Endangered spaces: Can our wildest places survive tourism?

Our wildest places are overrun with tourists. So how can nature-lovers justify visiting them?

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Eco-tourism. Is this now-fashionable concept basically a contradiction in terms – on a par, as cynics might say, with "business ethics" or "compassionate conservatism"? "Adventure travel" is, of course, a concept as old as the hills, even if some of our greatest adventurers, such as Captain Scott, took great pains to proclaim their serious scientific purposes.

Nowadays, much "adventure travel" is given a deliberately green tinge. Organisations like Earthwatch send young (and increasingly frequently old) people to the four corners of the earth to study and protect endangered wildlife of every sort and, yes, to enjoy themselves in doing so.

But just how realistic is it to imagine that increasing numbers of people can visit the wild places of the earth, and the animals, trees and plants that live there, without destroying them? Oscar Wilde famously wrote that "each man kills the thing he loves". Have we reached, or are we approaching, the limits of sustainable wildlife tourism? Should there be a strict rationing of visitors in sensitive areas? Should "return visits" be banned? Should there be total no-go zones?

There are no easy answers to such questions, but it is important that they should be asked. Take the Galapagos Islands, for example. Historically, British visitors have formed the second largest group. Even with the recession, there were still 14,000 British visitors last year.

When I first went to the Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, in 2006, I did ask myself whether it was altogether appropriate to visit, but the sheer excitement of being offered a bite at this incredible cherry won the day.

During that first trip to the archipelago, I spent 10 days on board a 16-berth schooner, sailing from island to island. For me, as for most visitors, the love affair began as soon as I stepped off the aircraft. The astonishing thing about the Galapagos is that you actually do get to see what you hope to see. If you are lucky, you will come across most of the famous birds that intrigued Charles Darwin when he landed there 175 years ago next month. You will see blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds, Galapagos hawks and flightless cormorants. You may swim and snorkel among huge Pacific Green Turtles and white-tipped reef sharks. You will meet giant tortoises well over 100 years old and still going strong.

This relatively benevolent relationship between man and nature didn't always exist. Vast depredations of Galapagos wildlife occurred in previous centuries. Tortoises were captured in their thousands by passing ships. The surrounding oceans were virtually emptied of whales. It is only really since 1959 when the Galapagos was established as a national park and, subsequently, as a World Heritage Site, that a proper framework has been created for safeguarding this paradise. But since then numbers of human residents and visitors have boomed.

When I first visited, some 500 cruise ships were already offering the Galapagos as a destination and some of those ships would be carrying hundreds of passengers. Nor was the problem confined to people on boats. It might not yet have been a backpacker's dream, but when I walked through the main town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, with its agencies offering "Galapagos Adventure Tours", I could see the potential for disaster. An explosion of short-stay visitors might overwhelm the capacity of the authorities to manage. It would also dramatically increase the risk of alien species being introduced.

Even if the authorities had the knowledge and the means to control mass-tourism, would they have the political will? In the early years of the new millennium, the islands had seen a high rate of immigration from the Ecuadorean mainland, and as many as 30,000 people now lived there – most of them involved in the tourist industry. Pressures to increase the ceiling on the number of tourists permitted to visit the islands (then about 120,000) were already being felt.

That initial trip to the Galapagos coincided with the final throes of an Ecuadorian national election campaign. I was in Puerto Ayora, for the eve-of-poll rallies. Pickup trucks, garlanded with slogans, hooted up and down the streets and boats sounded their horns in the marina. The slogans were for jobs, better sewerage, and support for local fishermen. I didn't hear anyone on the islands calling for the authority of the national park to be strengthened and expanded. Or, if they did, I missed it. Yet, without strong political backing at every level, I had serious doubts whether the Galapagos miracle could long survive.

But the island's uniqueness draws visitors back again and again, myself included. I returned to the Galapagos this summer, keen to see it with fresh eyes after being asked to join the Galapagos Conservation Trust as chairman and moderator. My wife and I travelled on board the MV Eclipse, which carries a maximum of 48 passengers. Crucially, from our point of view, there were the three Ecuadorian naturalists on board: Javier, Tommy and Daniel. Day after day, they escorted us to the different sites on land. If we were snorkelling, they led the way, using hand gestures to point to giant starfish, slow-cruising sea-turtles, and marine iguanas plucking seaweed from the rocks, or Galapagos penguins flashing past at speed in search of their prey.

In the evening, as we sat in the lecture room, they elaborated on key themes. "The Galapagos" Javier, told us, "is one of the most important nesting areas for the Pacific Green turtle." As we disembarked, he warned us to stay clear of the areas of the beach above high-water mark where the turtles had already laid their eggs. "There are five important marine turtle nesting sites in the Galapagos," he explained.

