Successful Tourism Pledges are Only One Part of a Sustainable Destination Strategy

4 February 2020

Since the announcement of the Icelandic Pledge in June 2017, initiatives that ask visitors to commit to responsible behaviors such as respecting the natural environment and acting kindly when they travel have become increasingly common. From the Palau Pledge, a compulsory visitor immigration requirement launched in December 2017, to the Tiaki Promise, which asks visitors to act as guardians of New Zealand, destination managers are increasingly turning to pledges as a tool to potentially prevent and/or mitigate possible negative impacts of tourist visitation.

Despite the growing popularity of pledges, the question of whether they are an effective method for visitor management remains. With the exception of Palau, pledges are voluntary and there are no consequences for not taking a destination’s pledge or not following the commitments in the pledge. Therefore, pledges have been criticized for being superficial and not having sufficient power to elicit any meaningful behavior change. It is important to note 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.

Destinations need to set clear expectations and guidelines on how travelers are expected to act. Learn how pledges can enable this process in “Success of Responsible Tourism Pledges Falls on Destinations, Not Travelers.

Research we recently conducted provides evidence that individual tourism businesses will play a critical role in influencing the success or failure of pledges. Funded by the Otago Commerce Grant through the Otago Business School at the University of Otago, Dunedin,  New Zealand, the project explored the motivations, strategies, and impacts related to tourist pledges. What has prompted the rise of destination pledges, how are they being developed, and are they effective?

We conducted in-depth interviews with 19 experts involved in the development and implementation of destination pledges in Iceland, Palau, Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Finland to address these questions. Our findings suggest the extent to which tourism operators engage with their destination’s pledge are a key factor in determining whether the intended behaviors to which visitors commit when signing a pledge translate into actual behaviors in a destination.

Pledges as a Tool for Tourism Businesses

From the outset, one of the pledges’ objectives has been to provide a tool for tourism businesses to use when communicating with their clients about appropriate behaviors. Pledges typically use positive language and images to ensure visitors feel welcome and empowered, as opposed to restricted or berated.

We repeatedly heard from our interviewees that the pledges served as a platform to begin conversations around responsible behavior with visitors. While there is often willingness among tourism businesses to raise awareness for how to be responsible visitors, they sometimes don’t know where to start. Pledges were described as providing an opportunity to avoid having to “tell off” visitors and instead promote open and positive dialogue.

Across all destinations, the stakeholders involved in our research consistently reported positive reactions from the tourism industry toward the pledges. Interviewees described the pledges as providing an opportunity to unite the tourism industry and create a shared vision for a more responsible and sustainable tourism sector.

What This Means for Destinations

First, destinations should understand the benefits of engaging the tourism industry in the pledge development process. The involvement of industry stakeholders in the development of a pledge is an important opportunity to bring together diverse interests. It helps build a foundation of shared ownership to increase effectiveness of the pledge’s subsequent implementation.

In New Zealand, for example, Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA), New Zealand Māori Tourism, and Tourism Holdings Ltd are all on the governance group for Tiaki. These organizations represent a wide cross-section of New Zealand’s tourism businesses and have enabled Tiaki to become embedded into wider industry initiatives, including TIA’s New Zealand Tourism Sustainability Commitment. By engaging these organizations from the outset, there is no doubt this contributed toward the integration of Tiaki into their own organizations and industry networks.

Additionally, destinations need to decide the level with which individual tourism businesses are being encouraged versus required to engage with the pledges. Most destinations take a voluntary approach. However, in Palau, national tour operator regulations require tour operators to discuss the Palau Pledge during activity briefings in order to achieve compliance.

Finally, independent of the obligation level enforced by destinations on tourism businesses, destinations need to consider how to most effectively support tourism businesses to become champions for the pledges.

We’ve seen a range of approaches being used to engage tour operators and accommodation providers to promote the pledges. In New Zealand, for example, tourism businesses are given access to a range of Tiaki visual assets through the Tourism New Zealand website, and Tourism New Zealand recently offered a free online webinar titled “How to embrace Tiaki in your business.” The challenge will be how to maintain momentum with the pledges through ongoing reinforcement. Destinations will also need to create fresh content and resources.

What This Means for Tourism Businesses

Residents living in a destination who have direct contact with visitors are at the forefront of ensuring whether commitments made by visitors through a pledge are translated into actual behaviors.

Research demonstrates information alone is often insufficient in changing behavior. However, when visitors have the opportunity to learn directly from local people about the impact of their actions, they are more likely to follow behavioral guidelines. In addition, messaging is often more effective when it is delivered as close as possible to the time or place where a behavior occurs. Frontline tourism workers such as guides or tourist information center representatives have a critical role to play in ensuring pledges are effective in influencing visitor behavior.

For pledges to have the greatest positive influence on visitor behavior, tourism businesses need to explore how to integrate them into all levels of their operations. Though some tourism businesses are already communicating about pledges through their social media and websites, tourism businesses need to go beyond one-way communication and use the pledges as a platform to initiate conversations with visitors. Tourism Holdings Ltd in New Zealand, for example, provides training to empower staff to incorporate information about Tiaki into their conversations with visitors.

While tourism pledges are designed to elicit responsible behavior on behalf of travelers, it’s also important for tourism representatives to “walk the talk.” Tourism-related companies should incorporate the pledge initiatives into their operational and sustainability policies and encourage their staff to care for the destination the way they ask travelers to treat it.