Doris Welsh celebrates 30 years with Ecoventura

AUTHOR The Ecoventura Team

Amongst all the disruption 2020 has brought us, it can be difficult to remember to celebrate life’s milestones as we’d like to. And for the Ecoventura family, we recently celebrated a big one – our lovely Vice President and Director of Sales and Marketing, Doris Welsh, recently completed 30 years with us here at Ecoventura!

Doris’ rise through the company coincided with the growth of Ecoventura. Joining in 1990 when Ecoventura was a start-up operating its first small-ship yacht of just 20 passengers – the norm at the time were 90-guest boats – Doris helped navigate Ecoventura through the past three decades to what we are now; a leading operator of boutique luxury cruises with the lowest guest-to-guide ratio anywhere in the archipelago.

In honor of Doris’ 30 years with us, we spent some time speaking to her about her time at Ecoventura and how the firm, and the Galapagos in general, has changed over the years.

Had you ever been to the Galapagos before working with Ecoventura? What did you think of the islands when you visited for the first time?

My first trip to Galapagos was in 1986 on a 90-passenger ship, an older converted container vessel, and I sailed to the islands from Guayaquil. The voyage took two long days and it felt like we had arrived to another planet.

Back then, less than 20,000 visitors a year came to the Galapagos. There was no communication other than radio. I remember climbing to the top of Bartolome Island (now one of the Galapagos’ most visited sites) and the wooden stairs were not yet built. The hill was so steep in order to return, we had to slide down on our backsides!

We snorkeled for the local spiny lobsters and the chef made a delicious ceviche; one of many activities now prohibited, such as petting the tortoises at the Darwin Station where they live in captivity.

It was during a “La Niña” phenomenon, so the ocean was cold but nutrient-rich, and the marine life we saw was exhilarating. I was hooked by the abundance of wildlife unafraid of our presence and knew I had to return.

How did you start working with Ecoventura? What was it about Ecoventura that caught your attention and what were you doing before then?

After that first trip in 1986, the owners ended up hiring me to open a sales office in South Florida.

Four years later, just before that ship was sold for scrap, I was attending a travel trade show in Ecuador and learned the owner of an Ecuadorian airline (Roberto Dunn, father of current CEO Santiago Dunn) was building new yachts in Guayaquil.

I was excited to learn more about this project because I believed that was the proper way to see the Galapagos, on a new yacht with so few other guests! I interviewed for the job in 1990 and was hired.

30 years is a long time at one firm! What has inspired you to keep working for Ecoventura over these past decades?

Over the years, I returned many times. I’ve logged 29 visits on the first-class yachts, often with press, travel agents, and film crews, and the last time I was on the Origin with our PR team. My daughter joined me twice when she was only 7 and before her high school graduation; it was special seeing her experience the islands that I had fallen in love with decades earlier!

I always get asked “when is the best time to go to Galapagos” and I would have to say my preference is for May and November during the transition months when the wildlife is very active, and also in September due to the cooler currents when the marine life is abundant.

My most memorable experience is of cruising the Bolivar channel during a feeding frenzy with a pod of dolphins, sea lions chasing a school of anchovies, and blue-footed boobies diving into the water.  I was traveling with a film crew so we jumped into zodiacs and followed them. We captured it all on film and it was magical, a real Discovery Channel moment.  Then we jumped into the water  – thousands of feet deep, which did not phase us because of the excitement of swimming with dolphins in the wild. They made clicking noises and were squealing in delight, talking to each other. I know they were saying chow, chow, chow!

How has your role at Ecoventura evolved over your time here?

Like in any small company, a manager has to wear many hats, and I had to learn as I go.  It is not possible to concentrate on any one area, but that is exactly what makes my job interesting, I get to take it all on.  It’s rewarding to help guests plan their trip; they are thoroughly excited beforehand and after the trip, they share photos and sincere, wonderful comments with our team.  I also get to participate in travel trade events, press trips, create content and sales materials, define policies, and promotions, which are the fun part of my job.

Tell us about the fleet and the firm; has a lot changed since your first day in the company?

It’s really interesting to see how Ecoventura has changed over the years, and I think it really reflects the changing nature of tourism in the Galapagos.

In the first decade, most of our passengers were retired couples age 65 and over.  Many of them were teachers or professors that had saved for years to go to the Galapagos. They did their “homework” and traveled to learn about the ecology, and to see evolution first-hand as Darwin had discovered. Comfort was secondary and our lower deck/least expensive cabins would always sell out first.

