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Tourism slowly comes back to Ecuador’s Galapagos islands

Published on August 30, 2021

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80% of its population depends on the industry that the coronavirus pandemic destroyed. Now the most famous islands in the world seem to be recovering, but it will not be easy.

The ship Santa Cruz II finally went on a cruise through the Galapagos Islands on July 5, 2021, after 15 months of being anchored in the port of Guayaquil, more than a thousand kilometers from the island coasts.

“We warned the passengers that it was our first trip and we apologized if something did not go well, but it was as if time had not passed,” says Christian Cuvi, Captain of the ship since 2015. Before, he would go on cruises around the islands every four weeks.

That had been their routine for 16 years, until March 2020, when due to confinement from the Covid-19 pandemic, travel stopped, most of the staff stayed at home and the main engine of the archipelago – tourism – stopped completely.

It was a paralysis that no one could prevent and that undid the best omens. Eduardo Brito, President of the Galapagos Chamber of Tourism, says that the abrupt closure of operations throughout the archipelago surprised them because everything indicated that 2020 was going to be a spectacular year for their sector. The reality was different: worldwide $4.5 trillion in tourist dollars have been lost.  On the islands, business declined 73% compared to 2019 and $436 million in revenue was lost.

At first, the islands’ tour operators and workers thought they would close for a month. Then for three. Afterwards, they thought it would be six months. However, as the days went by it was evident that they would have to wait much longer to reactivate. Today, 17 months later, that goal still seems far away.

The Santa Cruz II was the last of the three vessels of the Metropolitan Touring company that resumed its cruises.

“What moved me the most was seeing my people reunited,” said Cuvi, in ​​the ship’s restaurant as he finishes eating three different types of desserts (a privilege that only the captain has). Between bites, he proudly says that he returned to the Galapagos with an intact crew of approximately 60 people to the imposing white, blue and red vessel with capacity for 150 people between personnel and passengers.

Since last July, cruises to the islands to the east and west of the archipelago were resumed. Cuvi, the Captain who had spent too much time on land, returned to the high seas.

Tourism collapse affected all in Galapagos

But the pandemic didn’t just turn previously crowded ships into ghost ships. In March 2020, land-based tourism also fell to zero. Adriano Cabrera’s sugar mill on Santa Cruz Island lost all its visitors.

There, 81-year-old Cabrera —a resident of the island province for more than 50 years— sells products derived from sugar cane, one of the main crops in his native Piñas, a canton in the upper part of the continental province of El Oro. He offers panela, guarapo (a fermented sugarcane juice), cane liquor, coffee and chocolate. His visitors buy the products and witness the manufacturing process in which the cane is cut and processed, heated and then fermented.

Cabrera was one of the hundreds of businesses that suspended their activities due to the virus that has caused the death of 4 million people around the world – of those, more than 32,000 thousand in Ecuador and 10 in Galapagos, which is the only province in Ecuador (with its 25,000 inhabitants) that is already fully vaccinated against covid-19.

Businesses and workers had to find other means to support themselves

For 5 months the Galapagos National Park – the protected area in which 97% of the land area of ​​the province is located and the main natural attraction of the islands – was closed. Until the restart of activities – in August 2020 – the islands and their people fell into a spiral of losses.

They closed businesses. They laid off employees. At that crossroads was Priscila Guerrero, Administrative Manager of the El Manzanillo ranch, a family business in Santa Cruz, where you can visit endemic giant tortoises in their natural habitat.

“It was very painful because there were 12 families that depended directly on the tourism of the ranch,” says Guerrero while her brown eyes fill with tears that are lost under her mask. Her family became the 13th to lose their income when the business, which hse has run for 8 years, closed.

With businesses closed, without travelers or income, the inhabitants of the archipelago had to look for alternatives to survive. The El Manzanillo ranch did not work for a year and 3 months. During this period, Guerrero and her family sold chifles and cane liquor.

