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Cablegate: Galapagos Tourism Growth a Delicate Balance

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. Summary: Plans to expand tourism opportunities on the
Galapagos island of Isabella are creating new economic
alternatives for local fishing communities but raising the
worst fears of conservationists. On November 10-12, a well-
received USAID-led ecotourism project on Isabella brought
together multiple actors to explore local-based tourism
opportunities. The workshop coincided with the announcement
of local infrastructure projects geared toward facilitating
tourism. Meanwhile, environmentalists and NGOs who decry
the disorder of the tourism sector claim that tourism growth
on Isabella cannot be contained and that the goal of
sustainable development that the workshop seeks is
unattainable. Weak government institutions and historically
poor relationships among involved parties will make
establishing and maintaining a balance between conservation
efforts and the economic needs of the local population
difficult. End Summary.


2. Held on November 10-12 in the Isabella town of Puerto
Villamil, a USAID-sponsored workshop identified technical
assistance and training needs to allow the Isabella
community to develop local tourist services. The goal is to
strike a balance between the economic necessities of the
local population and conservation. In developing
sustainable economic alternatives for the islanders,
workshop participants hope to help the island tap into the
lucrative tourism market while holding large-scale
development at bay. Actors from all sectors, including GOE
officials, members of the local business community,
international donors, a TAME airline representative, and
representatives from the tourism and conservation sectors,
attended the event.

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3. The workshop resulted in a number of commitments from
USAID. USAID's SALTO program that implements economic
opportunity projects will provide technical assistance to
help create a chamber of tourism for Isabella, develop a
local tourist agency, and improve the quality of local
tourism services. USAID, in conjunction with the Quito
Chamber of Commerce Cooperative (CCQ), also will work to
expand micro-financing on the island by providing training
to small businesses and establishing a branch office of CCQ
in Puerto Villamil. Meanwhile, INGALA, the GOE entity
responsible for controlling immigration and the introduction
of invasive species to the islands, pledged to support these
efforts by further developing a tourism strategy and an
investment policy for the island.


4. During the workshop, Pablo Gordillo, the Mayor of
Isabella, presented four infrastructure activities to
support the tourism effort on Isabella. The largest of
these projects is the construction of an airport terminal.
Financing for the terminal, estimated at $443 million, is
nearly complete. A second construction project includes the
building of a small pier to facilitate water-based tourism
activities. USAID is supporting this project. Two other
projects -- a $1.2 million sewage system and a municipal
school -- have yet to receive financing.


5. The Puerto Villamil population, many of whom are
fishermen whose traditional catches are nearly commercially
extinct, considered the workshop an historic event. The
community on Isabella has been seeking to benefit from the
Galapagos tourism market that thus far has favored large
mainland tour agencies and the other two main inhabited
islands in the Galapagos, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. The
workshop, along with the accompanying infrastructure
projects, was an important first step in this direction.
Mainland investors who have purchased land in Isabella with
the hope that tourism will take off there also are poised to
benefit from the plans.

6. For a number of those present at the workshop, TAME, the
national airline who has been granted permission to fly
directly from the mainland to Isabella, was one of the big
winners. Although quiet during the workshop, the TAME
representative met actively on the side with local hotel
owners. TAME reportedly made agreements with local hotels
to reserve blocks of seats on flights and discussed joint
internet advertising opportunities. Infrastructure
development in Puerto Villamil also will expand
opportunities in the Galapagos for big tourist boats, both
as a point of departure for tourists arriving from the
mainland and as a stop on the ships' itineraries.


7. On the other side of the coin, environmentalists and
NGOs fear that the tourism sector will undermine the balance
between conservation and economic development on Isabella.
CEDENMA, which represents over 60 Ecuadorian environmental
NGOs, responded to the workshop with a press release that
decried the current development plan for Isabella, claiming
that any economic benefits will be captured by tourism
interests from the mainland and never reach its intended
target, the local population. Past history -- from 1999
until 2003, three out of every four tourism dollars went to
mainland tour agencies and not Galapagos-based businesses --
suggests they might be correct.

8. Like many environmentalists, CEDENMA also believes that
the development of tourism on Isabella runs the risk of
introducing non-native species, destroying the delicate
ecological balance of the island, and increasing the
incentives for mainland Ecuadorians to immigrate to the
islands. They are concerned that GOE institutions in charge
of immigration and invasive species control are too weak to
manage the process effectively.

9. In addition, environmentalists point out that many of
the mainland investors who have purchased land on Isabella
with expectations that tourism services will be expanded are
politically well-connected and can influence the policy-
making process to undermine effective control of the local,
small-scale tourism projects that the workshop is promoting.
This is consistent with ongoing conservationists' fears that
once again, plans to develop local economic alternatives not
only will damage the delicate environmental balance on the
islands, they also will end up benefiting large, mainland-
based interests and bypass entirely the population that the
plans were intended to help.

10. Participants at the November 10-12 workshop sought to
address some of these concerns. For example, they discussed
oversight plans to limit big boat access to Puerto Villamil,
noting that the Galapagos National Park (GNP)has the final
say on itinerary changes for boats. With respect to the
airport, they point out that the infrastructure project only
focuses on the terminal building, not runway expansion.


11. The goal of sustainable economic development through
tourism on Isabella will be difficult to attain. The
mainland tourism sector will use its political and economic
power to take full advantage of the situation. In addition,
the conservationist sector historically has had little
engagement with the local municipalities, the fishermen or
the mainland tourism sector, making productive dialogue
difficult. Moreover, weak institutions undermine the GOE's
ability to take the lead on development in the Galapagos,
allowing for unilateral decisions by those with economic and
political clout. Finally, there is an inherent
contradiction in all development plans for Galapagos. While
improving the lives of residents of the islands must be at
the core of any such plans, doing so will create even
greater incentives for immigration, the most serious threat
to the fragile ecosystems.


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