A four-month lockdown starting in February 2020 after COVID-19 was first detected in the region resulted in a total halt of tourism and near complete shutdown of scientific research.
"The impact of COVID was very tough ... the shutdown was immediate, from one day to the next," complained Juan Carlos Moncayo, 50, who runs a scuba diving center and had to make his six employees redundant.
"We had no time to prepare ourselves."
Since July, the archipelago of 234 islands has partially reopened to tourism – but that has been limited to just 6,000 visitors a month, compared to an average 23,000 before the pandemic. Moncayo's business hasn't recovered. Sometimes his boat sets out to sea with just two customers – each paying a minimum $160 – when he needs five to make a profit.
Other scuba diving businesses didn't have enough funds to renew their licenses.
"Out of 12, there are just six left in business," said Moncayo.
Even though tourists must present a negative COVID-19 test to come to the islands, "everything has changed because we go out to work, but with a bit of fear."
With the pandemic, airport closures and travel restrictions tourism dropped by 75% compared to the 271,000 visitors in 2019, said Monica Paez, a tourism ministry representative.
One lesson she's learnt is the need for tourism that is "based more on durability ... as a natural heritage site for humanity, that's a responsibility we have to the whole world."
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