“With that we try a little to survive this season,” she says. The chifle business began because they had the machinery of the ranch restaurant that was not used: industrial kitchens, slicers, among others. Furthermore, bananas have always grown in that area.

“We started with a little to see how we were doing,” she says. They got the sanitary permits, bought covers, and fired up the stoves.

When the arrival of visitors stopped in March 2020, Adriano Cabrera, from the sugar mill in Santa Cruz, dedicated himself to selling liquor, which was in high demand in the town. Many bought this 50-percent alcoholic drink to boil it with sour orange and ginger because “they believed that this way they would avoid the virus,” says Cabrera, as he takes off the hat that has his name and the logo of his local to comb his short white hair.

In addition to his liquor, he also made small blocks of panela to sell for $2, instead of the $5 he normally charged. Between that and his savings, he had enough to cover his expenses, but he had to fire the two permanent employees he had at his premises.

Tourism is life for the majority of Galapagueños: 80% are directly and indirectly involved in this sector. One of the groups that most felt the absence of travelers was that of the naturalist guides of the Galapagos National Park who direct the tours of the islands.

Some, like Daniel Muñoz, reached agreements with the companies they worked for to give them loans. He, dressed in a khaki shirt, trousers and vest – the proverbial guide uniform – and with a long black train under a gray hat, says that the company with which he has an agreement gave him a loan that he paid in installments once he returned. to work. That, and what he earned working in his in-laws restaurant, allowed him to survive the months in which he could not work as a guide.

Those who worked as independents could not get to the same agreements as Muñoz. Many guides had to change their activities and use their savings.

Antonio Gallardo had to use the savings he had set aside to buy an apartment and supplement his income by working in agriculture and livestock on a farm owned by his parents in the upper part of Santa Cruz.

“That put up with me the year I didn’t work,” he says standing on the beach of Post Office Bay, on Floreana Island, while looking at the ship in the distance.

Sofía Darquea, another of the naturalist guides, says she used the savings she had and spent the time she couldn’t work with her family in Quito. They helped her cover her expenses. Although they have both now returned to lead tours, the black cloud of uncertainty has yet to fully dissipate.

For months, the situation of people who depended on tourism was extremely complicated.

“We were at an almost food crisis point,” says Eduardo Brito, President of the Galapagos Chamber of Tourism, from a table in the meeting area of ​​the Finch Bay hotel, on Santa Cruz Island. Some of the settlers resorted to bartering. Others gave what they could to help those who had the least.

Patricio Moreta, from the Union of Transporters of Galapagos, says that they organized brigades to bring the food and medicine that came from the government and private tourism companies to people who could not pick them up. Brito – with brown skin, gray hair, and square glasses – says that the arrival of supplies was momentous.

The province “was never prepared for something like this,” adds the 51-year-old member of the Chamber of Tourism. According to him, there were always obvious problems in the health services of the province. Because of Covid-19, he says, those shortcomings surfaced and the distance of more than a thousand kilometers from the continent seemed to multiply.

Tourism numbers are still low

Many things are different from how the crew of the Santa Cruz II remembered them from before the pandemic. The boat’s capacity was one of the most important.

“We were used to seeing the ship full,” says Cuvi as his gaze focuses on one of the empty tables in the dining room. Now, fewer voices are mixed in the corridors, the groups for expeditions on the islands have decreased and there are more empty rooms. The trips they have made so far have ranged from 50 to 65 people, much less than the 90 they had before.

The El Manzanillo ranch also reopened in mid-2021.

“It was complex, I was happy and at the same time afraid to know that we have to work in a pandemic,” says Guerrero, who proudly wears a brooch with the logo of her local, and not it is separated from her cell phone in case someone needs it. Like the Santa Cruz II, one of the main changes for the ranch is that it has less influx. Before, they received between 50 and 300 people daily. Guerrero says that currently they receive a group of 60 people about 4 or 5 times a week.

