Munoz, who owns Nuevo Mundo Expeditions in Quito, says, "This is the way the government is seeking to reduce tourism to the islands. But I think it will just raise the price. I am more concerned about the quality of the ecotraveler to the island than I am the carrying capacity. The true ecotravelers are not necessarily those that have more money." Anhalzer says the president will probably raise the fees because the commission is recommending it. He acknowledges that the intent was to discourage more tourists. "The cheaper it is to go to Galapagos," he says, "the more people want to go. If there is a limited capacity, whatever that capacity might be, and once you approach that, then you have to make it more expensive." Historically, only a small portion of the funds generated by the park entrance fees has ever found its way back to the islands to finance improvements. A third-world country, Ecuador is just beginning to realize the potential pay back from funding national parks and encouraging tourism throughout the country. Anhalzer suggests that disbursing the tourists over more islands would help ease the impact on heavily visited islands. "We could increase the tourist load by twice," he says, but quickly adds, "not that we are recommending that." What the commission wants to accomplish is to make a visit to Galapagos an even greater premium experience for a manageable number of ecotourists. "Galapagos is famous for one thing," Anhalzer says, "survival of the fittest. This principle can be applied to the tour operators too. We want to improve the quality of the service and the safety of the boats, and this takes a certain sacrifice, and they need to put in their share of the sacrifice." But scientists, tour operators, and park officials agree that insufficient funds and lack of coordination have always plagued efforts to enforce regulations and policies for the islands. For these reasons, the tourist numbers mushroomed. At the national government level, MacFarland says, "agencies are involved for short spurts during crisis periods." Consequently, the islands exist in a bureaucratic drift. Famous photographer Tui DeRoy, who has lived on and photographed the islands since she was a small girl, sings a common song: It's not so much the numbers of tourists but "a matter of how it's done." She advocates a "strictly educational focus" and wants nothing that is incompatible with the islands: no big hotels with swimming pools, no five-star restaurants, no moped rentals, no golf courses or tennis courts - just the natural conditions of a rare ecosystem. "I think what we're seeing is a degradation in the experience of the tourist," she says, standing on a busy dock in Puerto Ayora, "because with enough people here, you end up bumping into each other and going places where there are already four other boats there. But it's the indirect impact on the islands that I'm worried about." To control all the problems, will the day come when a hard-and-fast limit is put on the number of tourists, as well as a ceiling on the number of Ecuadoreans moving here? "If all the measures in the commission plan are in place," MacFarland says, "then in effect there will be a maximum ... number of visitors, not as a 'magic limit,' but based on a soundly designed system." "It would take a constitutional amendment to make a limit," Anhalzer says when asked how to end the flow of Ecuadoreans to the islands, "and that is a major political problem. I don't think at this stage of the game this government wants to get into that. But eventually it might need to be a ... last resort."