QUITO – The Ecuadorian government has inaugurated the first Sustainable Tourism Summit, a gathering in which participants will discuss a new ecotourism development model for the Galapagos Islands.
Environment Minister Marcela Aguiñaga said representatives of several public institutions are meeting with the shared belief that economic growth is merely one factor in true sustainable development and the idea that profitability encompasses more than economic gain.
She said tourism has become Galapagos’ “primary economic activity” and the basis not only for the well-being of local inhabitants but also the health of its ecosystems and the management of its natural resources.
But the minister noted that “few could have predicted that this most environmentally friendly of economic activities would become one of the main threats to the health and integrity of Galapagos’ ecosystems,” Aguiñaga said in her inauguration speech, to which Efe had access.
Without offering definite figures, she added that while there has been a reduction in the number of visitors this year “average annual growth has held steady at 7 percent, which means Galapagos at the moment is home to Ecuador’s healthiest economy.”
She added, however, that those statistics do not mean the local community and nature are equally as healthy.
Underlying problems remain on the Galapagos Islands, but now the government is committed to finding a solution and seeking an alternative path to sustainable development, she said.
According to Aguiñaga, tourism to date “has functioned according to market forces and laws, in which … the basic economic needs of Galapagos residents have not been met.”
She added that there has been a lack of understanding of the “fragility of the ecosystems” and the “importance of safeguarding natural resources for the benefit of future generations.”
The goal of the summit, also attended by Tourism Minister Freddy Ehlers and other authorities, is to reach accords and guidelines for a new tourism model for the Galapagos province.
Participants in the gathering, which will be held through Friday on San Cristobal Island, the easternmost island in the archipelago, are to study different aspects necessary for building a successful and sustainable ecotourism model in Galapagos.
The event is being organized by the Tourism Ministry, the Environment Ministry, the Galapagos National Park Service, the World Wildlife Fund and other entities.
In 2007, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee added the Galapagos Islands to its List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, citing growing tourism and other environmental and social problems.
Two months ago, the committee decided to remove the archipelago from its list of sites in peril, drawing criticism from some environmental organizations.
“The removal of this unique site of global importance to humanity is somewhat premature,” the director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Julia Marton-Lefevre, said at the time.
“IUCN stands ready to continue its work with the Ecuadorian government to fully implement the recommendations of the World Heritage Committee,” she said.
For its part, Ecuador expressed its “satisfaction” with a decision that “acknowledges” the government’s efforts.
The Galapagos Islands are located about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) west of the coast of continental Ecuador and were named the first World Natural Heritage Site in 1978.
Some 95 percent of the territory’s 8,000 sq. kilometers (a little over 3,000 sq. miles) constitutes a protected area that is home to more than 50 species of animals and birds found nowhere else on the planet.
The islands were made famous by 19th-century British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose observations of life on the islands contributed greatly to his theory of the evolution of species. EFE