Responsible travel pledges: What are they and can they help save the planet?

Apr 1, 2020

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In the never-ending effort to make travel more sustainable, destinations across the globe have tried many things: limiting the number of visitors to fragile environments, promoting hiking in less popular places, protecting wildlife and encouraging waste management and water conservation. In the last few years, destinations have come up with myriad ways to try and prevent visitors from disrespecting their natural ecosystems — even if travelers had been doing so unwittingly.

Related: What your favorite travel companies are doing to fight climate change

To help educate tourists and simultaneously encourage them to behave kindly to the places they’re visiting, some places have come up with sustainability and responsibility pledges. These pledges are shared with visitors (usually online and on the ground at places like airports, visitors centers, hotels and car rental agencies), where the visitors are asked (but not usually required) to commit to being responsible travelers while in the destination.

While that might mean different things to different places, in general, these pledges ask travelers and locals to promise to behave a certain way to protect the natural resources and beauty of a place and show respect to the local community and culture.

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In This Post

Destinations with pledges

Responsible travel pledges are on the rise at destinations around the globe. At the end of 2017, the tiny island country of Palau launched the Palau Pledge. Palau’s pledge is one of the strictest, with visitors required to sign a stamp in their passport that has them promising to “tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully.”

Iceland, which has suffered from over-tourism, started an online pledge in 2017, and in November 2018 added a kiosk at the airport inviting (but not requiring) visitors to take its pledge. Now, there are dozens of naturally beautiful destinations — from Kauai to Aspen to New Zealand — that have sustainability pledges.

The mountain town of Aspen was inspired by the Iceland Pledge in 2018 to create the Aspen Pledge. It encourages people to be prepared when they venture out so they don’t need to be rescued, ski safely and with respect for others, not interact with wildlife, take selfies safely and, more cheekily, not to ski in jeans.

(Photo courtesy of Visit Aspen)
(Photo courtesy of Visit Aspen)

New Zealand’s Tiaki Promise strives to educate visitors about the cultural differences they may encounter in New Zealand and how they can act as a guardian for future generations. It asks people to drive carefully, be prepared, show respect, protect nature and keep the country clean.

Two of the State of Hawaii’s islands, Kauai and the Island of Hawaii (aka the Big Island), each have their own pledges. Hawaii has the Pono Pledge and Kaua’i has the Aloha Pledge, which is addressed specifically toward the children of Kaua’i, pledging to preserve and protect their special home and to engage with people and places in a respectful way.

Kauai (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Kauai. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

It also lists tips for ways people can behave sustainably, like keeping off reefs and only using reef-safe sunscreen, staying in licensed accommodations and not geotagging on social media. Discouraging geotagging is meant to help control overcrowding in natural sites that cannot withstand too many humans — because when people see a beautiful Instagram post, they can’t stop themselves from trying to recreate it. This is such a problem in certain places that Aspen has a separate pledge just covering responsible social media tagging.

California has several places with pledges, including Big Sur, South Lake Tahoe and Sonoma County — which has been working for years to becoming the nation’s first 100% certified sustainable wine region and is nearly there, with 99% of its local vineyards certified. Sonoma enacted a responsibility pledge for visitors in August 2019.

Sonoma County is a place that has seen over-tourism, especially in its most vulnerable natural environments. Whether in the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Preserve, in the Sonoma Coast State Park or any of the coastal beaches and even within our vineyards, visitors need to be aware of the long-term impacts of their actions,” says Sonoma County Tourism CEO/President Claudia Vecchio. “This pledge gives visitors a chance to confirm their commitment to considering the environment and those around them while in Sonoma County.”

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Sonoma (Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism)
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Sonoma (Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism)

The million-dollar question: Do these pledges work?

Bend, Oregon, was one of the first U.S. places to launch a pledge at the end of 2017 and has since seen it signed more than 30,000 times. The Iceland pledge has been signed more than 60,000 times. Since the Aspen Pledge was implemented, the city has seen a 76% increase in signed pledges on its website.

Mt. Bachelor and Todd Lake in Bend, Oregon. (Photo by Morgan Somers/Getty Images)
Mt. Bachelor and Todd Lake in Bend, Oregon. (Photo by Morgan Somers/Getty Images)

Of course, signatures don’t necessarily translate into action (or inaction, as the case may be). There is no way to track whether a person who signed the pledge kept the promise. Still, Eliza Voss, the director of marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, thinks it helps as part of a larger sustainability commitment.

“I do think that people want to give back and want to ‘fit in’ with the local community they are visiting. A pledge is one part of an overall educational messaging campaign that can improve visitor behavior,” she says.

JoAnna Haugen, a writer and speaker at the intersection of sustainable travel and environmental conservation and the founder of Rooted, has been researching and writing on sustainability pledges for two years. And while many places have jumped on the pledge bandwagon, she agrees that it needs to be just one piece of the sustainability puzzle.

“Palau’s mandatory pledge does more than just ask travelers to agree to guidelines for good behavior. The country is committed to enforcing its environmental protection laws,” says Haugen.

“But it’s also important to note that Palau’s pledge isn’t just a stand-alone marketing tactic,” she adds. “In addition to the pledge stamped into travelers’ passports and enforcement to back it up, the country has a much wider strategy to attract responsible travelers and protect its natural habitat. People follow the pledge because they have to and because it’s a priority for Palau that is present throughout all aspects of the tourism supply chain.”

All is not lost for places that don’t require a signature to enter the destination — but they do need to make the effort to back it up.

“[Pledges] can help create awareness and educate travelers. It’s a good way to open the dialogue about behavior expectations with travelers, but information alone won’t alter behavior,” says Haugen.

How can destinations make their pledges effective?

One suggestion from Haugen is to involve locals in creating the pledge, as they have the most to lose from misbehaving tourists. She also recommends that travelers receive messaging about a destination’s expectations throughout their trip planning and purchasing journey, not just when they’ve arrived at the destination.

After that, consequences are also key, she says.

“Empowering locals and encouraging them to exhibit the behavior they expect from tourists is vital,” she adds. “This should be backed up with reinforcement in the form of fines and other consequences if — after all of this — travelers don’t respect and observe guidelines established by a destination.”

This type of reinforcement has been seen in places like Rome, which — while it doesn’t have a pledge — has enacted actual laws to discourage inappropriate tourist behavior.

Roman Forum (Photo by Imgorthand / Getty Images)
Roman Forum (Photo by Imgorthand/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Bend has now gone a step further. Last fall, it banded together with other mountain towns (11 and counting, including Aspen) in the U.S. and Canada to create Pledge for the Wild, which asks visitors to donate one dollar per hour spent in the wild to local conservation groups in the places they are visiting. This money will be used to help preserve the natural flora and fauna of places that can be damaged from human interaction.

“Aspen is a destination people visit because of the wonderful natural resources that we have for recreating and enjoying,” says Voss. “People genuinely might not know the protocols — or they might forget — and we have to provide the resources that allow them to make informed decisions about their behavior.”

Bottom line

Whenever we travel, it’s important to be a good global citizen. As more and more destinations draft their own responsible travel pledges, it’s time to think about your travel style and patterns. Are you doing all you can to travel lightly and leave no trace? What can you do to improve the balance for all the destinations you visit? These are the questions we’ll all be asked in the future.

Featured image by Ippei Naoi/Getty Images

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