This is a response to an article in the Saturday August 23 2003 edition of the AJC by syndicated columnist Randy Cohen of the New York Times who writes a column called “Everyday Ethics”. (Read the article)

I read your article with interest answering a person’s question about whether they should visit the Galapagos Islands or not. You should have done more research into the Galapagos before giving a generic answer like the one you gave.

The Galapagos are a National Park owned Ecuador. Over 90% of the land area is part of that park where development is not allowed. The only people who live there are fishermen and researchers and people who support the tourist industry. People have been moving there for years as the tourist industry grows and limits have had to be put in place. So this isn’t a situation where tourism can help the people of the Galapagos because the fishermen and researchers already have jobs. Tourism just brings more people in from the mainland and puts a bigger burden on the areas where people are allowed to live. So that is why you wouldn’t want to visit.

On the plus side, the Park itself is better protected than any park in the United States. You are not allowed to set foot in the park without a guide who is trained by the park service and works on their behalf to report violators. Groups are limited in size to 15 or so. You can only walk on designated trails. Efforts are made to prevent tourists from accidentally tracking seeds or any other contaminants from one island to the next. You are not allowed to feed the animals or give them water. You can’t pick any plants. You can’t touch the animals (but they can touch you). You also have to pay a $100 entrance fee which goes towards conservation. So there are some good reasons to go and damage is greatly limited as long as you follow the rules.

But how do you deal with the hotels and merchandisers? Easy. Most tourists book accommodations on a boat that takes them from island to island. These boats are licensed and regulated so they don’t all show up at the same island on the same day. If you don’t want to support the local tourist economy you don’t have to spend a dime on shore supporting the people who have moved there (in my opinion that’s a good thing). Many of the crew do not live on the Galapagos (though some grew up there), so they do no damage, and fly in on the same flight as the tourists.

Some tour operators go above and beyond. When I went last year with Lindblad Expeditions they wouldn’t even serve shrimp because of the ecological damage it causes whether it is caught in the wild or on farms (nowhere near the Galapagos). They used special biodegradable soap and shampoo. They used Honda engines on their zodiac landing craft because they are efficient and clean. They were constantly educating their guests about ecological issues. That is why organizations like World Wildlife Fund and The Audubon Society (who I went with) plan trips with Lindblad. And that is why your reader shouldn’t worry about the ecological damage of her trip as long as she makes a commitment to book with a company like Lindblad (I don’t work for them, I was just really impressed) and follow the rules of the park.

Here’s the article:

My fiancee is eager to visit the Galapagos Islands, but I’ve read that tourism can damage this ecologically sensitive area. It can also have questionable economic effects, increasing the number of local people who serve tourists at hotels and restaurants and such. She disagrees, countering that tourism gives locals incentives to protect the environment. What is an ethical tourist to do? Anthony Wahl, New York

There are really two issues here — tourism’s environmental effects on local tortoises and its economic effects on local humans. If you believe that visiting the Galapagos will damage an ecologically sensitive area, then you’ve resolved the first issue: you can’t go. Fortunately, much has been written on this subject, so that when you and your girlfriend debate the matter, you’ll each be able to arm yourselves with impressively fat dossiers.

As to the second matter, the humans, well, some people share your belief that a tourist economy is a dreadful thing and locks residents into low-wage service jobs. Others believe that a properly managed tourist economy is benign. Many people in Las Vegas, for example, are delighted with their town, citing the success of recent unionization drives in gaining good pay and benefits for service workers. (And, until recently, frequent opportunities to get a glimpse of William Bennett.) This is a matter on which honorable people can differ, and one way you can resolve it is to heed the wishes of local folks. That is, if there were a continuing boycott or other organized effort to resist a tourist economy, you should honor its strictures. However, if local people embrace tourism’s economics, you are free to grab the first plane south.

What makes your decision difficult are the uncertain effects of your actions.

It’s tough being a consequentialist (doing cost-benefit ethics) when the consequences are unpredictable. Too many tourists might damage the Galapagos; too few might mire it in poverty, prey to more devastating development schemes. (I’m no ecologist, but I suspect that turning the isles into a bombing range, for instance, even with a Starbucks, could harm its flora and fauna.) But while such a judgment is imprecise, it is necessary. Hence an ethical obligation not to be a knucklehead.

You must — as you have — learn enough to make an educated decision.

One thought on “Eco-tourism

  1. Here’s the writer’s response. He sent it within a day of my writing to him:

    Thanks for the interesting note. It is gratifying to hear from somenone with direct experience of the matter at hand. But generic? Seems a harsh

    choice of words. My column is “The Ethicist” not “The Travel Agent,” and thus I strive to discuss the broader ethical implications of the situation.

    As to this particular trip, please note that I wrote ” You must – as indeed you have – learn enough to make an educated decision.”


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