Are Incentives Too Rough for Darwin's Eden?

Centuries later, the Galapagos Islands are a test ground for sustainable travel.

Nearly 200 years ago, Charles Darwin first set foot upon the Galapagos Islands and was amazed to discover flora and fauna that had uniquely adapted to an isolated location. That isolation would not survive the advent of voyages such as Darwin's; soon rats, pigs, and goats escaping the confines of European ships infested the islands, ravaging the indigenous species.

Now, tens of thousands of people visit the Galapagos each year, arriving by plane and boat. In 2007, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Galapagos at risk from invasive species, tourism, and immigration.

But in 2009, as the world celebrates the bicentennial of Charles Darwin (and the 150th anniversary of The Voyage of the Beagle's publication), there is heightened awareness of environmental and corporate responsibility. With that in mind, does it make sense to send incentive groups to fragile ecosystems like the Galapagos?

Said Ken Deans, a partner in LGI Worldwide, an event production company in Los Angeles, "If the program is a responsible one, it makes perfect sense. Trips to ecologically fragile places can help promote understanding of how not just wrong actions but thoughtless actions can destroy an environment." To which Ray Burger, president of St. Charles, MO's Pineapple Hospitality, said: "Nature inspires. If you don't experience these places, then it is easy to disconnect the dots. It should go without saying that greater care towards these fragile resources is imperative."

However, MaryAnne P. Bobrow, CAE, CMP, CMM, founder of Bobrow & Associates, in Citrus Heights, CA, and who teaches trade show operations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, wondered if "sustainability" and "incentives" should be used in the same sentence: "Not that someone on an incentive trip cannot be socially responsible, but incentives seem to say, 'Good job, go have fun,' while ecotourism says something quite different."

Brenda Lotito, a speaker on organic recovery and owner of Syracuse,NY-based Upstate Worm Farm Inc., concurred, citing that "commercial travel, large cruise ships, and the like enter fragile zones such as the Galapagos in order to provide customers a "sneak peak" at disappearing species, as well as green areas. One small fuel leak, pollution from gas-powered boats, or a drop of waste in the waters (even one gum wrapper or cigarette butt) can devastate what has been conserved. (In fact, Isabela Island suffered fires in 1985 and 1993 as results of tourist negligence.)

But since a tour of the Galapagos is high up on the bucket list for many, the challenge of preserving the environment falls to such conservationists as UNESCO, the Charles Darwin Foundation, and the Galapagos Conservation Trust, and suppliers like Ecoventura and Galapagos Network, which are the owners and operators of four expedition vessels. "The Galapagos Islands are a fragile and threatened ecosystem," noted Santiago Dunn, president and owner of Guayaquil, Ecuador-based Ecoventura. "Ecoventura has taken every measure to ensure that [customers] enjoy a safe, thrilling adventure without harming the unique wildlife or the fragile environment of the islands."

This year, Ecoventura debuts the M/Y Eric, which is the first hybrid-powered tour boat in the Galapagos. Through a partnership financed by Toyota (a supporter of the World Wildlife Fund), the Eric was equipped with $100,000 worth of 40 solar panels, as well as two wind turbines. The goal, according to Ecoventura, is for the solar panels and wind-powered generators to provide enough power to support 17 percent of the energy formerly produced by two carbon fuel-based generators.

Ecoventura's main group clientele has been ecotourists like Audubon societies, nature centers, university biology students, and sometimes their alumni. The Eric, said Ecoventura spokeswoman Doris J. Welsh, is available on a charter basis for small groups—$59,000 for 20 passengers on a seven-night cruise. "We do specialize in handling small groups. In fact, we are unique in that we have two naturalist guides on board so that passengers are in a group of no more than 10 per guide."

While bonafide ecotourists can be relied on to respect the islands, LGI Worldwide's Deans opined, "Responsibility within the corporate culture has never been more needed than today. There has never been a greater need to be responsible, and I believe that real-life experience—not drunken toga parties in party settings—can help."

Originally published Feb. 2, 2009