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Galapagos, safe from the covid but with tourism and science on hiatus

The pandemic drove humans out of the Galapagos paradise. Giant tortoises, iguanas and other species of this ecological sanctuary in the Pacific escaped the curiosity of tourists and scientists. An expensive tranquility for the inhabitants of the Ecuadorian archipelago.

“Only when I was in my mother’s belly have I spent so much time without going to the ocean!” Laments Pelayo Salinas, a biologist in Santa Cruz, one of the four inhabited islands of this natural heritage of humanity, 1,000 km from the coasts of Ecuador.

Vast volcanic territory of 234 islands, islets and rocks, with a population of just 30,000, the archipelago was strictly confined for four months last year, following the detection of covid-19 on the mainland in late February.

With more than 2,900 species, 25% endemic, “Galapagos for any biologist is Disneyland.”

But the pandemic “has changed our plans. We could not go to the countryside (…) we could not leave our homes just to go buy basic products once a week,” Salinas told AFP.

The 37-year-old Spaniard directs shark studies at the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), which takes its name from the English naturalist who developed his theory of evolution while traveling through the archipelago.

His role allowed him to stay, but dozens of foreign researchers and practitioners were repatriated, and a hundred programs were on hiatus.

“In the scientific (field), we had a direct impact: 60% of the research activities planned for 2020 were suspended,” says Danny Rueda, director of the Galapagos National Park (PNG), which monitors 97% of the lands of the archipelago and one of the largest marine reserves on the planet, with a total of 799,540 hectares.

– Frozen Scientific Research –

Thanks to more than 300 park rangers, the PNG maintained its “research activity (…), monitoring of sharks, of sea turtle nesting sites, of conservation (…) of iguanas, wolves, etc.”.

But “it was not authorized to move to other islands”, underlines the person in charge of the park, in which there are 21 volcanoes, 13 active, including Wolf, which reaches 1,707 meters.

The PNG vessels were then mobilized to transport patients and tests. The archipelago registered about 1,380 cases of covid-19 and 16 deaths, against about 370,000 infections and more than 18,000 deaths throughout Ecuador.

But the coronavirus buried tourism, which generates 85% of the local economy, a blow to the livelihood of many inhabitants.

“The impact with this issue of the covid was very hard (…) The closure was immediate, from one day to the next. It did not give us the opportunity to prepare at all,” deplores Juan Carlos Moncayo, 50, owner of Macarron’s Scuba Diver, a diving center that employed six people, who were unemployed for several months.

Galapagos reopened to the public in July, but only about 6,000 travelers are arriving per month, up from 23,000 previously, according to official figures.

Moncayo’s company did not regain its cruising speed. Sometimes you go out to sea with just two clients, when you need five to be profitable, at a minimum of $ 160 per person.

– 75% fewer tourists –

Some centers were unable to reopen due to lack of money to renew the necessary licenses. “Of the 12 that we are, we are operating six,” adds the diving instructor.

Although visitors must present a negative PCR test, “everything changed because you go to work with some fear,” he emphasizes.

Many shops closed their doors, hotels and restaurants were deserted.

The tourism sector stopped receiving about 850 million dollars of income between March 2020 and March 2021, estimates the Galapagos Chamber of Tourism (Capturgal).

“With the pandemic, the closure of airports, travel restrictions (…), we had an impressive decrease in tourist flows (…), of more or less 75%” compared to more than 271,000 2019, confirms Mónica Páez, representative of the ministry.

The crisis leaves a lesson: the need to promote “tourism (…) more focused on the axes of sustainability (…) It is a responsibility that we have (towards) the world as a natural heritage of humanity,” he clarifies .

Beyond environmental awareness, the confinement had an unprecedented positive effect for science, as the experts had time to write and publish the results of their research.

“It allowed us to breathe, organize and analyze the data that we had been accumulating,” explains Paola Lahuatte, 30, another CDF biologist who studies Philornis downsi, an invasive fly that threatens 18 species of birds whose nests it infests.

For the complete reactivation of tourism, Galapagos is betting on vaccinating all adults by the end of May, to become, according to the government, “the first archipelago in Latin America” ​​free of covid-19.

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