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Tourism Pledges Expand in Scope, Intention as Industry Reinvents Itself

The success of tourism pledges lies with destinations, not travelers; and for any pledge to be effective, it must be used as part of a destination’s wider sustainable tourism strategy, rather than an isolated destination-management intervention.

In 2017, Iceland launched its Icelandic Pledge — which asked travelers to commit to several responsible behaviors — kicking off a deluge of similar pledges in destinations worldwide. By and large, these pledges were passive, opt-in endeavors that acknowledged the burden of tourism and encouraged appropriate behavior on behalf of travelers; but reinforcement was often non-existent. Entering the “new era” of tourism, some pledges have weathered the industry’s transition toward more science-based commitments and transparent sustainability goals. However, the most impactful examples have evolved in noteworthy and intentional ways.

When Dr. Julia Albrecht, senior lecturer in the department of tourism at the University of Otago; and Eliza Raymond, co-founder of GOOD Travel, conducted research on the effectiveness of tourism pledges in 2019, they concluded that “the success of tourism pledges lies with destinations, not travelers; and for any pledge to be effective, it must be used as part of a destination’s wider sustainable tourism strategy, rather than an isolated destination-management intervention.”

During this study, interviewees representing the four destinations on which the researchers focused — Finland, Hawai’i, New Zealand and Palau — indicated pledges shouldn’t be a standalone solution but rather one part of wider behavior change or sustainability initiatives, Raymond said. While pledges were disrupted in early 2020, “we have seen evidence of this intention in practice — particularly in New Zealand, where tiaki (care for people, place and the planet) has been incorporated within the strategies of leading tourism stakeholders,” she said.

Over the last couple of years, Dr. Albrecht said, “New Zealand’s Tiaki Promise initiative has been extended into a collaborative platform that goes beyond the pledge by offering tourism businesses tools to integrate Tiaki into the business, as well as products and experiences as a visitor management and storytelling device.”

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Another example is the Palau Pledge — which, in 2018, provided the most comprehensive model for incorporation of a traveler pledge in a destination-management model. Communicated via a 16-line passport stamp and in-flight video shown to all incoming passengers, the Palau Pledge established the country’s expectations and backed those up with rules. It is enshrined in Palau’s immigration policy and law — and during the global lockdown, this forward-focused initiative expanded even more.

The Palau Business Pledge was created to help businesses comply with the law. This included support to create and implement internal processes and policies that reduce a business’s environmental impact, positively contribute to the country’s culture, and help educate visitors about how to keep the pledge during a visit.

Additionally, the Palau Pledge Dive Camp — which helps Palauan school children learn to dive, so they can consider future careers in tourism — was launched in partnership with the Ministry of Education.

“We know from global research that 92 percent of eco-tourists are looking for a holiday destination that has a strong local culture; and these visitors are willing to spend more in a destination that offers that,” said Laura Clarke, co-founder of the Palau Legacy Project. “Given Palau’s culture is an incredible tourism asset that adds significant value to the visitor experience, increasing the number of Palauan-owned and -operated businesses is an important factor. Encouraging young Palauans to see tourism careers as open to them, and providing them with some of the necessary skills via Dive Camp, is a vital part of training and development to ensure the authentic future of the industry.”

The pandemic pause was also used to plan phase two of the Palau Pledge, which included creating Ol’au Palau — an incentive program tied to the pledge: “Ol’au Palau uses the principles of reward and the gamification of sustainable, regenerative actions to encourage visitors to learn more about Palauan culture and about how to keep the Palau Pledge during their stay,” Clarke said.

By taking respectful, sustainable actions such as learning a few words in Palauan and booking with businesses that are reducing their impact on the environment, visitors unlock unique rewards that are only available to Ol’au Palau participants. Palauan elders are working with the Palau Legacy Project to design the program and app, which will be launched in early 2023. “Ol’au Palau will help extend the integration of Palau Pledge into and across the entire visitor experience in Palau,” she added.

Beyond the expansion of destination-specific pledges, the industry has recently seen a proliferation of pledges and pledge-like structures across a wide range of issues targeting tourism stakeholders — including service providers and tourism business owners. Examples include the PLEDGE™ on Food Waste — a certification and benchmarking system focused on seven key pillars; the Future of Tourism Coalition — a signatory-based movement built around 13 guiding principles; and Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency — another signatory-based commitment requiring the creation of climate-action plans, which morphed into the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism and was launched in November 2021 at COP26.

The success of any of tourism-related pledges, Dr. Albrecht said, is in their integration into wider destination-management, sustainability and marketing strategies.

“Consistent messaging is key: Mass tourism destinations or destinations whose visitor communication, marketing and promotion are suggestive of unrestrained hedonism may struggle to attract and satisfy visitors who prioritize sustainable or responsible travel and related behaviors,” she said.

This requires that industry stakeholders across all facets of destination management work closely together to ensure pledges are strategically developed to reinforce desired actions and behavior — and that other elements of destination-management plans support pledge content. When cohesively developed with intention and not just as passive lip service, they can create awareness as well as activate desired action.

“Many visitors want to do the right thing — they just don’t always know what the right thing to do is when they are in a new country or place,” Clarke asserted. “Visitor pledges, and the education programs that surround those pledges, can play a crucial role in helping visitors to understand their responsibilities and take positive action to behave sustainably and responsibly when they are traveling.”