A few weeks ago, 19 Ecuadorean citizens detained on these world-renowned islands were marched onto a plane and sent back to the continent under armed guard. Their crime? Illegal migration.
So far this year, the government has expelled 1,000 of its citizens from the Galapagos — a living laboratory of unique animal and plant species — who were there without residency and work permits. It has also “normalized” 2,000 others, in effect giving most of them a year to leave.
The migrants are attracted not by the tortoises or blue-footed boobies but by the islands’ booming economy, which offers plentiful jobs and good pay. Typical wages run 70% higher than on Ecuador’s mainland, the public schools are good, and violent crime is nonexistent.
Last year, Ecuador was stung by a United Nations warning that the islands, whose human population has doubled in 10 years to about 30,000, are at risk from overcrowding and mismanaged tourism.
Priming the economy is the apparently insatiable demand by foreign tourists for a close-up look at giant tortoises, elephant seals, flamingos, marine iguanas and other species in their native habitat. As a result, scientists warn, that habitat is becoming increasingly less pristine.
The 2007 report issued by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural arm, placed the islands on its “in danger” list, a designation upheld in July.
The rising tide of tourists, residents and suppliers has introduced alien species, including rats, goats, cats and, more recently, mosquitoes and fire ants, UNESCO’s Marc Petry said by telephone from Paris. Such intrusions, as well as sewage and oil discharged from boats, threaten the islands’ plant and animal life, he said.
The expulsion of Ecuadorean nationals has sparked a debate about whether the government should be more concerned with imposing a cap on tourism than culling residents.
Scientists at Galapagos National Park want to see a limit on visitor traffic, which in the last decade has grown 13% a year on average. Tourists visiting the park this year are expected to total about 180,000, more than officials say they can keep up with.
“When visitors reached 50,000 a year, we said to ourselves, this really is the limit. We can’t handle any more. But now it’s triple that figure,” said Sixto Naranjo, the park’s coordinator and former director.
The government of President Rafael Correa has resisted any move to cap the number of visitors. Environment Minister Marcela Aguinaga said in a September interview that there was no sign that tourism was “oversaturated.” Migration controls, resident training and the development of a new “tourism model” are the answers, she said.