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Metropolitan Touring: The first steps to develop an Ecotourism model in the Galapagos Islands

From the onset of 1968, the visionary leaders of Metropolitan Touring started with their visits of inspection to Galapagos, with the dream, for many quite “crazy” in those days, to establish a permanent, international-type tourism operation in the Archipelago. Enduring the actual “adventures” which involved getting to the islands in those days, they arrived and, with a mix of common sense and “good feelings”, they searched for contact with the main officials of the then just fledging Institutions in the Islands: the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation, to receive from them technical and reliable information, as well as sound advice, about the feasibility of their project. They were lucky to find an open attitude from some of the National Park’s pioneers of conservation, among them, Juan Black, already deceased, and Pepe Villa. They also met with the Charles Darwin Research Station’s Director, the English scientist Dr. Roger Perry, all of whom listened to the proposal with attention and decided to support it under the non-negotiable condition that, if the operation became a reality, it should be totally regulated, within a wide frame of strict rules of behavior for the visitors and the operators and their personnel, to prevent from causing negative impacts on the fragile ecosystems of the Islands.

The next step was to make contact with long-time residents of the islands, Ecuadorian and foreigners, who had established in Galapagos since many years.  By then, some occasional and informal visits, which could be considered as “touristic”, as well as scientific expeditions were taking place, and the means of transportation were precisely the small private vessels of some of these residents.  Hence, they met Forrest Nelson, Jimmy Perez, the Angermeyer brothers and several more.  With all of them, they developed a sincere and lasting friendship.  They facilitated some of the field trips to several islands, from the closest to the most remote ones. With them, they discovered that the unique, prehistoric and near-extraterrestrial looking world they were admiring, in addition to be a wonder and a huge tourism attraction, was also extremely vulnerable.  The scientists from the Darwin Station and the conservation officials of the National Park did not have to exert much effort to convince the continental entrepreneurs, that a tourism operation in the islands did require a totally special management

The field trips to the most outstanding locations of the Archipelago and the subsequent long hours of meetings in Puerto Ayora, would give birth to specific measures. While some of the Company’s main executives searched around the world for an appropriate vessel to buy or lease, to cruise the islands with some 50 passengers and international standards of safety and comfort, as demanded by the travel markets and a gigantic logistic operation was being planned to make the dream come true; another team of Metropolitan Touring began to devise, with the National Park’s officials, the Charles Darwin Station’s staff and a local council of “wise men” of the island’s residents, which would be the pillars to guarantee an operation that would not affect the special characteristics of the Archipelago.  Thus, the first measures began to emerge: to identify the visitors sites which would be opened for the tourists, so that they would only go to predetermined locations and not land just about anywhere they could find interesting.  To identify these locations, simple but efficient exercises were made to check each place’s natural variables such as fauna, flora, geological features, ground status, ocean and climate conditions, etc. The following step involved another key decision: each designated site would have a marked trail, to allow the visitors close and comfortable viewing of the fantastic fauna and flora of the islands, but strictly from within limited spaces, to avoid that they may walk freely all over the place. Another pillar was being set, to enforce a practical way to keep “minimum impact” conditions, by sparing a less than 1% of the island or location’s surface, for the visitors’ trails, thus freeing more than 99% of the islands to be kept totally intact and to ensure the long-term preservation of the unique ecosystems.

Next on the agenda was the necessity to develop, “arbitrarily” at first, and soon endorsed by the National Park as Norms of Obligatory compliance, a set of “Rules for Visitors”, which comprised more elements of what would later be considered a real “Model”, at world-scale.  These norms included (and still do, after 44 years, some of them upgraded or modified later), the following: the tourists must remain exclusively on the designated and marked trails, always accompanied by an officially trained and Licensed Naturalist Guide; visitors may not touch or disturb, in any way, the animals or flora of the islands; no elements of the natural habitats may be removed, whether small pieces of rocks, coral pebbles, shells, snails of even feathers found on trails or beaches; everything must remain untouched.  From the first day of operation, in December of 1969, the visitors were provided with the so called “Conservation Bags”, especially designed to place on them all kinds of trash or waste materials, to avoid that the islands become contaminated with litter that might cause catastrophic effects on the local ecosystems. These measures have allowed that, decades later, the ample majority of the visitors’ sites still remain, to a large extent, intact and as pristine as before, with most of the animal species still displaying that amazing lack of fear, whether birds, tortoises, iguanas or marine mammals like the playful “Galapagos sea lions”. 

A fundamental piece of the special system that was then designed was the topic of Guides. At first, it was decided that the tourists which visited any particular location should be divided into groups of maximum 25 persons and be accompanied each one by a licensed Naturalist Guide, duly trained and certified by the National Park.  The number of visitors per group and guide has been progressively reduced to a current maximum of 12 passengers each. Simultaneously, the profiles of would-be Naturalist Guides were identified, around elements such as bilingual or multilingual proficiency; advanced, middle or even basic knowledge of Natural Sciences; knowledge about management of Protected Areas; a truly conservation-oriented spirit and attitude and strong communications, public relations and leadership skills. This led to the implementation of the Special Naturalist Guides Training Courses, which, from the start, counted with the support and participation of resident or visiting scientists of the Darwin Station, specialists on birds, mammals, reptiles, geology, marine biology, oceanography, botany and many other topics, related with the Islands’ nature.  Also involved were (and still are), the National Park specialists on Natural Resources and Protected Areas Management; Conservation Programs; Environmental Legislation, etc.

To complete the task, a special Itineraries System was devised and placed in effect shortly after the start of the regular operations, which have grown largely over the years.  However, the primary bases for the itineraries’ system were also set forth during the time of opening-up not just a tourism operation, but establishing a tourism management model on a protected area.  It was during the first half of the 1970’s, when the conservation and environmental language, as well as the naming of some tourism modalities, saw the birth of the word “Ecotourism”.  For many, the cradle of this denomination was the Management Model which many tourists and experts had seen and experienced during the first years of organized and responsible tourism being initiated in Galapagos, a model which was replicated as a good example in other natural areas of other countries and continents and became one of the most respected and popular modalities of tourism around the world, the nowadays well-known Ecotourism, highly demanded on the international travel markets.

During this initial voyage of discovery, which marked a turning point for the history of Galapagos, the ideas, the minds and creative spirit of the Metropolitan Touring people had a significant role, recognized by the History of Tourism in Ecuador and Galapagos, as co-sponsors of a World Model of Responsible Tourism and a firm allied of Conservation.


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We will be running lots of contests to celebrate our 60th anniversary throughout the coming months. How about a 60-second video contest? A 600-word blog competition? Or a 60-character tweet contest on Twitter?! That’s all in the pipeline, and there will be our usual amazing prizes...