Ecotourism and Ethical Travel
An Essential Combination
I’ve lived in the Galapagos Islands all my life, in fact my children are the fourth generation of my family to live here. When you’re a native Galapagueño, your earliest memories include the songs of mockingbirds, Giant Galapagos Tortoises, marine and land iguanas, sharing streets with sea lions, pristine beaches and rugged landscapes. But that’s not all, those memories also include a commitment to sustainability and conservation, to caring for the environment and being aware of the entire planet, not just our little piece of the Earth we all share.
Anais Nin said, “We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” Responsible travelers not only seek, but touch, others in a conscious and special way. They leave behind a special footprint, not one that harms or impacts the environment, but one that leaves a lasting and positive impression on those around them.
As a naturalist with the Galapagos National Park Service who guides tours on luxury boats through the islands, as well as the owner of Galapagos Eco Friendly, a sustainable green hotel on San Cristobal Island, I have the opportunity to meet and interact with travelers from all over the world. Often, our guests are inquisitive, thoughtful and excited about being in Galapagos. Those visitors ask many questions, take photographs to memorialize their experiences, pick up trash they might see washed up on the beach, choose to stay in a neighborhood and breath in some local culture and learn about our customs, politics and beliefs.
But I’ve also found that many travelers use the Galapagos Islands only as a destination to check off of their bucket list. They don’t want to know why there are penguins on the Equator, why we have the only iguanas in the world that swim, why our cormorants don’t fly or why the finches and tortoises on each islands are different species. They lament that the internet isn’t fast enough and that the air conditioners have to be turned off when not in use. They tell me to “stop talking” about the blue footed boobies or the geography and geology that distinguishes the Galapagos Islands from anywhere else in the world.
The first group of guests — the ones who immerse themselves in the experience of being in Galapagos — embody the central concepts of ethical travel. They have researched our surroundings and our culture and come with knowledge of our basic customs and even our economies, just as we (the hosts if you will) have studied theirs. They come here fully understanding and committing to the environment and conservation. The result is mutual respect and the willingness and ability to learn from one another, enhancing everyone’s time and experience.
Our world is changing. People are becoming increasingly aware of the need to preserve our planet’s assets at home and ethical and responsible travelers bring this awareness everywhere they go. Hand-in-hand with ethical responsible travel goes ecotourism. Because ecotourists, as an essential part of their experience, want to integrate the customs and people of the host country into their plans, they have to know how to deal with the people whose lands and homes they are visiting. Dealing with them consciously, fairly and with equanimity is what makes an ethical traveler distinctive. Eco-travel means traveling to a natural area, integrating into the local culture, conserving the environment, and improving the welfare of the local population. I’ll write more about the principles of ecotourism and my personal commitment to the environment in articles to come.
For those who want to be conscious, responsible and ethical ecotourists, here are a few suggested guidelines for you (these apply everywhere, not only Galapagos).
- Research about the mores, taboos, cultural expectations and economic realities before you go. Come with some insights, ask questions, and build bridges that show you understand, anticipate and accept cultural and economic differences.
- Learn a little of the local language. You don’t need to be a linguist, but even a little attempt goes a long way because it lets us help you and engages all of us in the process of becoming an integrated culture of people.
- Learn about the local economy and spend your money to help build it. If you have a choice between purchases made from a local shop or a large, commercial one, go for the local one, even if it’s slightly more expensive.
- If you are inclined to give gifts or tips to locals, then find out the customs and what is needed. Kids are cute and it’s often tempting to give them a trinket or a dollar. But, usually that’s not what’s best for the child. Consider how you would feel as a parent if a stranger offered your child money. Instead, ask about charities or schools that might benefit from your kindness and make a larger positive impact.
- If there are local mores or taboos, learn them and respect them. Before you go, learn something about local customs. You’ll probably want to know never to refuse a cup of coffee in Fiji, take a photo of a monkey in Morocco without paying or fail to slurp your soup in Japan!
- Expect the Unexpected. This is my favorite guideline and I use it often. Expect the unexpected and face each day with a sense of humor and a readiness to enjoy a new experience. Why stress over a situation when you have no control anyway?
Travel provides us with remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime adventures. You can achieve this objective while minimizing environmental impact and supporting local economies. So, have a wonderful time, knowing that your adventure has enhanced not only your life, but also the lives of the people you encounter along the way.
Think of these words of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: “Peculiar travel situations are dancing lessons from God.” Go with the flow, and give free rein to your sense of adventure!” Enjoy!
Harry Jiménez, Owner and General Manager
Galapagos Eco Friendly
Av. 12 de Febrero y Av. J Roldo
San Cristobal Island
Galapagos, Ecuador SCY
Reservations: 593 052 520 124
A version of this article has been published at blog.galapagoslodge.net.