As recently as 1985, fewer than 18,000 people visited the Galápagos each year. By 2011, 90-minute flights from the mainland had put the remote islands within easy reach, and the number of annual visitors climbed to 185,000.
All those eager nature lovers could be a force for good—or for ruin. The vast majority of the islands’ 3,093 square miles, as well as all the sea within 40 nautical miles of the archipelago’s outer coasts, fall within Galápagos National Park . To protect the ecosystem, the natural preserve has set strict rules for visitors and residents and has enlisted naturalist guides as partners.
In a boon to locals and guests alike, conservationists and national park officials have begun encouraging visitors to spend more time on the ground, too. Tourism in the Galápagos had been mostly boat based—one- or two-week trips that shuttled visitors from island to island without ever sending them into San Cristóbal. Over the past 20 years, however, the trend has been for travelers to leave the boats and instead join ecologically responsible land-based tours that put guests up in hotels and arrange for their meals at restaurants.
Local residents trained by scientists act as naturalists. The park staff has identified 145 points of interest on land and water that may only be visited in the company of a certified guide highly versed in the natural history of the particular island where they are found.
Pump more tourism money into the islands’ economy, the rationale goes, and locals will have more stake in protecting what the tourists are coming to see. By all accounts the new strategy
seems to be working, giving visitors a chance to sample the culture of the islands as well as the natural world.
The website of the nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy  offers tips on what to pack, when to go, and what visitors are likely to see each season. It also provides links to local tour outfits and businesses certified by the government’s Galápagos Tourism Quality Pilot Project, which sets high standards in food preparation and safety, energy efficiency, water and sewer management, and customer service.
Galápagos Wildlife  A journalist discovers that the islands teem with friendly animals unlike anywhere else on earth.
Photography courtesy of David Adam Kess/Alvaro Sevilla Design/Wikipedia
This article was first published in September 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.