By Sofia Perez
The Galapagos Islands are many things to many people: a world-renowned national park and marine reserve, the birthplace of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, home to species found nowhere else on Earth and a unique tourist destination.
As such, this stunning but delicate ecosystem, located approximately 600 miles west of Ecuador, faces its share of threats – from fishermen, from invader species and, some say, from tourists.
Tourism in the area is growing rapidly. Approximately 60,000 visitors toured the islands last year, up from 46,000 in 1994. In an effort to harness the power of well-managed tourism as a conservation tool, the Rainforest Alliance and partner group Conservación y Desarrollo (C&D) in Ecuador developed the SmartVoyager certification program to give a green seal of approval to tour boats that tread lightly on the Galapagos Archipelago.
After nearly two years of research and improvements, five of the 20 large tour vessels that travel in the area have been evaluated and certified as eco-friendly and socially responsible by SmartVoyager in December 2000.
The certifications were awarded to vessels owned by two Ecuadorian companies: the Galapagos Explorer II, a boat owned by Canodros S.A., and Ecoventura S.A.’s M/Y Eric, M/Y Flamingo, M/Y Letty and M/V Corinthian.
“Now, for the first time, a green seal acknowledges our efforts and underscores their importance,” says Santiago Dunn, owner of Ecoventura.
The program is based on a definition of ecotourism that combines elements of nature conservation, respect for local cultures, local community participation and benefits, and education-a description that is generally accepted by organizations such as the International Ecotourism Society.
Building on this definition, some overarching principles were articulated, and these principles, in turn, led to specific certification criteria. Working with marine engineers, ship captains, scientists, conservationists, tour operators and others, C&D developed standards for the maintenance and operation of tour boats.
Additionally, the program has been guided by input from an international advisory committee comprising some of the world’s leading tourism experts.SmartVoyager is voluntary. Tour companies that wish to participate invite a team of specialists aboard their boats to evaluate the vessels according to the guidelines.
Once an operator brings a boat into compliance with the standards, the craft is certified and allowed to display the SmartVoyager seal of approval. Each boat is revisited and recertified annually.
Compliance with the standards has resulted in tangible changes on certified boats. For example, both Canodros and Ecoventura have adopted or begun to adopt these policies:
- Using lead-free and TBT-free paint on certified boats. Using only biodegradable soaps, detergents and shampoo onboard.
- Implementing a waste disposal system including recycling bins.
- Producing fresh water by utilizing a desalinization plant, a method that purifies water with ozone and eliminates chlorine discharge into the ocean.
- Treating black and gray wastewater under aerobic decomposition. (The residual water is filtered and purified with ozone before being discharged in open waters.)
- Installing light bulbs that do not attract insects to prevent the introduction of non-native species to the islands
- Replacing two-stroke outboard motors on dinghies with four-stroke engines that are 70 percent quieter, emit virtually no fumes and use 50 percent less fuel.
- Ensuring sanitary conditions – as well as good quality of life – for all of their crew members
“We welcome the certification process,” said Canodros President Andre Barona. “Not only as a confirmation of having made the proper choices but also a light-shedding experience of where our efforts could be focused.
“Like the unique Galapagos flora and fauna studied by Darwin, SmartVoyager’s standards continue to evolve. For example, all the standards involving refueling, type of fuel and contingency plans and training for oil spills underwent a review after a supply tanker ran aground in the Galapagos and spilled its cargo in the pristine waters.
Prior to the spill, supply and service vessels were not covered by SmartVoyager guidelines, but the spill taught hard lessons about the need for expanding certification programs and improving government regulations to involve land-based facilities and supply lines.
The oil spill also proved that tour operators with a vested interest in the integrity of an ecosystem can serve as powerful conservation allies, particularly in times of need.
After the oil spill, Ecoventura donated $6,000 to Galapagos National Park Service as well as the use of a certified vessel, M/Y Flamingo, to the Charles Darwin Research Station to monitor the oil spill.
Similarly, Canodros donated $10,000 to relief efforts, provided the first spill recovery-and-containment materials and stationed one of its boats at the spill site to assist in the cleanup.
“We promote significant changes in the way the tourism industry interacts with ecosystems and people,” says Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Tourism Program Manager Ronald Sanabria, “but we also encourage all the pertinent players to work with us on a variety of conservation efforts that complement and fortify the achievements of SmartVoyager.”
Reprinted with permission from The International Ecotourism Society
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