Success of Responsible Tourism Pledges Falls on Destinations, Not Travelers

23 April 2019

When international travelers arrive in Palau, they’re greeted by the sapphire-blue sea, tropical weather, and a special stamp in their passports as they make their way through customs. The stamp is a 16-line pledge they need to sign stating they’ll act in an ecologically responsible way to preserve and protect this island nation for future generations of Palauans.

With this mandatory pledge, launched in December 2017, Palau became the first country requiring travelers to acknowledge and commit to responsible tourism practices such as treading lightly, acting kindly, and exploring mindfully. Palau may be the first country to require travelers to sign such a pledge upon entering the country, but this certainly isn’t the only tourism pledge in existence.

More than 62,000 people have taken the online Icelandic Pledge since it launched in June 2017. In November 2018, a “pledge button” was also installed in Keflavik Airport allowing visitors to commit to responsible travel practices as soon as they touched down in Iceland. “The idea was to positively affect behavior amongst tourists by highlighting how to travel in a responsible way around Iceland and showing nature the respect it deserves,” said Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, director of Visit Iceland. It has been well received by international visitors, she said.

Travelers are invited to take the Icelandic Pledge when they arrive at Keflavik Airport. © Promote Iceland

In theory, the decision to implement a pledge requires travelers to take a more active role in accepting responsibility for their actions as guests in a destination. However, as destinations seek out ways to enact sustainability policies, the stand-alone pledge is not powerful enough to elicit any meaningful behavior change. “While they can be effective to some extent, they can’t be a comprehensive solution,” said Milena Nikolova, director of knowledge and AdventureEDU for the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA).

In grappling with the fallout from overtourism, many destinations are desperate to get control of the situation, which often includes consequences resulting from destructive traveler behavior. One attempt to encourage travelers to exhibit responsible behavior is the tourism pledge. However, by the time travelers are swimming in Rome’s fountains, this inappropriate behavior has become the social norm, and it’s far too late to ask anyone to read a list of suggested guidelines or press a button indicating agreement to abide by practices that respect and protect the local people, environment, and culture.

In preparing to welcome travelers, many destination management representatives struggle with how to welcome and adapt to travelers’ needs. In reality, it is the travelers who need to adapt, and it’s up to destinations to set clear expectations and guidelines on how they are expected to act. “Destinations have not set the social norms of what is acceptable behavior in their space,” Nikolova said. “They’ve made an effort to adjust to others’ cultures rather than to assert what the cultural landscape is that is comfortable, natural, and authentic to this place and its residents.”

Establishing Social Norms, Enforcing with Rules

While wooing travelers, destinations need to be very clear about what is right and wrong — and back up those assertions with far more than a tourism pledge. “If the problem is that people are simply disrespectful, such as in the case of Rome, a pledge is not going to solve the problem,” Nikolova said. The city of Rome, coincidentally, implemented a number of laws in November 2018 that now prohibits activities like bathing in the fountains, defacing historic artifacts, and street drinking. Police can levy fines and ban people from certain areas.

Similarly, in 2017, city representatives in Venice increased fines for attaching “love locks” to monuments and bridges, littering, and climbing on trees, buildings, and monuments, among other activities. Fines punishing bad behavior that used to average €50 now run upwards of €450 for swimming in the canals and waters around Piazza San Marco.

“It is the destination’s responsibility to take charge,” Nikolova said. “You need to roll back the standards of what is acceptable behavior so that people know what is absolutely unacceptable. In such cases, you have to have stricter rules and enforcement in place.”

Palau’s in-passport pledge was not just an unusual stamp for travelers to carry home as a souvenir. Accompanied by an in-flight video shown to all incoming passengers about responsible behavior and a commitment within the country to enforce environmental protection laws, this pledge established the country’s expectations and backed those up with rules. Further, according to a January 2019 article published by Skift, the pledge is part of a larger plan involving best practice measurements and an accreditation program designed to attract “high-value, conscientious visitors.”

In being very clear about the types of travelers it wants to attract, Palau has asserted its expectations for how travelers should act before they even arrive in-country. “That fundamental thinking about what is cultural tolerance in travel is always on the side of the destination,” Nikolova said. “If we say that the purpose of tourism is to create a better quality of life for the local residents, then certainly adhering to social norms that local residents are comfortable with is one of the fundamental principles. It’s not only that a destination makes money but that the people who come in behave in a way that locals are comfortable with.”

Power of the Pledge: Awareness and Adjustment

This is not to say tourism pledges don’t work. Though destinations shouldn’t rely on them to guide traveler behavior, they can be quite powerful for educating travelers to cultural nuances that may catch them unaware.

“A pledge can make travelers aware. It increases the salience of certain norms. If the problem is that people are unaware, then (a tourism pledge) is a solution. Because it makes you aware and because you’ve signed, you feel more committed,” Nikolova said. “Destinations need to work with travelers to make sure they know what the expectations are and then work with them to make sure they actually adhere and stay within that established framework.”

Building pledges into larger awareness campaigns can help reinforce their messaging. In Aspen, Colorado, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA) unveiled its Aspen Pledge alongside a larger responsible tourism campaign called “How to Aspen,” which offers insight into everything from altitude and traveling with pets to using legalized marijuana and wildfire information. Spurred on by issues with visitors and locals respecting the town, wildlife, and wilderness rules including an influx of car traffic and unfortunate deaths of ill-prepared people in the backcountry, the ACRA used its campaign to increase awareness and education.

Aspen's tourism pledge is part of a larger campaign designed to help people travel responsibly in the destination. © Elle Logan

“Following the summer of 2017, which resulted in unprecedented tragedies on our local mountains, as well as a Colorado population boom (over 100,000 people moving into the state each year), we reflected that, with increased populations looking to recreate in the outdoors, perhaps it was necessary to launch a campaign educating enthusiastic newcomers on how to enjoy our beautiful natural resources,” said Melissa Wisenbaker ACRA’s public relations manager. “The ultimate goal is to educate visitors to be responsible tourists and help ensure that Aspen remains a beautiful and unique destination for years to come.”

Similarly, the Icelandic Pledge is part of a much larger responsible tourism development plan, which is designed, in part, to protect the country’s natural resources, ensure tourist safety, and reduce pressure on frequently visited tourist sites.” The main focus for action by the government and tourism industry is coordination, building infrastructure, and promoting responsible travel behavior,” Pálsdóttir said. As for the pledge’s purpose within this framework, she said, “the goal is to strengthen awareness about responsible travel and engage people to actively pledge to be responsible and encourage others to do the same.”

Beyond The Pledge, A Destination’s Commitment To Itself

Ultimately, responsible tourism won’t be achieved with a tourism pledge. If a destination chooses to adopt one, though, it must be just one piece of its overall sustainable tourism plan built around its own social norms and cultural expectations. Effectiveness lies not in existence but in thoughtful development and strategic execution backed by a willingness to stand up to established guidelines.

However they choose to make their expectations clear — whether that’s through a pledge button at the airport, a pledge stamped in a passport, or community-developed guidelines shared online — destinations need to be loud and clear about the behavior they expect travelers to exhibit, and they need to enforce these assertions with action. Destinations willing to relax their expectations in order to attract tourism stand to suffer from local animosity, cultural and natural degradation, and a cheapened travel experience at the expense of heads in beds.