By Carla Hunt
September 1, 2011
Because of the success of Galapagos Islands cruising, we may be surprised to find we actually have learned on site or by osmosis some unusual tidbits about a special ecosystem populated by unique wildlife that makes itself at home on magical islands.
For example, the Antarctic fur seals and penguins live right on the equator; the blue-footed booby is the Galapagos icon, although there are also red-footed and masked boobies; the Galapagos cormorant swims but no longer flies; and a giant tortoise named George lives at the Charles Darwin Research Station (still a bachelor, he is a dropout contributor to the preservation of the species).
What everyone selling cruises to the “enchanted islands” is learning anew is all about big changes in Galapagos cruising come 2012. New itineraries are the result of the Galapagos National Park’s new regulations, whose purpose is to reduce the total number of daily visitors at terrestrial and marine sites and reverse visitor negative impact on the soil, the plants and the wildlife. The new regulations do not establish new sites—presently 145 within the park—but rather seek to ease the environmental pressures at the 14 most popular visiting sites and redistribute excursions to other existing but under-utilized sites. To achieve this, the new National Park law mandates that:
No cruise vessel may visit the same island or marine site more than one time in any consecutive 2-week period. (Presently, vessels can visit the same site once every seven days.)
No boat may offer more than three itineraries in a 15-day period.
All vessels may now use both Baltra and San Cristobal as departure/arrival airports.
All cruise vessels must implement the changes by Feb. 1, 2012.
“Readjusting our operations to conform to the new National Park regulations has been a lot of work for all of us offering cruises in the islands, including re-educating our agent clients on the changes,” says Doris Welsh, marketing director for Ecoventura, whose environmentally friendly fleet of small expedition vessels—the 20-passenger Eric, Flamingo and Letty—will alternate two 7-night itineraries. However, she adds, “The new law should make a difference in the wear and tear on the 14 most visited island sites. On all our vessels, we are offering two itineraries equally exceptional and covering most of the islands and species of the former routings. The exception is that on no one 7-night cruise can any passenger see both iconic bird species: the flightless cormorants on Tower (Genovesa) and the waived albatross on Hood (Espanola)—in residence April-November.”
Welsh points out that there are travelers who want to see everything, and already Ecoventura has some bookings for the 2-week combination, which is priced for a 5 percent discount for the second week. However, she also says it’s the 7-night cruise that works for the company’s Family departures—some tailored to children ages 7-12 only, others to Teen departures for ages 12-17. New for 2012 is a Family Graduation sailing (ages 17-21), scheduled for May 27-June 3. All 7-night cruise costs start at $3,350 pp dbl per week, with special discounts for kids of all ages on all family sailings.
“Obviously, itinerary changes will affect how, where and for what duration travelers experience specific islands by boat,” says Todd Smith, founder and president of AdventureSmith Explorations, whose programs offer cruise choices aboard close to 80 percent of the small ships cruising in Galapagos waters. “Travelers can no longer assume that a week-long cruise will include every one of the highlights the Galapagos has to offer. Those ‘let’s-see-everything’ itineraries are now going to run nine or 10 nights. However, our island experts are geared up to help in choosing the itinerary that reaches as many of the top sites as a client’s time permits.”
International Expeditions is offering a simplified Galapagos Islands program, a 7-night cruise aboard the 30-passenger MV Evolution, a deluxe mega-yacht the company incorporates into a 9-night Galapagos Islands Expedition that begins monthly departures Jan. 20, 2012. The journey will cover the islands of Bartolome, Isabela, Fernandina, Santa Cruz, Floreana, North Seymour and Espanola. Including accommodations coming and going in Guayaquil, the cruise costs start at $5,098, pp sharing.
Harley points out that children over 7 are welcome aboard the Evolution year-round; however, Family Voyages are specially designated on July 20 and Aug. 6 sailings, while a $500 discount applies to kids 7-18 cruising with adults on all January-November departures. Before traveling, each child will receive a “Young Explorer’s Field Guide” with puzzles, history, wildlife information and a journal area, and highlights on tour range from visiting pirate treasure caves on Santa Cruz, to learning to prepare ceviche with the Evolution chef.
President of Metropolitan Touring, Paulina Burbano de Lara’s take on the evolution of cruising in the islands is that, “The Galapagos National Park and environmental agencies have determined that after three decades of tourism in Galapagos, only one aspect has been declining: the guests’ experience due to overlapping itineraries.” While revamping itineraries for the company’s trio of vessels has been a monumental task, she points out some of the benefits from the mandated changes such as, “…sites that at present cannot be visited by vessels of more than 40 guests will be opened to all, such as Genovesa, Tagus Cove, Santa Fe Island and South Plaza Island. Additionally, overall there will be more snorkeling, kayaking, glass-bottom boat opportunities, and [due to better distribution of all boats] our vessels will often have certain sites to themselves during many visits.”
A pioneer in Galapagos cruises, Metropolitan Touring presently owns and operates three deluxe vessels: the 90-passenger Santa Cruz, the 40-passenger Isabela II and the 48-passenger Yacht La Pinta. And all three boats will be introducing the itineraries on Jan. 20, 2012, collectively offering a roster of 3- and 4-, 5-, 6-, and 8-night cruise choices. Additionally, many itineraries work easily with a land stay at the company’s Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz Island. One product the company will not be offering in 2012 is designated family departures. However, on cruises with 7- to 12-year-old passengers, the company’s Young Pirates program—nature videos, handicrafts and treasure hunts—will play an integral part. Sample cruise prices for a 9-night sailing in a twin cabin on the Santa Cruz start at $5,310/adult and $3,982/child; for a 7-night sailing aboard La Pinta, the cabin rate starts at $5,634/adult and $4,225/child. Prices include the new fuel charge.
According to Rosita Perez of Ladatco Tours, starting next year, selling the Galapagos Islands will require more research among the 3- to 14-night cruise itineraries to match each client’s expectations with the optimum cruise. However, for family travelers, La Pinta is Perez’s first choice among cruise vessels. “Ours is a luxury travel clientele, and connecting cabins are a must these days for adults with young kids. Our best option is La Pinta, which has connecting cabins for up to five family members. Further, this is also the only medium-size expedition yacht with cabins all on one deck, the kid-oriented activities are really good.” Perez’s second choice is the 48-passenger Eclipse, which, “while there are no connecting cabins, there are four large cabins with a sofa bed and two suites with an extra bed. Additionally, the Eclipse does everything right for family travel; we never have complaints.”
Connecting cabins are also a feature aboard the 16-passenger Galapagos Grand Odyssey that made its cruise debut in the islands this year. The new luxury yacht has eight spacious Galapagos cabins—twin and matrimonial, including connecting suites for families—and one Odyssey Suite. Public spaces include a dining room, large solarium with two jacuzzis and sun loungers, and a mini-spa offering treatments and massages. Guests also gather in the social areas, and on family departures, there is a play zone for kids. Snorkeling equipment and kayaks are available at no charge. Grand Odyssey will cruise on 4- and 5-, 9- and 10-, and 14-night itineraries; cruise costs range from $3,758 pp dbl for 4-night sailings to $11,605 pp dbl for a 14-night cruise.