small ship luxury tour vs. Galapagos land tours

If you are visiting the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador because you love nature and care about the environment, then one choice you make will support that stance with actions, not just words. Pass up the land-based tour options and book a trip with a responsible ship operator instead. You’ll have a better experience and you’ll see a lot more too.

After taking a dip during the financial crisis a decade ago, Galapagos tourism has come roaring back. Visitor numbers are up 50% per year since then, which if managed well, isn’t such a problem. What is a problem is that land-based tours have more than doubled, fueled by a building boom that has not been regulated well and guides/operators that are not licensed. When it comes to traditional tours by ship, the government and NGOs have done a commendable job as stewards of this ecosystem. Much of their work is being undone, however, in a fast-growing segment of the market without much oversight.

The alarm bells started going off in 2012 and have gotten a bit louder each year. Then a year ago the New York Times really shined a light on the problem in this article about the threat of land tourism. The article pointed out that even the trade group run by the land operators themselves was asking the government to clamp down. This was followed up a few months later by the Galapagos being feature in a Conde Nast Traveler article listing “15 Beloved Places Struggling with Overtourism.”

Every person who books a Galapagos vacation makes a positive or negative difference, depending on how they spend their money and their time.

Galapagos land tours and small ship tours in Ecuador

How Galapagos Ship Tours Work

On a traditional tour of the Galapagos, you book with a licensed tour operator that has a good reputation and you visit multiple islands over the course of 5 to 14 days. Your naturalist guide is trained and licensed. With award-winning small ship cruise company AdventureSmith, for example, you are spending money with an organization that will show you the experience of a lifetime. But they’ll also go well beyond the minimum in limiting your impact.

All the licensed ship operators in island are strictly regulated in the food they can serve (no invasive blackberries, for instance), what they do with their waste, when they can stop at each island, and where they can go once there. The best companies go well beyond those regulations too by making pledges that are part of environmental organization requirements. These include only using biodegradable materials for bath and cleaning products, for example, as well as including carbon offset purchases on all tours. AdventureSmith belongs to, and thus gives back through, the Rainforest Alliance, the Charles Darwin Foundation, and the Galapagos Conservancy, for starters.

Snorkel with sea lions and fur seals on a small ship cruise in the Galapagos Islands of EcuadorSince these ship tours generally travel the longest parts at night, while you’re sleeping in a comfortable bed, they are able to explore the far side of Isabela Island or head up north where the hammerhead sharks swim. They don’t just go places that are near an airport and city. Instead of you landing where hundreds of other tourists are waiting to enter the national park lands, your zodiac lands in places where you may not see another soul.

You’re not in any rush to get back to a port or a hotel, so a ship cruise through the islands is just a lot more relaxed. You’ve got time to go kayaking or paddleboarding. You can snorkel for hours and come face-to-face with sea turtles, manta rays, or sea lions. You have time to cavort with dolphins, explore hidden caves, navigate the mangroves, or go whale watching because the ship is anchored until it’s time to cruise to the next stop.

How Galapagos Land Tours Work

On a land tour of the Galapagos, you are based in a hotel, you go out on day trips, and you return to the hotel. Or you may hop from hotel to hotel with your luggage on board as well. Because these are day trips either way, you cannot go but so far from the population centers where the hotels are, which means you can only go to the closest and most popular islands.

Also, if you look at the online customer reviews of these tours, they are inevitably more negative when it comes to comfort. You are on a ship meant to get you out and back in a hurry, not one that’s designed for a leisurely cruise while you sip a cocktail and lounge on a sofa before retiring to your room for a snooze. Many visitors opt for a land tour thinking they’ll have less time on the water to get seasick, but they end up getting sicker than they would on a regular cruise because they’re bouncing around for hours in a smaller, less stable ship.

While your room on land may be comfortable (and not moving), there are very few places to stay on these islands that we would recommend. The best is Pikaia Lodge, which we have reviewed in detail and would recommend as a place to start or end your trip. Or Galapagos Safari Camp can get you close to giant turtles for more than a couple hours. But most hotels on the islands are hastily-built properties meant to cash in on the boom, without much thought about their long-term impact. Each new property has a ripple effect, according to local environmental experts, contributing to these issues:

  1. More hotels means more infrastructure, which leads to increased shipments to the islands (that can harbor invasive species), more boat traffic in and out of the ports, and more housing needed for the workers who build the infrastructure for it all.
  2. More hotels means a larger permanent population, in an environment that is already struggling to support the population it has. Water shortages, pollution, and garbage disposal issues increase incrementally with every land-based tour booking.
  3. Galapagos land tours use more fuel and create more emissions. Since you are regularly taking round trips rather than going in long a loop on the water, your footprint as a tourist is much higher than a tourist on a cruising ship. You are likely on a boat with a much less efficient engine as well, one with a higher pollution level for the number of passengers.

zodiac exploring a cave in the Galapagos

Questions  to Ask Your Galapagos Tour Operator

We have run many articles on the Galapagos Islands and we’re big fans of the destination. There’s no place on the planet quite like it. This fragile and fascinating archipelago is constantly under threat, however, and it has to treated with much more care than Cancun or even Paracas.

Do your due diligence before booking a vacation to this special place or, even better, leave it to a small ship cruising expert to guide you in the right direction. There are lots of options for a Galapagos tour, maybe too many to even digest, so consulting with someone who can best match you to your ideal tour can take a lot of branches off the decision tree.

Make sure you have ample time as well. If you’re going to fly all this way—with the environmental impact that comes with that kind of trip–then stick around a while instead of rushing through. An 8-day luxury cruise will get you well beyond the day-trippers and you can even combine it with an alternate 8-day one to really see all the islands instead of just half of them.

Small ship tour with Adventuresmith

Whoever you decide to book with, ask the hard questions up front. “What environmental practices do you follow?” “What organizations do you belong to?” “What certifications do you and your guides have?” “How do you give back to Galapagos preservation efforts?”

The answers really should be posted on their website, but dig deeper and find out if there’s a true long-term commitment to the region, not just the kind of relationship a business has to a strip mine. With too many operators of Galapagos land tours, their commitment doesn’t go much beyond the desire to make a quick buck.