Travelers are fond of saying of places they visited long ago, "You should have seen it before all the tourists came." It's a bragging right of sorts in a world where the "discovery" of a place may mean a change for the worse in the future. And the Galapagos Islands--the archipelago of 19 islands some 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast -- is not immune to change.
"Yes, tourism has changed, and, as Darwin described change in his theory of evolution, it's survival of the fittest," says Myths and Mountains VP Allie Almario, who has made 13 trips to the Galapagos over the past 25 years. "The tour operators know that the most eco-friendly ships who practice sustainable tourism will do the best."
"In some ways travel to the Galapagos Islands is a model for ecotourism," says Matt Kareus, Executive Director of the International Galapagos Tourist Operators Association (IGTOA). Nevertheless, people who see change as either black or white might find themselves in a grey area of contradictions when it comes to the Galapagos. Here is a reality check on some rumors:
Rumor: The Galapagos Islands aren't the same as they once were.
Reality: In twenty years, the number of visitors has quadrupled, from 46,818 in 1993 to 204,395 in 2013. To accommodate the increase in tourists, there are now more ships and planes, more hotels, three airports instead of just one, and a burgeoning, year-round population of about 25,000.
Despite the dramatic growth in tourism, the actual experience of exploring the Galapagos National Park and seeing wildlife is essentially the same. "That's largely because there are strict controls over how many boats can come to a designated landing site each day," says Kareus. On most islands, the number of visitors is limited to small groups, depending on the landing site the number of groups at a landing site at anyone time is carefully controlled. That's why you're unlikely to encounter the swarming hoard of camera-wielding tourists that you might imagine when considering the total numbers of tourists in the Galapagos.
There are more rules today than in the 1960's when there were only 2,000 visitors a year. The long list of do's and don'ts range across all behaviors from not getting within 6 feet of the birds to not buying tortoise shell or sea lion teeth souvenirs. See Galapagos Park Rules for a complete list.
Rumor: The Galapagos Islands are a cash cow for Ecuador and officials are only doing enough conservation to keep tourists coming.
Reality: "Tourism does put a lot of money in the country's coffers," says Kareus, adding, "but that's not necessarily a bad thing. As David Attenborough said, 'Without tourism, the Galapagos would not exist.'" Considering the hundreds of millions of dollars tourism pumps into the economy, the country cannot afford NOT to make a serious effort to preserve it. (Interesting to note that user fees paid by tourists and tour companies have not increased since 1993!)
True, there was some frustration with how the Galapagos National Park was being managed in the past, but its placement on the List of World Heritage Danger sites in 2007 was a wakeup call for greater control to overcome what UNESCO said were threats posed by invasive species, over-fishing, and unbridled tourism. As a result of the "significant progress" made by Ecuador, and the government's continuing conservation efforts, UNESCO took the Galapagos off the danger list in 2010.
And there are other organizations financially supporting conservation and monitoring the impact of tourism. The Charles Darwin Foundation is the most well known for funding scientific research that influences conservation activity. The World Wildlife Fund, WildAid, and the Nature Conservancy are also active in the Galapagos.
Rumor: You can no longer go to the islands you want to visit.
Reality: Thanks to the "Special Regime Law for the Conservation and Sustainable in the Province of the Galapagos" passed in 1998, which is inscribed in the Ecuadorian Constitution, a visitor management system is in place to regulate visitor permits and quotas.
Licensed tours--and all multi-day tours are licensed--may only visit the islands on an itinerary approved by the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park. This is done well in advance, so do not wait until you get to the boat to make a request. If you want to visit a particular site of the 70 terrestrial sites in the park, choose the tour company that has that island on its itinerary and confirm that the boat goes there when you book your trip. It's as simple as that.
Currently, there are 83 vessels in the waters of the Galapagos Islands and since 1978 there has been a set limit on the number of sites they can visit. Currently the Directorate has set a maximum of 60 on the number of sites that can be visited on a two-week tour and 28 sites on a one-week itinerary.
A map and list of terrestrial sites and marine sites for scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking is available on the Galapagos National Park website.
Yes, visiting the Galapagos has changed but with continuing conservation efforts by the government, the non-profit organizations, the tour companies, and, most important, aware tourists, the islands will always be a "living museum and showcase of evolution."
We highly recommend you travel with Galapagos experts like Myths and Mountains to help you make the right decisions for your trip. For more information on our Galapagos itinerary, please visit here.
The news from the 2nd Summit of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) held a few days ago in Ho Chi Minh City was disappointing. Although the Mekong leaders from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos reaffirmed their commitment to the sustainable use of the Mekong River, they did not condemn what International River's SE Asia Program Director, Ame Trandem, calls "the rush" of dam building along the Mekong. (International Rivers is a Berkeley, California-based organization committed to protecting the world's rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them.)
In a statement released by the group, Trandem wrote, "Words without actions are meaningless; the Lao government must stop its free reign of Mekong mainstream dam building. We expect all construction on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams to end immediately and that no further decisions or actions be taken until the Mekong River Commission Council Study, Vietnam's Delta Study, and transboundary impact assessments for each project have been completed and the results have been comprehensively reviewed.”
