The Galapagos Islands have long been considered to be the epitome of nature travel. With their abundance of wildlife and flora, a lot of which is indigenous to the islands themselves, it is easy to see why the Galapagos Islands are a dream destination for those who adore animals and take a keen interest in both fauna and flora.
For a long time, for many people, Galapagos tours were just that – a dream. Due to the islands’ location off the coast of Ecuador, they were not the easiest – and certainly not the cheapest – place to reach, especially for western travellers. However, this seems to have changed drastically if tourist numbers are anything to go by.
Huge Number of American Visitors on Galapagos Tours
The number of tourists making their way to the Galapagos Islands has been increasing exponentially over the past decade or so. Between the years 2006 and 2017, numbers increased from approximately 161,000 to over 225,000, an increase of 39%. Within that same period, the number of visitors taking part in land-based tours increased from approximately 79,000 to 152,000, a staggering 92% increase, whereas cruise-based tours actually decreased, dropping 11% from 82,000 to 73,000. In 2018, visitor numbers reached more than 275,000 representing an overall increase of 14% from the previous year. It is estimated that, on average, tourism in the Galapagos Islands is increasing by 6.71% every year.
According to statistics for 2018, the largest percentage of tourists visiting the Galapagos Islands were from Ecuador, accounting for 38% of all visitors. However, American citizens were not far behind them. Visitors from the United States were the second biggest market, with 28% of all travellers being American.
Why Have Galapagos Tours Become So Popular With American Tourists?
There are possibly a number of reasons why Galapagos tours have become increasingly popular with American tourists. The main reason is that despite Galapagos tours still being relatively expensive when compared with tours in other countries, combined with the fact that most citizens in western countries have more disposable income than they did in previous decades, travel to the Galapagos Islands has become much more affordable than it was in the past. Gone are the days when only the richest of people could afford to spend their vacations in the Galapagos Islands. Nowadays, there are a multitude of packages to choose from, from those who wish to be frugal with their budget to those who have lots of money to spend on more luxurious cruises and additional activities.
The Variety of Galapagos Tours Appeals to American Tourists
American tourists like to have a lot of choices when it comes to their vacations, making the Galapagos Islands a fantastic option. If visitors are opting for a ship-based cruise, they have plenty to choose from. Galapagos tours offer a wide variety of boats and vessels to choose from, with different boat classifications based on pricing and comfort. They will also find a wide selection of boat designs, including big vessel ships, catamarans and small sailboats.
Ship-based Galapagos tours fall into four categories: budget class; mid-range class; first-class; and luxury class. While the budget class vessels offer smaller cabins and shared facilities among a maximum of approximately 16 passengers, the luxury class cruise liners range in capacity from 40 to 100 guests, who will stay in their own spacious cabin, possibly with private balcony, be served gourmet dishes for every meal and also have access to many facilities and amenities, such as a spa and jacuzzi. Prices range exceptionally widely, from approximately $900 for a five-day cruise on the most basic of budget class vessels to thousands of dollars for the same trip aboard a luxury vessel. The great thing about all the classes is that regardless of what visitors pay, they will still be able to see the Galapagos Islands in all their glory. They all visit the same islands and see the same wonderful plethora of wildlife, flora and landscapes, so American tourists who are booking Galapagos tours do not need to feel they are missing out just because they are on a lesser class of vessel.
But as statistics show, tourists, American ones among them, are not choosing ship-based Galapagos tours as much as they used to. The trend is now for land-based tours, and it could be said that the variety in these tours is greater than that of ship-based cruises. Land-based tours are perfect for those who do not fancy spending their vacation on a boat, those who suffer from seasickness and, even more, enticing for those on a budget, those who wish to save themselves even more money. Land-based tours are well known for being much, much cheaper than the ship-based ones, given that they require guests to stay on one of the islands in hotels. This option also gives travellers the opportunity to discover more of the islands than they could do so while staying on one of the cruises, which is attractive for many visitors to the Galapagos Islands. This also includes better access to activities such as scuba diving and snorkelling, and the chance to visit parts of the islands, such as the beaches, when most of the day-trippers and ship-based tourists have left after their visits.
