How a Massive Debt-for-Nature Deal Will Help Protect the Galápagos

These additional conservation funds come as UNESCO warns of unsustainable tourism growth in the Ecuadorian archipelago.

Several blue-footed boobies sitting on rocks in Galapagos with the sea in the background

Is there a sustainable path forward for Galápagos tourism?

Courtesy of Bjarn Bronsveld/Unsplash

On a July evening in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, I wade in the waves with a pink flamingo for as long as I can, watching for hatchlings from sea turtle eggs buried deep in their nests on shore. The national park that makes up 97 percent of this remote Pacific archipelago closes to all human activity at 6 p.m., and my guide, Jhosellyn Aguas, a native of the region who doubles as a park ranger, makes sure we’re out of there on time.

I book it back to my Hurtigruten expedition ship, narrowly avoiding an apathetic cold-blooded marine iguana on the way. Lizards are everywhere here, with the exception of the critically endangered endemic pink land iguana, whose hatchlings and juveniles were spotted for the first time ever in December 2022 right on the equatorial line at Galapágos’s highest peak, Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. Named one of the most important new biological discoveries of this century, scientists now plan to risk setting up camp to study them on the slopes of the volcano, which erupted as recently as last year.

Species from kelp and coral reefs to geckos and a giant tortoise are being unearthed all the time, living and adapting to each other here 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in one of one of the world’s largest and most protected ecosystems. In 2020 alone, there were 30 new animals discovered— “and it probably would have been more, but they ran out of money,” says my Hurtigruten expedition leader Ramiro Tomala, explaining that enforcing regulations in the national park has historically left little time and money for much else.

Despite a 1998 law limiting fishing and over-exploitation, the number of visitors at what was the original UNESCO World Heritage site has grown since 2010 by almost 60 percent to 268,000. With new flights being added, the International Galápagos Tour Operators Association now projects 1 million visitors annually by 2041. The estimated increase in visitation represents “unsustainable growth,” a 2023 UNESCO report warns, that will lead to harmful pollution and more invasive species. Encouraging Ecuador to slow the pace of growth to hold onto the Galápagos’s unique remaining species, in August the International Galápagos Tour Operators Association proposed limiting land-based visitors, too.

That’s because while Hurtigruten’s lovely carbon-neutral Santa Cruz II, like all Galápagos expedition ships, is required by the national park to limit passengers to under 100, there are far fewer restrictions on the Galápagos’s 3 percent of habitable land, home to 310 registered lodging accommodations with more luxury hotels in the works—one near an iguana nesting area. Meanwhile, Galápagos National Park authorities have heightened biosecurity measures to protect from the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu because a red-footed boobie and two endemic magnificent frigate birds died from the virus in September, after increased susceptibility from this year’s El Niño conditions and rising sea temperatures from the slowing of the Humboldt current.

Overhead view of an iguana in the sand

A new debt-for-nature deal promises to slow tourism growth in the Galápagos, growth that threatens the many species that call the islands home.

Courtesy of Rafael Idrovo Espinoza/Unsplash

Ecuador is paying back a mountain of debt with conservation efforts

The good news is that as one the world’s most biodiverse countries, Ecuador is finding innovative ways to protect its national park while also acknowledging the need for economic growth. One recent game-changing example played out this past May when the country swapped its mountain of debt for an 18.5-year commitment to pay it back through continued conservation in the largest debt-for-nature deal in history.

How it works: Ecuador (with the help of Credit Suisse) was able to buy back $1.6 billion of the debt it had accrued at just 40 cents on the dollar (or 60 percent off), with the stipulation that the country dedicate $12 million a year to conservation in the Galápagos over the course of the next 18.5 years.

Through the largest debt-for-nature deal since the first was established in Bolivia in 1987 (double the size of Belize’s in 2021), Ecuador now vows to better prioritize wildlife protection, strengthen climate resilience, and increase patrolling to ensure the integrity of key ecosystems that are vital to critically endangered migratory species. That goes both for the Galápagos National Park and an additional 23,000 square miles of ocean highway through Colombia and Panama to Costa Rican protected waters, an area formed last year into the Hermandad Marine Reserve.

The new measures, which also dedicate funds to scientific research, environmental education, sustainable tourism, and local development, came in response to Ecuador’s crackdown on illegal fishing, after the country was criticized by the European Union for its lack of enforcement.

Now, with more funds supporting wildlife conservation and sustainable tourism development, and the recent local and international push to cap land-based visitation, the deal puts pressure on local authorities to further limit visitation in the Galápagos.

“With the debt-for-nature operation, not only was $1.1 billion saved in debt for Ecuador, but we also received $450 million for the conservation of the Galápagos Islands, which will allow us to work in a blue economy, promote climate resilience, and support sustainable fishing,” says Gustavo Manrique Miranda, Ecuador’s minister of foreign affairs and human mobility.

Across the globe, debt-for-nature deals are becoming an increasingly attractive solution for the more than half of developing countries in danger of defaulting on their debt. The Galápagos National Park will maintain conservation and tourism decision-making authority, while the new marine reserve will be patrolled by the Ecuadorian Navy.

“Scientists come and go and we have the permanent Charles Darwin Research Station dedicated to the Galápagos, but we’re busy making sure people don’t create more problems, so there’s very little time left for discovery,” says Tomala about the challenges of managing more land-based tourists since COVID. Now though, despite ongoing land-crowding issues and past overfishing, the progressive debt swap beefs up protection to ensure that the archipelago that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution remains one of the most pristine places anywhere—so scientists can continue to uncover new discoveries, like the last 211 pink land iguanas on the planet, now crawling along the slopes of Wolf Volcano.

How to visit: Hurtigruten Expeditions, one of the most sustainably operated cruise lines in the world, is currently offering a new combined Western Loop and Northern Loop expedition. To see it all, book the full 11-day itinerary on the carbon-neutral, newly refurbished MS Santa Cruz II. Through a partnership, Hurtigruten relies on the local expertise of Metropolitan Touring, which pioneered Galápagos expedition cruises 70 years ago.

Travel on to another biodiversity hot spot at Mashpi Lodge: Where the rain forest meets the cloud forest, one of the most threatened tropical forests on the planet, Ecuador’s Chocó region, is now protected from mining thanks to an August referendum vote. Lush and super luxurious, Mashpi Lodge is a 2,500-acre private reserve perched 3,117 feet above sea level. (To get to this remote northwest corner of Quito’s Metropolitan District, coordinate transportation from the Galápagos with Hurtigruten.)

The other half of Mashpi still belongs to former mayor of Quito, Roque Sevilla, who purchased the first plot in 2001 to protect the land after years of deforestation and exploitation for gold mining, coming full circle. You’ll take guided walks through majestic waterfalls to see the endemic Mashpi frog and magnolia tree, and watch some of 400 species of birds, many discovered by on-site biologists. Want views for miles? Take a ride on the sky bike along a cable over the resort’s canopy cover, overlooking what’s now among only 2 percent of the original Chocó-Andean forest that remains intact.

Anna Fiorentino is a storyteller focused on outdoors, adventure, and travel. Her work has appeared in AFAR, National Geographic, National Geographic Travel, Outside, BBC Travel, Boston Globe Magazine, and other publications.
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