The return of responsible travel to the Galapagos Islands from July 1st was warmly welcomed by the local community, whose economy and livelihoods are almost entirely dependent on tourism.
The wave of disruption that spread in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic forced the Galapagos Authorities to close their borders in mid-March, therefore shutting down the tourism industry upon which the islands so heavily depend.
Ecoventura, a sustainable expedition cruise company with just 10 cabins per luxury yacht, headed to port along with the rest of the Galapagos vessels to see out the storm. A few long months later, and early July brought good news: after careful assessment by the Galapagos Authorities, the archipelago once again opened to visitors.
A mere three percent of the islands are inhabited by humans and just one percent of the protected areas of the Galapagos National Park are accessible to visitors. As such, the Galapagos Islands have long been viewed as an example of sustainable tourism, with movement across the islands, and itineraries for cruise operators, carefully managed to avoid overcrowding or undue pressure on popular spots.
With the islands re-opened to visitors, it wasn’t long before Ecoventura took to the seas once again, sailing with a family who travelled down from the USA to enjoy a week aboard Theory by Ecoventura. A rare opportunity to experience the islands with very few tourists, the family was among the first visitors back to this wonderful part of the world.
"The level of care, attention to detail, correspondence and organization was simply extraordinary," wrote the family as they set off on their trip. "We are honored to be some of the first visitors to return to Ecuador and the Galapagos".
As well as being great news for the team on board, Ecoventura’s return to the seas also offered a ray of hope to the huge proportion of people across the archipelago who rely on the tourism industry for their livelihoods.
In the words of our naturalist guide, Ivan Lopez, who was on board the Theory for this voyage, returning to the seas "represents a light of hope to more than a thousand naturalist guides in the Galapagos who were filled with joy to know we have taken a great first step towards a new beginning".
Whilst this initial voyage is just a first small step towards normality, it certainly helps remind us what an important role tourism can play. After all, a large number of the Ecoventura team hails from the islands, and the lock-down imposed in the face of the pandemic led to many local people facing prolonged spells out of work.
With voyages recommencing, Ecoventura, along with fellow Galapagos cruise ships and hotels, is infinitely better placed to continue supporting the local economy. Beyond the jobs that these businesses create directly, there are a huge number of knock-on benefits; for example, the majority of ingredients on the Ecoventura on-board menus are locally grown or caught, thereby providing an income for local Galapagos farmers and fishermen.
Ecoventura is very much focused on navigating onwards rather than seeking to return to previous ways. Both the national government and the Galapagos Authorities have put in place additional requirements for all those entering the country and archipelago.
The Ecoventura team has adopted enhanced cleanliness and sanitation protocols in order to safeguard the health and safety of passengers and crew alike. In addition, the maximum guest per guide ratio has been reduced to 8 guests per guide to allow for further distancing on excursions; hand sanitisers have been distributed across the Ecoventura vessels, and additional bio-safety measures are explained to guests during the welcome briefing.
With necessary changes made, Ecoventura can return to focusing on its true passion: playing an active role in the conservation of these pristine islands.
It is encouraging to see that conservation projects in the islands have continued at strength even through the worst of the pandemic; after all, these last few months have given all of us time to reflect on what is truly important. The true reward for being an active conservationist can be seen day in day out when working in the Galapagos Islands, yet it was an honour for the Ecoventura team to be recently awarded a platinum medal by the renowned Charles Darwin Foundation in recognition of continued commitment and support to science and conservation efforts in the Galapagos.
But of course, without travellers none of this conservation work would have been possible, and tourism in the region is not yet even close to reaching pre-pandemic levels. Ecoventura has introduced a series of special offers to attract visitors back to the islands, as well as relaxing booking and deposit requirements to reflect the understandable concerns that many guests have with regards to booking overseas trips in the current climate.
We can only hope, for the sake of the Ecoventura crew, guides and wider team, but also for the local economy and tourism industry on which it depends, that Theory sailing again is a light at the end of the tunnel: a sign that we have left the worst behind us.