Virus hits tourism on Ecuador's iconic Galapagos islands
GALAPAGOS, ECUADOR -- Jessy Lamontaine managed to book a long-dreamed-of vacation for her family this year, taking them far from their home in Montreal, Canada, down to the Galapagos Islands, where they began exploring the wonders of nature and frolicked in the sun.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit in the middle of the trip, throwing their plans into uncertainty.
"I was in tears this morning," Lamontaine said. "I couldn't get any answers from the airline. I had no money and didn't know whether I was going to keep my job.
Lamontaine, her husband and their 6-year-old son were stuck on the islands when flights were suspended and they missed the last trip out. They are among travellers around the world who have had vacations disrupted -- in this case extended -- by the pandemic.
Officials in Ecuador had initially halted trips to and from the archipelago 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) off the South American nation's Pacific coast prized for its diverse marine and plant life. It's famous for helping inspire English scientist Charles Darwin to describe the process of evolution.
Galapagos Gov. Norman Wray said Tuesday that the 2,000 foreigners who remain on the archipelago in the next week will have the possibility of leaving on charter flights or those approved by the government. They won't be able to go home immediately, however. The ban on international flights will keep them in Ecuador until the emergency measures are lifted.
Other popular South American tourist destinations such as Peru's Machu Picchu have also been temporarily closed in response to the coronavirus, as has access to Chile's Easter Island.
In a short time, the crowds playing in the sun and exploring the waters in the Galapagos have mostly vanished. The upbeat vibe has given way to solitude, raising fears among locals who depend on tourist for their survival.
Jose Coque, owner of the Cormoran Beach House hotel on Isabela Island, said that until just a few days ago people were coming and going from the beach. Restaurants were packed and tropical music was blaring at full volume.
"Now it feels like a convent," Coque said. "There's absolute silence and very few tourists."
All reservations for March and April have been cancelled, said Coque, who is concerned because his employees depend on a thriving tourism industry.
The chamber of commerce says foreign tourists make up 95% of business on Isabel Island, the largest in the archipelago, and at least 26,000 of them visited last March. Most visitors come from the United States, Europe and Canada.
But for the next three weeks, no foreigner will be able to enter the archipelago by any means of transportation.
The mayor of Santa Cruz Island, Angel Yanez, said the measure is not easy for locals but it is necessary.
"Tourism is our sole source of income," he said. "Therefore, we're taking care that this virus does not reach the Galapagos."
So far, no cases have been detected in the Galapagos Islands, but on the mainland of Ecuador officials announced Tuesday that the number of confirmed cases had reached 111, with two deaths.
Chaotic scenes have played out at many airports around the world, as tourists desperately seek seats to return home.
But British tourist Ian Attenborough, who lives in Barcelona, Spain, said he wasn't worried about having his trip home delayed.
"I have my own business and I can work from anywhere," he said. "When flights pick up again, I will return."
Lamontaine, 38, said her worries eased when she got answers about how she'd pay for her hotel and what would become of her job back home. She's able to enjoy an extended vacation until her husband Sajid Qureshi and son Aydin figure out their exit plan.
"The hotel owner told me he wasn't going to charge me, then I spoke to my boss," Lamontaine said. "He said that my job will be waiting for me."
Solano reported from Quito, Ecuador.