Pirates, whalers, scientists and eco-tourists are all drawn to the Galapagos. ©Greg Courter

In 1572, a group of Spanish sailors that was fleeing South America was pushed by the South Equatorial Current into the Galapagos Islands. Having no navigational charts with them, the sailors referred to these newly found lands as the Islas Encantadas (Bewitched Islands) because they seemed to appear and disappear before their eyes in the fog and mist. In fact, some 17th-century Spaniards who witnessed the same phenomenon claimed that the Galapagos were, in truth, mere shadows and had no physical form at all.

Ever since that time, it seems, people have been drawn to this unique place, from pirates to whalers, scientists to eco-tourists. For the past 14 years, in fact, the archipelago has seen more than 150,000 annual visitors. But starting on February 1, 2012, there will be new regulations regarding the number of days visitors may spend there and the landings they may make.

Concerns about the impact visitors were having on the delicate landscape caused members of the Antarctic Treaty to limit visitors. ©Colin McNulty

Reasons for regulations

The Galapagos National Park authority states that the new regulations were needed in order to protect the local animal and plant life and the islands, which were suffering from over-visitation and erosion. The bonus for travelers is that islands that were previously little frequented will now be opened up for tourism to redistribute some of the current traffic. While many ships’ itineraries have focused mainly on the three islands of Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal for the past 14 years, the islands of Española, Genovesa and Fernandina will now see more boats arriving.

And, with these new rules in place, says the park authority, less fuel will be consumed and less pollution will be emitted by the yachts, boats and ships working in the islands.

Antarctica put on ice

The Galapagos isn’t the only example of a pristine place that needed to limit tourists in an effort to protect what’s left of it. In 2009, safety fears and concerns about the impact visitors were having on the delicate frozen landscape caused signatories of The Antarctic Treaty—an agreement between 48 nations on the use of the continent—to set limits for the number of tourists permitted. In 1992-93, visitors to Antarctica numbered 6,700. By 2009-10, they had risen to more than 40,000. The new rules asked that countries prevent ships with more than 500 passengers from landing on the continent and to only allow a maximum of 100 passengers on shore at any given time.

Galapagos National Park authority regulations were needed to protect the islands’ flora and fauna. ©Patrick J. Endres

Some would say, however, that elevating places of natural beauty to the status of protected parks or World Heritage sites is enough. When we start putting quotas on the numbers of people who can visit a given area, we invite a system where access can be bought. And once something is limited, of course, it becomes more expensive in the marketplace. That could lead to having the Earth’s most amazing places being affordable and accessible only by the wealthy.

Do you think our places of natural beauty should have caps on the number of people that may visit them?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,