The Republic of Palau, like many other island nations in the Pacific, relies heavily on tourism for the health of its economy, and each year it welcomes tourists from all over the world to explore its shores. But last month, in a world-first aimed at building awareness of the environmental effects of mass tourism on the island, Palau became the first country to require visitors to sign a pledge within the visa stamp in their passports to help preserve the area for future generations.
Tourism can bring many social as well as economic benefits to a region, but it can also cause extensive damage. Palau is the thirteenth smallest nation in the world, but according to The Palau Legacy project, a group of volunteers that works alongside the government, it attracts almost eight times its population in tourists each year, and as this number continues to grow, so problems increasingly arise.
Mass tourism in Palau is having a devastating impact on the limestone and volcanic islands, with its rich biodiversity under threat. Water supply, beaches, coral reefs and heritage sites are all being affected, and there have been countless examples of tourists disrespecting the natural and living ecosystems. This new initiative has been launched with the hope of preserving the vital incoming economic value of tourism, while simultaneously creating a better understanding of small changes that tourists can make to help to preserve the environment.
The pledge, which was drafted with the help of children from across Palau, reads: “Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.” It is stamped in visitors’ passports and must be signed before tourists are permitted to enter the country, and anyone found breaking the conditions of the pledge may be fined.
The people of Palau themselves, from the country’s president to the wider population, have also taken the pledge, which also advices that marine life such as shells and corals must not be collected for souvenirs, that sealife must not be fed, that treading on or touching coral must be avoided, that the local customs and people must be respected, and that littering is not permitted.
A digital version of the pledge has been set up online and acts as a source for all environmental and visitor information, and it also hosts a video, which will be shown as a compulsory in-flight film, designed to educate all incoming visitors about their responsibility towards the environment.
Palau began to take steps to protect its shores back in 2015 when it declared 500,000 square kilometres of its waters a marine sanctuary, with commercial fishing and oil drilling now banned in the region. The country is also educating its youth about looking after their island home, with environmental programs part of the school curriculum. And it is the young that are at the center of the new initiative which aims to ensure that they inherit the same pristine natural resources that have existed in the country for countless generations.
Main Photo Credit: Mandy Etpison