Since the reopening, most visitors have been Ecuadorians. Brito says that it is probably due to the offers and facilities that have been enabled for those who travel from the continent. For example, before they had to pay the more than $4,000 for a cruise. After the pandemic, a special rate of just over $2,000 was enabled for domestic travelers.

Priscila Guerrero says that many Ecuadorians have come to her ranch who took advantage of the discounts to get to know the islands. However, in the coming months those of other countries could increase. Sitting in one of the common spaces decorated with empty turtle shells, Guerrero says she already has other international reservations on the ranch for August and September.

Vaccination has helped islands reopen

Some of the first foreigners to arrive were from Russia. Ana Moya, the young and enthusiastic manager of the Finch Bay hotel in Santa Cruz, says that at the beginning of 2021, several tourists from that country who were already vaccinated against Covid-19 stayed there and took advantage of that security to travel.

When vaccines spread to other countries, the list of nationalities of those visiting the iconic archipelago expanded. This has allowed key markets to recover, such as the United States, which contributed 43% of visits from abroad.

Haley Reesinburg, Arash Keshmirian, Niousha Saghafi and Nicholas Johnson, a group of athletic friends from California in their thirties on their first visit to Ecuador, agree that they would not have made the trip without being vaccinated against Covid-19. Renee Sundstrom – short blonde hair, 56 years old and a native of Michigan, United States – also waited until she had two doses to fulfill the gift her mother asked for her 80 years: visiting the famous Galapagos. A year later, his mother was finally able to celebrate her 80 (although she has already turned 81) aboard the Santa Cruz II.

The vaccination in Ecuador also contributed to an increase in local tourism. On May 17, 2020, the government of then-President Lenín Moreno proudly announced that it had completed the vaccination of the island population.

Although there were little more than 25,000 people, who represented 0.14% of the total population of the country, it served so that more businesses were opened in this province and the reactivation continued to germinate.

“That gave the traveler more confidence, changed his behavior,” says Eduardo Brito. According to him, the turning point was evident after the vaccination figures were made public.

For some it was too late. Brito says that approximately 30% of the businesses that closed in March of last year will not reopen. Many others, he says, are struggling not to join that sad percentage.

Since August 2020, little by little, visitors have been returning to Galapagos. It has been gradual.

According to figures from its Chamber of Tourism, currently, the average growth is 17% per month. Of those arrivals, 70% will be on land and the other 30% on board a ship. However, due to the pandemic, the percentage that goes to the cruises does not represent a profit for many of the town’s merchants. The people on board, when they go ashore, cannot interact with the souvenir stalls, restaurants and daily tour agencies that have not been approved by the companies that manage their cruises. Venues such as those of Adriano Cabrera or Priscila Guerrero are among those authorized, but souvenirs from Rosa Chizaiza, in Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, no.

Chicaiza, a small woman with long black hair and dark skin dressed in a skirt that reaches to her heels, says that she has recovered her sales by only 30% and that one of the main causes is that the dozens of people who go to cruise ships can’t buy the themed t-shirts, keychains, and hats that she sells.

Carina Villavicencio, a Quevedeña who has lived on the islands for 17 years and has a grocery store in the port of Santa Cruz, says that her sales are not like they were before the pandemic, and not having boat tourism “affects her very much.”

To get the attention of people who pass through the port, Chicaiza put up posters promoting discounts, but says that even then she doesn’t manage to reach 50% of the sales she had before.

Eduardo Brito says that the decision not to allow tourists to interact with the town was made to avoid putting both parties at risk of contagion. They do not want an outbreak on a ship, which is a closed space, to stop the reactivation that has cost them so much.

“I don’t like that they don’t allow people to interact because that helps their economy to revive,” says Carlos Reyes, a Quito native who went on a cruise with his father, wife, and daughters. Brito says that this decision is in constant evaluation, but for the moment the measure will be maintained for security reasons.