For me, this was a profoundly emotional moment. For the last several years I have served as an ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme's Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). Within the framework of the CMS, the countries which border the Indian Ocean and the South-east Asia region have already reached an agreement to protect all species of marine turtle. Now the CMS and other bodies are considering what measures can be taken to protect marine turtles in the Eastern Pacific, many of whose populations are under threat. It is clear that the Galapagos, as a key breeding location for marine turtles, will play a vital part in any such agreement. Standing there on the critically important Bachas beach, I truly felt that I was in on the ground floor.

But it's the giant tortoises that are perhaps the most famous of all the Galapagos wildlife. Today it is estimated that the islands' giant tortoise population stands at about 15,000 individuals divided into 11 sub-species. The largest population is on the volcano of Alcedo on Isabela Island.

How are the giant tortoises faring after the depredations of earlier centuries, when whalers, pirates and sailors used to take giant tortoises on board to provide fresh meat and oil? Darwin notes that the crew of the HMS Beagle collected between 600 and 800 tortoises in just a few weeks. The introduction of goats and rats hastened the process of decline.

If you want a poignant reminder, go and visit "Lonesome George" in the grounds of the Charles Darwin Research Centre just outside Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. The tortoise given this nickname, who could be more than 80 years old, is the last of his subspecies, the Pinta Tortoise. While his plight is a poignant reminder of what we risk losing, the giant tortoise breeding programme has been very successful in bringing other subspecies back from the brink.

But the "elephant in the living room" – tourism – remains. On my first visit, the idea of huge people-carriers anchoring off the islands and disgorging boat-loads of passengers had sent shivers down the spine of conservationists around the world. Nor was it clear what benefit to the local economy such visitations would bring. One of the great advantages of a small-scale Galapagos cruise is that a well-equipped vessel carries its own expert guides. And a well-arranged itinerary provides plenty of time for those experts to brief interested passengers on the threats and challenges the islands face. On my second visit, it was Tommy who summarised for us the current situation. He gave us the good news first.

Thanks to a moratorium inspired – in part at least – by a campaign led by the Galapagos Conservation Trust, the menace of large cruise ships has, at least for the time being, disappeared. But what about the explosive growth of other kinds of tourism? In 1991 tourists had numbered 41,000. Annual visitors now number around 170,000.

"Shipborne tourists are not a major threat to the visitor sites. These are relatively well managed," Tommy explained. "The National Park authorities are in strict control of the number of visitors and of their itineraries."

He went on to point out that new guidelines were being introduced. Whereas, in the past, a seven-day circuit of visitor sites, largely confined to the inner islands, had been the norm, in the future it would become the exception. Instead of returning again and again to the same limited number of sites, the tourist vessels would have to range further afield, calling at sites so far infrequently visited.

"The biggest challenge now" Tommy said "is the rapid increase in the number of people coming to Galapagos for reasons other than a wildlife cruise. Whether they are here for two days to cross it off a list of must-see sites, or simply to sit in the sun, their number and their activity is much harder to control." He added that the risk of invasive species remains the biggest threat. The Galapagos islands now have 748 species of introduced plants, outnumbering that approximately 500 species of native plant. "However tough your quarantine measures, there is always a danger."

As Tommy continued his lecture that evening I couldn't help thinking about those amazing giant tortoises, which so attracted Darwin's interest when he visited the Galapagos 175 years ago. How ironic, how banal, it would be, I thought, if the rampant spread of blackberry bushes (now considered to be one of the most serious threats as far as invasive species are concerned) finally caused the demise of the giant tortoise! Clearing the invasive plants is one of the Galapagos Conservation Trust's most important projects. And it wasn't just a matter of ripping the offending plants out. "Most invasive plant species" explains Toni Darton, the chief executive of the trust, "come via people's gardens. That's why we are supporting a project to encourage residents to swap their introduced choices for native Galapagos species."

If I am lucky enough to make a third visit to the Galapagos before I am borne away on the back of a giant sea-turtle I hope to be able to report more good news. The Galapagos, it seems to me, is a kind of test case for managing other vulnerable sites of natural beauty, though few perhaps will rival the Enchanted Isles in terms of their scientific, natural and environmental interest.

I know that many people have been dismayed that Unesco has recently removed the Galapagos Islands from the "most threatened" list of World Heritage sites (in 2007, Unesco mentioned tourism as one of the main threats to the Galapagos ecosystem); but, looked at another way, this is really good news, not bad. It means that solid progress has been made, and that more progress can be expected in the future. Tourism will be an inevitable part of the Galapagos's future but, I hope, it can evolve to a point beyond where we are now, and each visitor can nurture the land they love without destroying it.

For more information about the Galapagos Conservation Trust visit www.savegala-pagos.org. Stanley Johnson's latest book (with Robert Vagg), 'Survival: Saving Endangered Migratory Species', is published by Stacey International at £29.95.

****

Journey Latin America specialises in tailor-made holidays and group tours to all of Latin America. An eight-day Galapagos cruise on board Sanctuary Retreat’s MV ‘Eclipse’ starts from £3,421 per person (020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) For information on the MV ‘Eclipse’, visit www.sanctuaryretreats.com

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