The fact that president José María Velasco Ibarra, historically one of Ecuador’s most memorable leaders, was a guest of honor on the day that Metropolitan Touring’s Lina A, the vessel that would officially usher in the age of tourism to the Galapagos Islands, disembarked from Guayaquil, seems to speak of the relevance and impact that making the archipelago a world travel destination would have on the country’s history and development. The venture would begin a year prior, when Metropolitan Touring’s visionary leaders initiated the ‘inspection phase’ of their project to establish a permanent tourism operation on the archipelago. The proposal was presented to key members of the then fledging Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Foundation, including Juan Black, Pepe Villa, and the Charles Darwin Research Station’s Director, British Scientist Dr. Roger Perry, all of whom decided to support the project under one non-negotiable condition: that, if the operation became a reality, it would have to be regulated through strict rules of behavior for both visitors and operators alike, in order to prevent negative impact on the islands’ fragile ecosystems. Further contact was made with long-time residents who had already been showing international visitors around (as well as expeditionary scientists) on their small private boats. Sincere and lasting friendships developed with the likes of Forest Nelson, Jimmy Perez, the Angermeyer brothers and others, with whom field trips were organized to islands both near and far, discovering that this unique, prehistoric, near-extraterrestrial-looking world, in addition to being a world wonder and a most promising tourism attraction, was also extremely vulnerable.
Exploring these outstanding locations and the subsequent long hours of back-to-back meetings in Puerto Ayora would result in a series of specific measures custom-made to welcome tourism on such unique islands. As Metropolitan Touring’s top executives searched the world for an appropriate vessel to buy or lease, apt to cruise the islands with some 50 passengers under international standards of safety and comfort, and as a complex operation was being conceived to make this dream come true logistically, another Metropolitan Touring team, together with National Park officials, Charles Darwin Station staff members and a local council of “wise men” made up of island residents, began to identify sites in the Galapagos Islands that could welcome visitors, and in those sites, began to designate specific trails. The idea was to create minimum impact conditions, sparing over 99% of the islands from ‘footprint’s, which could in turn ensure long-term preservation of these unique ecosystems.
Another central achievement was the creation of a set of Visitors’ Rules, which comprised many of the elements that would later be considered in real eco-travel models at a global scale. These norms included (and still include, 44 years later) that tourists remain exclusively on designated trails, always accompanied by an officially trained and licensed Naturalist Guide; that visitors not touch or disturb animals or plants in any way; that no elements of the natural habitats be removed (from small pieces of rock, coral pebbles, shells and snails to fallen feathers on the ground)…
From the first day of operation, in December 1969, visitors were provided with “Conservation Bags”, especially designed to be carried during visits, where one could collect trash or non-native materials. These measures have been instrumental in making most visitors’ sites as pristine today as they were when first reached by tourists, with most animal species still displaying the same fearless attitude towards man.
A fundamental piece of the puzzle was the guiding. At first, it was decided that tourists be divided into groups of maximum 25 people and be accompanied by a licensed Naturalist Guide, duly trained and certified by the National Park. The number of visitors per group and their guide has progressively reduced to a current maximum of 16 passengers each. Simultaneously, profiles of would-be guides were identified, including bilingual or multilingual proficiency; advanced, middle or even basic knowledge of natural sciences; knowledge on management of Protected Areas; strong communication and leadership skills; and a conservation-oriented spirit and attitude. This led to the implementation of Specialized Naturalist Guide Training Courses, which, from the beginning were supported by the participation of resident or visiting scientists at the Darwin Station, including specialists on birds, mammals, reptiles, geology, marine biology, oceanography, botany and many other fields related to the Islands’ natural scope.
Finally, a special Itineraries System was devised and put into effect shortly after regular operations on the islands began. It was during the first half of the 1970’s that the term ecotourism came to be, and for many, the cradle of this denomination was the Management Model that many tourists and experts had seen and experienced during the early years of Galapagos Islands travel, a model that was replicated in other natural areas worldwide, becoming one of the most respected and popular modalities around the world. So on December 4, 1969, with the blessing of former Ecuadorian President Velasco Ibarra and the high hopes of Metropolitan Touring’s visionary leaders, the Greek-assembled 60-passenger Lina A traveled from Guayaquil to the Galapagos Islands, marking the first voyage of an Ecuadorian cruise boat into the new waters of modern-day travel. This new era was based on a sense of purpose, on creating unforgettable experiences and on the ambition to change man’s way of interacting with the world around him, and also on a deep respect and love of the splendor and marvelous reality of our natural world. This same philosophy has driven the company to strive to become a beacon for responsible travel, both in the archipelago – where today it operates three vessels and the Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz Island – and beyond, to South America, where it now has operations in Peru, Chile, Argentina and Colombia. The Galapagos Islands is very much part of modern man’s ecological views and aspirations, and for almost 45 years now, Metropolitan Touring has been very much a part of that story.
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