By Elias L. Benarroch
Galapagos, Ecuador, Aug 23 (EFE).- Ecuador’s Galapagos archipelago is trying to recover its main economic engine – tourism – caught as it is between the battering from the coronavirus pandemic and its own severe measures to avoid even the most minor environmental contamination.
The latest blow was the detection of three cases of the Delta variant of the virus, which has led authorities to once again demand, starting this coming Friday, that anyone wanting to visit the islands must present both a negative PCR test and an official certificate verifying that they have been fully vaccinated.
Ecuadorian authorities have also decided to mount an “accelerated” vaccination campaign for children between 12-16, to intensify preventive measures with information campaigns directed at tourists and locals and to implement “community sweeps” to “actively seek out asymptomatic cases,” according to Health Minister Ximena Garzon.
Whether directly or indirectly, tourism is the main income source for the roughly 33,000 residents of the Galapagos, a group of 13 main and nine medium-sized islands located about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the Ecuadorian coast that is a key ecological site due to its unequalled biodiversity.
That was one of the reasons that Ecuadorian authorities completed the vaccination program there first several months ago.
“This year-and-a-half of pandemic has been very tough. We started with the total blockade of the Galapagos and, … now it’s increasing, more cruise ships are coming. But we’re not 100 percent back to normal at all,” Jhosellyn Aguas, a nature guide on the island of San Cristobal, told EFE, adding that – according to her own knowledge of the matter – the island was the very first to be settled thanks to its supply of fresh water.
For her 10-person family to get by, Aguas used up “all” of her savings, a situation – she said – in which the barter system that was used in the islands more than a century ago has once again become common practice.
After a progressive easing of preventive measures, in July people were back to making more than 50 percent of their pre-pandemic earnings, a little more than 13,000 US dollars per year in comparison to the earlier $23,000.
But this is just a drop in the bucket, since the tourism profits don’t remain in the Galapagos.
“The statistics could be right, but the truth is different for everyone. It’s the boat (owner on the mainland) who takes it all, not the (islands’) population,” Aguas said.
That’s because wealthy foreign tourists, when they arrive, are taken directly to the big cruise ships, bypassing – to a large degree – all the local businesses.
The situation is widespread, Aguas said, because “with the pandemic we noticed that about 80-90 percent of the population lives from tourism or associated things.”
“Perhaps they might say ‘No, I’m a fisherman, I don’t have anything to do with tourism’ … But the fisherman provides fish to the restaurant that serves the tourist, who wasn’t there (during the pandemic),” she said.
The Galapagos’ contribution to the national GDP is relatively small, but the earnings per capita are among the highest in Ecuador and the islands are a source of foreign currency because a significant portion of the tourists who visit Ecuador do so specifically to see the so-called “Enchanted Islands.”
Officially discovered by chance in 1535 by Spain’s archbishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the islands have gone through different epochs of exploration that reduced the native fauna and flora and introduced invasive species that today threaten the various island ecosystems.
That’s why authorities imposed severe restrictions to preserve this exclusive environmental zone, which is one of the world’s largest marine preserves and one of the two unique archipelagos situated right on the equator.
Under a special administrative regime, the islands only allow access to some 200,000 outsiders each year and the number of local residents is limited as is the development of economic sectors that could affect the environment.
Monitoring of everyone and everything that enters or leaves the islands is also extensive, and the Agency for Regulation and Control of Biosecurity (ABG) is in charge of preventing the entry of invasive species and the trafficking of wildlife via careful checking of all luggage and cargo, along with disinfecting it.
And although it’s a notoriously expensive place to visit, the main attraction of the islands is precisely its marine and land biodiversity.