When one thinks of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, one typically conjures up images of wild, barefoot adventure travel amongst prehistoric-like animals, which wander fearlessly around the islands due to the lack of natural predators. Having garnered a reputation as one of the world’s true ecological wonders, the 18 islands and 107 rocks and islets that form this protected wildlife sanctuary are recognised UNESCO World Heritage territory.
The magical and bizarre variety of wildlife wandering the islands includes fur seals, hammerhead sharks, colourful iguanas, penguins, giant turtles and some incredibly unique varieties of birds, allowing endless opportunities for amateur and professional photographers, with some of the best photos from Galapagos those featuring travellers getting up close and personal with the giant creatures. Birdwatchers, nature-lovers and wildlife photographers are, until recently, the main type of tourists drawn to the island, but as the world’s luxury travel market grows and expands to include almost every corner of the earth, we are seeing a new kind of tourist seek adventure in the Galapagos Islands.
The luxury traveller.
With the launch of luxury cruise ship ‘Celebrity Flora’ (suitably named), the influx of luxury travellers descending on the remote islands is only set to grow. Having launched in June this year, it is the first expedition mega-yacht specifically built for the Galapagos, with sustainability at the core of the boat’s design. That’s not to say its passengers aren’t considered: with penthouse suites, plunge pools, whirlpool tubs, private cabanas, spa rooms, masseurs, uniformed staff wandering around with cocktails, and a stargazing deck, guests are treated to complete luxury once they step aboard the ship. The ship caters to 100 guests, accommodated in no fewer than 50 luxury suites, each one including porcelain luxury bathrooms, spa tubs, cashmere bedding, strong wi-fi and private in-room telescopes. There are even Ecuadorian naturalists who are permanently available on the ship to impart their knowledge on those who wish to learn more about the extraordinary wildlife surrounding them. But perhaps more importantly, the fuel-efficient environmentally-friendly ship was built with anchorless technology and oceanographic equipment for researchers and guest scientists.
Silver Origin is another brand new, purpose-built Galapagos adventure cruise vessel, which sets new standards in luxury state-of-the-art accommodation, fine dining, and naturalist itineraries throughout the waters of the islands. Places on the first cruises for both these stunning vessels are already booking up fast, indicating there is certainly a demand for luxury experiences in the islands.
Even luxury hotel brand the Hyatt is getting in on the Galapagos action. Recently it launched a partnership with Lindblad Expeditions, an adventure travel company that specialises in high-end cruises and land expeditions, with destinations like the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon among them. As of last month, any guest can book a Lindblad expedition through the Hyatt, in turn earning Hyatt points for future stays at the luxury hotel chain.
Adventure travel provider World Expeditions also announced in May an exclusive tour to the Galapagos aboard a purpose-built first-class yacht, Solaris. The tours include the exclusive opportunity to travel with well-known naturalist expert, Jaime Dominguez, who is widely regarded as one of the best Galapagos guides and one of his private clients includes one-time world’s richest man, Carlos Slim.
The Solaris Cruise has been carefully timed to coincide with the start of the marine iguana mating season, and its first-class facilities include a sundeck, outside bar and lounge areas. It also only accommodates 16 passengers in its 11 cabins, which comes with first class private facilities and ocean views, to allow a more personal and intimate experience. The eight-day cruise departs from Quito or Guayaquil and currently costs $7,9990, including all internal flights, meals and accommodation.
Six Sense, perhaps the world’s most luxurious accommodation provider, has also just opened a brand new resort in Cerro Verde on the northeastern coast of San Cristobal Island. Since the Galapagos Islands has been a World Heritage Site since 1978 and a Biosphere Reserve since 1985, development is only permitted on three percent of the total area. As one of the world’s premier sustainably-focused luxury resort providers, Sis Sense was given the tick of approval from local authorities to build the resort, but in accordance with strict local laws, and with strong involvement from the local community.
Does this mean we are about to see the demise of the barefoot, adventure-seeking traveller in this remote and pristine part of the world? Replaced by the self-righteous breed of traveller known for making ridiculous demands in remote and foreign places, including demands for particular brands of sparkling water and stronger wi-fi?
Undoubtedly, the type of traveler attracted to the Galapagos will always be one with a fascination for nature and exotic fauna, but with the rise of the luxury expedition so too comes the rise of wi-fi and Instagram-obsessed travellers posing alongside animals, rendering their ‘escapist nature experience’ all but obsolete.
How can we ensure that the integrity of the islands is kept safe and that its very essence – that of remote, pure, pristine natural wonder – is preserved in the coming era of changing travel preferences?
That sustainability is at the core of all new luxury ship and yacht designs, and that each luxury vessel comes with its own team of expert naturalists, is promising indeed. If the luxury traveler can continue to come and learn from the Galapagos, rather than consider it a ‘stopoff’ on their otherwise very fancy holiday cruise, a hangover cure, perhaps, then it may stand a chance. But if the luxury market comes seeking nothing beyond their own comfort, then the magical aura of the islands will be lost.