Like with ship-based Galapagos tours, land-based tours come in a variety of options, from the basic to the luxurious, giving travellers the same amount of choice as they would if travelling by cruise. However, the great thing about the land-based tours is that as they only last one day, visitors are not bound by a specific day-by-day itinerary. When travelling on ship-based Galapagos tours, there is a specific itinerary that needs to be followed. But if travellers book land-based tours, they are free to book day tours as and when they wish. This gives visitors greater flexibility and more control over which parts of the Galapagos Islands they see.
Flight Prices Continue to Fall, Encouraging More Americans to Book
With flights to far-flung places being in high demand, it should come as no surprise that flight prices between the USA and Ecuador continue to fall each year. Of course, this largely depends on where one is flying from, but it is possible to purchase tickets for under $400 dollars for a return flight from some airports in the US to Quito. Although flights from Quito to the Galapagos Islands are still relatively expensive in comparison with other flights to top destinations around the world, they can still work out as good deals when considering the distance travelled.
This could go some way to explain why American tourists head to the Galapagos Islands in much greater numbers than European travellers. Obviously, there is the fact that flight times are much shorter than from Europe – although they are still fairly long – but there is the economic factor; it is much cheaper to reach Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands from the USA than it is from Europe.
The Islands’ Uniqueness Plays a Big Part in Americans Booking Galapagos Tours
The Galapagos Islands is one of the most unique places in the world. Here visitors can walk among some of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring wildlife which is so used to human interaction that many species have no issues with coming right up to visitors to say hello. It is also due to this steady human interaction over the years which makes the behaviour of the wildlife in the Galapagos Islands wildly different from the behaviour of the same or similar species back in the visitors’ home country. Nowhere else in the world can visitors snorkel among penguins, sea lions and sea turtles and have them swim beside you like you were another one of their species.
The Galapagos Islands are also home to some of the most unique species in the world that visitors cannot simply see anywhere else in the wild, such as the magnificent giant tortoise, the Galapagos sea lion, the Galapagos land iguana and the Galapagos hawk. Seeing these amazing species in their natural habitat rather than in zoos is a special experience, so it is no wonder that American tourists are making their way to the Galapagos Islands in their thousands.
Aside from the wildlife, the Galapagos Islands have so much to offer in terms of landscapes. High on the list of these wonderful landscapes are the pristine beaches which do not conform to the typical standard one may expect from other beaches in holiday destinations which have a lot of tourists; visitors should certainly not expect to find sun loungers, deck chairs and beach umbrellas. As tourism in the Galapagos Islands tries to steer clear of the mass kind you see in all the major tourist hotspots, the destination gives visitors a completely unique experience.
However, it is not all about beaches. The Galapagos Islands are known to have some of the most iconic landscapes in the world, such as that of Bartolome Island, a deserted island consisting of an extinct volcano with a variety of colourful volcanic formations. This island is home to the most distinctive landmark of the Galapagos Islands – Pinnacle Rock, which emerges from the sea like a shark’s tooth.
Why Book Galapagos Tours Rather Than Travelling Independently?
The easy answer to this question is that it is extremely difficult to do so. Although travelling independently in the Galapagos Islands is by no means impossible, those who choose to do so are restricted to the main islands of Santa Cruz and Isabela, with possibly a trip to San Cristobal included, although few independent activities are available here. Ferries do run between the islands, but only once a day. Visitors wishing to see the outer islands cannot do so when travelling independently; there simply is no public transportation to them. This is why many prefer to book Galapagos tours rather than travel independently; everything is included in the price, including transportation between the islands, and visitors get to see many more islands than they would if they had booked the trip themselves.
