While travel has the potential to positively impact the places visited—infusing money into local economies, supporting local artisans and conservation projects, and promoting understanding across cultures—it also has the capability to destroy the very things we seek to experience and explore.
Overtourism—defined as when too many tourists overwhelm a destination, shifting the balance from a positive experience to one where tourism becomes unsustainable—is a hot topic in the news these days. Budget airlines and cruise ships are delivering visitors in record numbers, swamping and even damaging historic cities and natural sites around the world. Natural places are especially vulnerable because they’re often located in fragile environments that have less infrastructure. And with the new “happiness trend” of opting to spend money on experiences rather than things, travel is having a particularly good moment right now. For example, climate change is opening up the Arctic like never before. Unfortunately, the destruction of the world’s most pristine and special places is irreversible.
That’s why some nations are instituting “traveler-pledge” policies, where visitors are asked to sign promises that they will be good stewards of the environment during their trips.
But will such volunteer initiatives truly help protect travel hot spots?
Guarding the land
Several countries already have tourist regulations in place. There are limits on the number of visitors a Galapagos island may have at any one time; and in Antarctica, there are caps, as well. But a recent pledge in New Zealand asks that travelers themselves make commitments on how they will behave while traveling.
Based on a similar, officially instituted pledge in Iceland, the Kiwi “Tiaki Promise” asks visitors to “make mates and take only memories,” stay safe on the roads and “only park where I am supposed to.” In response to the problem of tourists falling when taking pictures, the pledge states: “I will take only photos to die for without dying for them.”
Tiaki means “to guard” in the Maori language, and it relates to the Maori principle of being responsible for caring for the land. The pledge is unique in that rather than being a list of dos and don’ts, the promise is more of a set of guidelines—a way of putting people in a certain mind-set when they arrive in the country.
Getting into the Kiwi frame of reference may just help you have a better vacation, too. According to the United Nations, New Zealand is the eighth happiest country in the world, with easy access to nature being one of the key reasons.
Travelers can learn about the Tiaki Promise ahead of vacationing by checking out the dedicated Tiaki website and while traveling internationally on Air New Zealand, the country’s national airline, where a video about the campaign is shown on all flights.
Treading lightly, acting kindly and exploring mindfully
In 2017, before the Iceland and New Zealand pledges, the Pacific island nation of Palau claimed to be the first country to require every incoming visitor to sign a stamped pledge in their passports to be good environmental stewards for the duration of their stays. That’s because in recent years, the average number of visitors to Palau’s shores have been almost seven times greater than the local population.
Those rising numbers brought increasing problems: there have been numerous examples of tourists disrespecting the natural ecosystems—largely out of ignorance. So, the Palau Pledge comes with a mandatory in-flight video that educates all incoming visitors about their responsibility to the environment. Then, instead of the typical entry stamp in their passports, visitors receive a stamped pledge—resembling a five-stanza poem—with a set of vows to the youth of Palau. To enter the country, everyone must vow to “tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully.”
Many locals feel that the Palau Pledge is a small but significant step towards shifting tourists’ attitudes about the value of the country’s natural resources. They’re hopeful that it can also serve as a tool to galvanize the local community towards the same vision of conservation—one that transcends generations, political agendas and village boundaries.
Doing no harm
I’m a bit of a pessimist, so I think that imposing fines for bad behavior while traveling might make people behave better. After all, a blow to the pocketbook is often more memorable than a voluntary pledge that is soon forgotten the moment the first beautiful vista unfolds before you.
But I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to keep positive and try to educate. If such promises become de rigueur around the world, they could get some traction over time and evolve into compelling tools for guiding people and reminding them about appropriate travel behavior. With concern growing regarding the cost to communities from tourism and the ability of local governments to meet those expenses, every idea is worth a try.
At the very least, the pledges won’t do any harm.
And that’s the point of our travels, right?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,