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The Holbrook Insider

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Galápagos by Land or Cruise: an Insider’s Perspective on Economy and Ecology

The dilemma of “land vs. cruise” is a decision that every Galápagos traveler must face. In recent years, land-based programs are becoming more and more prevalent – but the trend isn’t just about providing a more cost-effective alternative to cruises. Our post sheds light on the larger issues associated with the increase in Galápagos land options, and why they’re part of an important ecological and economic discussion for travel providers and planners alike.

The rise of land-based programs

In the past, Galápagos tourism both originated and developed with boat programs, to an extent in which the two phrases were nearly synonymous. “Everything grew with the cruises,” says Pelin Karaca, Vice President of Program Development at Holbrook Travel. “There were many locations in the islands that were only accessible by boat, so cruises were the best way to see them.” 

Today, cruises still provide the same opportunity to visit the islands easily. But in recent years, land-based programs have grown in number and popularity. Like with many circumstances in the Galápagos, this was the result of resources: supply and demand. There was simply a need to expand tourism on the islands due to interest and revenue – and subsequently an opportunity to expand the positive impact to Galápagos residents. Land-based options were therefore developed as a viable way to engage local communities with tourism, and provide increased access to the associated economic benefits.

Since then, land-based tourism has grown exponentially: the International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) reports that from 2007 to 2015, the number of visitors participating in land-based tours increased by 77%. As cruise programs experienced little change during the same time period, this increase of land programs is a considerable factor in the 39% boost in visitor arrivals the islands experienced from 2007 to 2015.

Land vs. cruise: choosing your trip

When it comes to choosing a land or cruise program, however, it all depends on your priorities. Every Galápagos experience, land or cruise, is designed to focus on the unique wildlife and natural history of the archipelago. Many differences between the options are simply a matter of logistics. A clear benefit of a cruise is the built-in ability to cover more territory in a shorter amount of time. Transfers happen at the end of the day and overnight while passengers are sleeping, whereas a land program involves more time transferring during the days.

But a land program offers more flexibility, and is therefore more customizable for a travel planner. Where a cruise adheres to a strict schedule, a land program can accommodate custom adaptations for different interests, like an extended visit to a local organization, or even a volunteer opportunity. There’s also the added benefit of spending more time among the locals. “On a boat tour, you’re never going to be able to explore in the evening,” Karaca advises. “But on a land-based program, you have an opportunity to get out of your hotel, interact more with the locals, and learn about daily life on the islands.”

Then, of course, there’s the idea that land programs are less expensive than cruise programs – but that might be misleading. Depending on what you are doing, a land program may or may not be less expensive.  Because of the tourism expansion in Galápagos, land-based opportunities are becoming available across every price point. Hotel options are emerging in the luxury market, and while there are certainly more budget-friendly choices, the expectation of “dirt cheap” accommodations is an increasing misconception. Plus, land-based travelers who want to venture to the other islands still require boat transfers, which can add up. So with these costs in addition to meal and room rates, it is possible in some cases for a land program to be comparable in price to a cruise program.

Balancing economy and ecology

Now that land-based tourism has opened more opportunity on the islands, both travelers and locals are reaping positive results. But there’s another important outcome to consider: are the islands themselves benefiting? Expanded traveler footprint in the Galápagos raises questions of environmental impact, which is particularly significant for local organizations as well as the conscientious traveler. “Conservation is a very tricky subject when it comes to human involvement,” Karaca says. “With any natural place that is worth protecting, you’re going to have this issue with carrying capacity, conservation, and finding the right method.”

The Galápagos in particular pose a sensitive situation, due to the risk of invasive species threatening the local flora and fauna and affecting the fragile ecosystem. An increase in human traffic on the islands also increases the chances that invasive species could be introduced, and potentially wreak havoc on a delicate natural balance. Extinction is a realistic concern, unfortunately.

But while tourism represents an undeniable challenge in the face of preservation, there are other factors at work, too. Issues like climate change are manifesting new disturbances in the environment, which affect both local and tourist presence alike. The travel industry is therefore in a position to get involved, and be proactive about conservation. IGTOA reinforces this responsibility of tourism to engage with positive environmental change, with its mission “to preserve the Galápagos Islands as a unique and priceless world.”

Ultimately, tourism’s involvement on both land and sea can play a positive role in the Galápagos ecosystems – with attention, diligence, and care. In fact, care is perhaps an invaluable impact that travel alone can impart. “If you go and see these places, if you learn about them, get to know them, and see certain species in their own environments, then you have more emotional attachment to the issue,” Karaca says. “There’s a reason to care about it and do something about it. But if you take tourism out of the conservation discussion, you are taking away that opportunity.”

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Photos by Reinier Munguia and Karen Straus