Also, booking Galapagos tours takes all the hassle out of the process. The difficulty in organising a Galapagos Islands trip independently can potentially put visitors off going; after all, surely the whole point of going on holiday is to relax, so who wants to spend a lot of their vacation time trying to sort out how to get to this island and how to arrange that activity? Booking Galapagos tours takes all of that stress out of the equation.
Saying that booking land-based Galapagos tours actually gives tourists the sense of travelling independently, even though they are booking arrange tours. Because land-based day trips give travellers the option of choosing their own accommodation and which trips they do, there is the idea of independence there, but with the added bonus of having everything arranged for you when they do book a land-based tour.
But Can This Rise in Galapagos Tours Have a Negative Impact on the Islands?
Obviously, the ever-increasing rise in tourism to the Galapagos Islands has sparked worry that the huge numbers who are now visiting will have a negative effect on the islands’ ecosystem and environment, especially given the fact that land-based tourism has surpassed ship-based tours. There are a number of issues which the Galapagos Islands face, including pollution, deforestation and the introduction of invasive species, along with the effects of climate change. What the majority of experts, and indeed those just passionate about the natural world, are concerned about is that the rise in land-based Galapagos tours and the rate of growth it is proceeding at is unsustainable and may cause irreversible damage to the islands’ ecosystems and have a catastrophic effect on the destination’s famous wildlife. It is estimated that within 35 years the Galapagos Islands will be receiving over one million tourists per year. The issue with land-based tourism is that currently it is not regulated in the same way as ship-based tours, although if tourist numbers keep increasing, this will possibly change.
As the first-ever UNESCO World Heritage Site, protecting and preserving the Galapagos Islands is extremely important. However, this does not mean that tourism should be stopped. In fact, this could have an even more detrimental effect on the islands; tourism is an integral part of the islands’ economy. As long as travellers to the Galapagos Islands visit responsibly and ethically, then this increased rise in tourism could not necessarily have a huge impact on the islands’ ecosystems.
How Can Visitors Ensure That They Are Travelling Responsibly When Booking Galapagos Tours?
When booking ship-based Galapagos tours, it is important that visitors check that the tour operator they wish to travel with is ethical in their practices. All boats operating in the Galapagos Islands need to endure a rigorous process to be approved to sail between the islands and also need to follow strict regulations on visitor numbers, day and time of visits to the islands, and even the sites visited to make sure that the ecosystem is affected as little as possible. When visitors are in the national park itself, tour guides are required to make sure visitors follow the rules of the park, which include not feeding or touching the fauna, keeping at least a two-metre distance from wildlife, taking pictures without flash, and keeping to marked trails. A fairly new regulation that has been brought in in recent years is the restriction of the use of single-use plastics in the Galapagos region, including plastic straws, plastic bags and plastic bottles. When booking Galapagos tours, travellers need to research the company thoroughly and choose one which follows all the regulations so they can be sure they are contributing to the protection of the Galapagos Islands.
When it comes to land-based Galapagos tours, which are not regulated in the same way as ship-based, visitors need to take extra care that they are helping contribute to the protection of the islands. This means only booking day tours that are led by a registered guide which only take visitors to the protected areas of the national park and not off the beaten track. Those who visit the islands with the intention of the camping must only do so in the authorised areas and must confirm their arrival and desire to camp at least two days before they arrive.
For all visitors, either ship- or land-based, the motto of the national park is ‘Leave No Trace’. When visitors leave a site, it must look exactly how it did before they arrived, meaning all rubbish must be taken and either disposed of or recycled. In addition to this, all smoking and campfires are strictly banned in the national park.
Booking Galapagos Tours Leads to the Trip of a Lifetime
The Galapagos Islands really do offer the once in a lifetime trip, which is possibly the main reason why so many Americans are booking Galapagos tours. With such an amazing array of wildlife, plant life and landscapes which for the most part visitors can only see in the Galapagos Islands, it is no wonder that so many Americans choose the islands for their vacation. And with Galapagos tours offering excellent value for money, the trend to head to the Galapagos Islands seems set to continue.