With its distinctive Rock Islands, stunning white beaches, and more species of fish and coral than anywhere else on the planet, Palau – an island nation located in the western Pacific Ocean – is the epitome of a pristine paradise. As a leading underwater wonder of the world, it’s also a haven for eco-conscious divers, and before 2015 attracted around 80,000 of them to visit annually.
But in 2015 the visitor demographic started to change. The introduction of charter flights and budget package tours brought a deluge of new visitors from developing markets, almost doubling visitor numbers overnight. This turned tourism from an opportunity into a threat to Palau’s environment and culture.
And the escalating numbers were just part of the problem. Most of these new visitors had never even seen the ocean before and certainly didn’t know how to interact with a fragile marine environment like Palau’s. Conservation was not part of this new visitor demographic’s culture and their behaviour was polluting Palau’s precious coral reefs, damaging ecosystems and posing a real threat to Palauan way of life.
Despite having an ancient heritage of conservation and world-leading laws to back it up, with a population of just 20,000, Palau’s limited enforcement and infrastructure resources were strained to the limit under the weight of all the new inbound tourists.
However, tourism was Palau’s #1 economic driver, and its pristine environment its #1 asset. So, preserving the environment, upholding laws and attracting conscientious visitors was vital to protecting Palau’s economic future.
Enter The Palau Pledge: the world’s first eco pledge stamped into the passport of every visitor to Palau (in their own language). The Pledge requires them to make a mandatory promise to the children of Palau not to damage or exploit Palau’s natural resources or culture during their stay for the sake of the next generation. The Pledge was written with the help of Palau’s children and each visitor must sign it before they are allowed to enter the country.
The idea came about when a group of local and expat women with global marketing and advertising backgrounds became concerned by the impact the new visitors’ behaviour was having on the environment. These women came together to form the Palau Legacy Project. Their aim? To solve Palau’s new tourism challenges using clever communications to educate visitors on Palau’s conservation laws and culture.
The group was chaired by the First Lady of Palau, Debbie Remengesau, and worked together with global advertising agency partner Host/Havas out of Sydney, Australia. The team devised a suite of smart communication components including the physical passport stamp, an inflight video starring the children of Palau, a passport insert helping people understand what they needed to do to keep the Pledge during their stay, a multilingual website, and a suite of signage.
All the collateral was inspired by Palau’s traditional conservation wisdom. And with the help of Palau’s visionary traditional and political leadership, The Palau Legacy Project team changed immigration law to make the Pledge a reality. In the process they revolutionised the tourism industry with other countries and destinations soon starting to follow suit. Hawaii, New Zealand, Finland and the Philippines have all introduced tourist pledges based on Palau’s. And whilst none of these other pledges are mandatory yet, other destinations are looking at the Palau Pledge as a new model to help protect environment and culture from the damaging sides of tourism.
The Palau Pledge has a 100% compliance, with no one refusing to sign. It was also the most highly awarded communications project in the world in 2018, winning 16 Grand Prix awards globally including the Titanium Grand Prix Lion and the inaugural United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals Grand Prix Lion at Cannes International Festival of Creativity.
Commenting on the success of the project, First Lady of Palau, Debbie Remengesau said:“We’re very proud the Palau Pledge has set a new standard in the tourism industry and that other countries and destinations are following our lead. We still have work to do to ensure our visitors are fully educated about how to keep the Pledge, and in 2020 we’re rolling out a Palau Pledge business certification program to help our businesses educate visitors on how to protect Palau at each stage of their vacation.
“Along with a community outreach, education and awareness campaign, and new signage throughout the tourism sites, we’re carefully constructing a program that will protect our children’s birthright: their environmental, cultural and economic future.
“Another outcome of the Palau Pledge is that it’s shining an international spotlight on issues facing Pacific Island children. They are on the frontline of devastating challenges resulting from climate change and as a Mother and Grandmother this troubles me greatly. In just a few years some of our Pacific Island neighbours will not have a country to call home as rising water levels and sea temperatures are destroying their homelands. In Palau, our children’s inheritance has always been the land and ocean we leave behind to sustain and nourish them. As a global family we are all responsible for the world our children inherit from us, and we all need to change our behaviour to protect our precious planet.
“What if all decisions were guided by an environmental pledge to the next generation?”
“What a different world it would be… We hope that others are inspired by the Palau Pledge and that it continues to change people’s behaviour for the sake of our children and the generations that follow.”
The Palau Pledge has won hearts and minds across the world, and in doing so has changed the face of tourism.