In the second decade, we saw a surge in families and grew our company’s niche for the family travel market on our fleet of identical first-class yachts; the Eric and Flamingo (now decommissioned) and Letty. We grew a reputation for our “designated family departures” where we would assign guests in compatible groups based on demographics.

We also designed unique experiences for our family departures not offered on other vessels, for example, the visit to Ecology Project International’s reserve in the highlands where guests participated in scientific or volunteer projects alongside local teenage students.  I got to spend the day with them on a project to eradicate mora (blackberries) an invasive plant, that grows in the highlands of Santa Cruz.

The third decade saw a rise in the luxury travel market. People started to arrive on their private jets and naturally looking for more creature comforts. It was time for us to upgrade our fleet. The Origin replaced Flamingo in 2016 and the Theory replaced the Eric in 2019.

We joined Relais & Chateaux,  a collection of  five-star small boutique hotels and restaurants, upgraded our menus and include an open bar policy.   Origin & Theory all have modern conveniences including satellite Wi-Fi, a fitness center, hot tub on the sundeck, and outdoor dining. The Evolve will complete the fleet of 3 luxury yachts later in 2021.

But the Galapagos is still a great place for all sorts of travelers. We now have younger adult guests as well as multi-generational families with children and grandchildren and have adapted our excursions and activities to cater for all sorts of special interests such as culinary, photography or yoga.

How has the Galapagos, and tourism in the Galapagos, changed since you first joined Ecoventura? How do you see things changing in the next few years and beyond?

Many of the changes we have seen have been to do with how to protect this wonderful ecosystem; there is a growing awareness that the pristine landscape and amazing wildlife is a treasure that every generation needs to protect.

Around 1996, concern was raised over illegal fishing in the Galapagos, specifically the harvesting of sea cucumbers, and other threats to the small group eco-tourism model. As a founding member of IGTOA (International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, a non-profit association of travel companies, conservation organizations and other groups that is dedicated to the conservation of the Galapagos as a unique and priceless world heritage), we spearheaded conservation awareness amongst the travel industry and media before social media or even Google searches existed!

In 1999, Ecoventura was the guinea pig for a voluntary ecological program called Smart Voyager that set new standards in the conservation of natural ecosystems. Later, we installed alternative energy sources and offset the carbon emissions of the entire company. These early projects spearheaded stricter regulations that other boats in the Galapagos were eventually required to follow.

In 2019, there were 271,238 visitors to Galapagos according to the park’s report, and less than half stay on the highly-regulated self-contained liveaboards such as ours. The majority stay in land-based hotels located in populated towns; this has been one of the large tourism growth areas over the past decade.

Obviously, 2020 will have a severe drop in numbers, but when visitors do return again, and they will, it will be interesting to see any shifts in consumer demand. I imagine that small-scale ecotourism will rebound fairly quickly; in the post-covid world, it’s likely that people will want to be secluded and in nature, on smaller vessels and away from populated towns.

What is the best and worst thing about your job? What are the highlights of your time at Ecoventura?

This may sound corny, but I really enjoy talking with guests and helping them plan their trip of a lifetime. I also love developing close working relations with our travel resellers from all over the world – some of them become close friends or even like family.

Of course, you have to be there if something goes wrong, and find solutions to problems. Surviving the downtowns have been rough for everyone, but no one has suffered more in 2020 than the travel industry – especially cruising.

Our crew is so loyal and hardworking, they take such great care of our guests that it gives me a sense of purpose to send them a boat full of passengers every week. That has been my driving force over so many years, and has been the most disappointing job-related aspect resulting from the pandemic.

With the experience you have now, if you could go back and give your younger-self some advice 30 years ago, what would it be?

Don’t take anything personally! And, take a break! Don’t work three decades straight without taking some time away for a sabbatical…at least once in 30 years!

Well it sounds like you should have a word with the CEO – you’ve certainly earned it! And finally, what has been your proudest moment with Ecoventura?

One of my proudest moments was being chosen as the Godmother of the Origin, which launched in 2016. I was flown there for the sole purpose of christening the yacht and it was such a lovely moment watching her take to the seas, and for me personally, a thrilling way for all my efforts to be rewarded.

Over the past decades, I have collected books on the Galapagos, some given to me and signed by the authors, and many of which are now out of print. I donated them all to the Origin’s library – it is so fulfilling to know they will add enrichment for our guests as they marvel at the wonderful islands.

So if you’re looking for a good news story amongst all the gloom of 2020, raise a glass to Doris, long-time Sales Director here at Ecoventura – congratulations Dorita!