By Elias L. Benarroch
Galapagos, Ecuador, Aug 23 (EFE) .- The Ecuadorian Galapagos archipelago is trying to reclaim its main economic engine – tourism – caught between the blows of the coronavirus pandemic and its own severe measures to avoid even the most environmental contamination minor.
The latest blow has been the detection of three cases of the Delta variant of the virus, which has led authorities to demand again, starting next Friday, that anyone wishing to visit the islands present both a negative PCR test. and an official certificate stating that they have been fully vaccinated.
The Ecuadorian authorities have also decided to launch an âacceleratedâ vaccination campaign for children aged 12 to 16, to intensify preventive measures with information campaigns aimed at tourists and residents and to implement âsweepsâ. community “to” actively seek asymptomatic cases “, according to the Minister of Health Ximena Garzon.
Whether directly or indirectly, tourism is the main source of income for the approximately 33,000 inhabitants of the Galapagos, a group of 13 main islands and nine medium-sized islands located about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the Ecuadorian coast. which is a key ecological site due to its unparalleled biodiversity.
This is one of the reasons why the Ecuadorian authorities completed the vaccination program several months ago.
âThis year and a half of the pandemic has been very difficult. We started with the total blockade of the Galapagos and,â¦ now it’s increasing, more and more cruise ships are coming. But we’re not back to normal at all, âSan Cristobal Island nature guide Jhosllyn Aguas told EFE, adding that – according to her own knowledge of the matter – the island has been the whole first to be settled thanks to its fresh water supply.
In order for her family of 10 to fend for themselves, Aguas used “all” her savings, a situation – she said – in which the barter system that was used on the islands over a century ago is became common practice again.
After a gradual easing of preventive measures, by July, people had returned to more than 50 percent of their pre-pandemic income, just over US $ 13,000 a year from the previous $ 23,000.
But that’s just a drop in the bucket, as the benefits of tourism don’t stay in the Galapagos.
âThe statistics might be right, but the truth is different for everyone. It is the boat (owner on the mainland) that takes everything, not the population (of the islands), âAguas said.
This is because wealthy foreign tourists, when they arrive, are taken directly on the big cruise ships, bypassing – to a large extent – all local businesses.
The situation is generalized, said Aguas, because “with the pandemic, we have noticed that around 80 to 90% of the population lives off tourism or related things”.
“Maybe they could say ‘No I’m a fisherman, I have nothing to do with tourism’ … But the fisherman supplies fish to the restaurant that serves the tourist, who was not there ( during the pandemic), “she said.
The Galapagos’ contribution to national GDP is relatively small, but per capita incomes are among the highest in Ecuador and the islands are a source of foreign exchange, as a significant portion of tourists who visit Ecuador do so specifically to see the so- called âEnchanted Islandsâ.
Officially discovered by chance in 1535 by the Spanish Archbishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the islands have passed through different eras of exploration that have reduced native flora and fauna and introduced invasive species that today threaten various ecosystems. islanders.
This is why the authorities have imposed severe restrictions to preserve this exclusive environmental zone, which is one of the largest marine reserves in the world and one of two unique archipelagos located right on the equator.
Under a special administrative regime, the islands only allow access to some 200,000 foreigners each year and the number of local residents is limited as is the development of economic sectors that could affect the environment.
Surveillance of everyone and everything entering or leaving the islands is also extensive, and the Biosafety Regulation and Control Agency (ABG) is responsible for preventing the entry of invasive species and trafficking in ‘wild animals through careful control of all baggage and cargo. , in addition to disinfecting it.
And although it is a notoriously expensive place to visit, the main attraction of the islands is precisely its marine and terrestrial biodiversity.