Reopening meant enormous changes

Another drawback was discovering how to adapt activities, spaces, and processes to the reality of the pandemic. On board the Santa Cruz II, new protocols have been implemented that, on the high seas, acquire ritual airs.

Every morning before breakfast, the doctor makes the passengers line up – no matter how much the ship moves or how dizzy the passengers are – to take their temperature and oxygen saturation.

Other practices have been modified. Before, meals were served in large buffets, now there are three to four options for each meal that are chosen in advance.

Paper menus have also disappeared. Passengers access food selection, activity plan and other tour information with a QR code that is printed in various spaces on the ship. There is a positive change: Javier Yanze, chef of the ship, says that now half of the products they use are from merchants in the archipelago.

At the El Manzanillo ranch they also changed the buffet for à la carte dishes. Guerrero admits that some companies still ask that food be served this way, but that now the protocols are different. They do not allow passengers to touch food to reduce the risk of contagion.

Cleaning protocols have been intensified in tourist venues – such as the boat, the ranch, or the Finch Bay hotel – including ozone, alcohol or quaternary ammonium chambers. In addition, the time allocated to sanitize each space has increased and biosecurity measures are required for visitors and their staff.

Some activities of the Santa Cruz II were suspended. Paolo Rosania, the ship’s hotel manager, says that before the pandemic the cruise included an outdoor bar where passengers prepared their own cocktails, a sushi night and a cheese and wine tasting. Sitting at the ship’s bar in his impeccable white and blue uniform, Rossani says that until they find a way to do it while complying with biosecurity measures, these plans will remain canceled.

The efforts appear to have the desired effect of making passengers safe. Haley Reesinburg, Arash Keshmirian, Niousha Saghafi, Nicholas Johnson and Renee Sundstrom say that the biosecurity measures they have seen in Galapagos are much more severe than in the United States.

“Everyone wears the mask correctly,” says 28-year-old Haley Reesinburg in surprise. They have also been struck by the easy access to alcohol and disinfectant gel that have been transformed into the new decorations of the tables in the cabins, the dining room, the library, the bar, and other common spaces of the Santa Cruz II.

Islanders still wary about future

In the first 15 months of the pandemic there was a fundamental change for the crew of the ships that goes beyond capacity and activities. Cuvi says that as sailors they had the premise of knowing when they would embark and disembark. For more than 365 days many did not know when they would do it. Many people continue with that doubt.

Sofía Darquea says that she still has no set dates for her next guide jobs, so the uncertainty she has felt since March 2020 continues to deepen.

The gradual return of visitors to the El Manzanillo ranch allowed Guerrero to rehire 6 of the people she fired at the beginning of last year, who joined the three from the chiffon business.

She was unable to rehire the other employees she had because they left the islands. Now, she hires six additional people sporadically, on days when she has the most clients. However, you cannot hire them full time because you do not know if the flow of people will increase.

Cabrera is also trying to rehire the two employees he fired, both of whom have returned to their hometowns, Loja and Zamora. One of them, Cabrera says, does want to go back to the sugar mill, but Cabrera can’t secure a work contract for him yet.

“I want to wait to see if tourism is reactivated a little more,” he says while leaning with tense shoulders on his sugar cane crusher. Cabrera, like many other Galapagos residents, is concerned about the Delta variant, a SARS-CoV-2 mutation that produces Covid-19 that is much more contagious than others that have been identified so far. In August, several cases of the Delta variant were identified in the province.

To avoid an outbreak of this dangerous variant in the archipelago, the Ecuadorian authorities decided to lower the age for vaccination and perform antigen tests for early diagnoses, among other steps. In addition, provisions are maintained such as that it is necessary to present a vaccination card AND a negative PCR test up to 72 hours in advance to enter the province.

But the new, the old and the constant threats to the tourism industry in Galapagos continue to slow down the economic reactivation that Priscila Guerrero, Adriano Cabrera, the tour guides, Captain Cuvi, his crew and the rest of the 25 thousand inhabitants of the islands hope for.

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