Wake-up calls at 4 am are never fun, but it was well worth it as we took our first train ride in India from Delhi to Agra.
The "first-class" train may not be luxurious, but it’s clean, comfortable and spacious. The ride through the countryside gave us our first glimpse of open Indian country – just fascinating to see how life outside the city unfolds…
Agra Fort was our first stop. A very impressive monument, only 25% of which is open to the public. The word “massive” does not give it justice when I try to describe just how large this fort is.
The history, craftsmanship and dedication that the people of India have are something that should not go unrecognized. In India: bigger is better. It's proven! Look around. When they can, they create art with nothing but the best materials available, built by hand, with just four to six manual tools. Remarkable!
In Agra we met our new guide, Sharma. What a gentle and kind soul. Again, born and raised here and proud of his heritage. It seems as though every Indian is proud of where they come from. It's inspirational. He loves photography and is quite experienced helping travelers take pictures by pointing out where to take photos for the best angles and how to pose. My favorite quote of his:
Sharma: Want a picture?
Us: Sure! (Hands iPhone over)
Sharma: Now watch how fast I can run!
Headed back to Delhi tomorrow and strangely excited to visit a familiar place. Mike loves the country as much as I do. Wish we had more time in India. From Delhi, we're off to Kathmandu, which I know will steal my heart as well.
If you've thought of visiting Laos and seeing the magnificent Khone Falls, the largest in Asia, or catching a glimpse of an Irrawaddy dolphin, one of the oldest creatures on the planet, move that trip to the top of your bucket list. The Falls, the dolphins, and some villages along the lower Mekong may be gone in a few years. That's because in March, the Lao Government confirmed its intention to proceed with the construction of the Don Sahong dam.
By December, the construction will begin despite the protests of environmental groups and the World Wildlife Fund, strong concerns voiced by neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam, and without a go-ahead from the Mekong River Commission (MRC). If that sounds like déjà vu, you're probably thinking of the Xayaburi Dam in Northern Laos. Construction began on that Mekong River dam in 2012 with apparent disregard for much controversy and serious environmental and human rights questions.
What Laos and the world stand to lose if the largest tributary of the Mekong is dammed is incalculable. There is the impact on the environment and wildlife and damage to the local economy and the lives of those who live along the Mekong. Here are just a few predictions:
• Migratory fish must pass through the Hou Sahong channel year round, and experts doubt Mekong fish can be taught to swim up a "fish ladder" like salmon. Seriously that was a proposed solution by developers of the Xayaburi dam.
• If alternative routes for fish migration don't work--and many experts have serious doubts that they will --there will be serious impact on food and nutrition in Cambodia, according to a Cambodian member of the MRC.
• The end of fish also means the end of a livelihood for those who depend on fish catches above and below the Khone Falls. According to Time, the dam could decimate the world's largest inland fishery.
• Sound waves from explosives used to excavate rock for the dam will likely kill the 85 rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in a 118-mile stretch of the Mekong between Cambodia and Laos. If any do manage to survive that bombardment, pollution and habitat degradation are likely to finish off the dolphins.
• The damage to wildlife will end of biodiversity so characteristic of this area. For example, the Mekong is home to more than 1,200 fish species.
• Damming the channel will have a serious impact on the sediment that fertilizes farmland. Plus, the accumulated sediment will eventually inhibit the power produced by the dam it self.
• The degradation will threaten the rice harvest of Vietnam's fertile delta. Currently it's the world's second largest rice exporter.
So why build it? Laos is one of the least developed countries in Asia and the poorest, yet its rivers, mountains, and plentiful rainforest have the potential to produce major natural hydraulic momentum--in other words hydropower to produce energy that could be sold to it's neighbors. The catch is the Don Sahong dam will produce only 260 megawatts. That's small "energy" change considering the damage that will be done.
The actions in Laos are the antithesis of how a country such as Bhutan thinks. Bhutan, not a rich country either, touts as a key pillar of Gross National Happiness the "conservation of the natural environment" and the promotion of "sustainable development." In Laos, also a Buddhist country, the philosophy seems to epitomize the kind of short-range thinking, dominated by greed, which is so much a part of human political thinking.
There is still hope…and time. The MRC summit begins soon and on its list of priorities is a moratorium on the Don Sahong dam construction. The World Wildlife Fund, which has been especially active in protesting the dam, and Cambodian conservation groups are not giving up. We’re hoping they will be heard.
Our intrepid operations coordinator, Jen K, arrived in Agra the other day. She took part in a "heritage walk", an intimate opportunity to walk in small neighborhoods to see how people live their every day lives. She was invited into a home where a woman offered to give Jen a temporary henna tattoo on her hands. While Jen was impressed with their long, thick lustrous black hair, the women admired Jen's radiant red locks and pale skin. As she continued walking, she met up with lots of neighbors, many of whom took the time to say hello, smile shyly, or wave to the camera. Because our groups are almost always private departures set up for small groups of just a handful of travelers, this kind of easy rapport is easy to achieve. Like our motto says, "Let the culture embrace you."