Palau islands build resilience by tackling ‘overtourism’

The tiny South Pacific nation of Palau faced a huge environmental challenge a few years ago. Its people have now shown how even a small country can devise a big-impact strategy to cultivate sustainability. John Dyer reports.

Tourists are required to sign a contract on their passports where they promise to respect Palau’s environment. (Image credit: Hajo Schatz via Flickr)

Tourism is the main industry in the republic of 23,000 citizens, living on an archipelago of 700 islands. Visitors from around the world come to swim around Palau’s amazing reefs in crystal-clear blue water. They annually outnumber the island’s population eight to one.

But those reefs, like most around the world, were showing signs of distress. High water temperatures led to bleaching that killed off reefs. Plastic pollution was unavoidable. Overfishing was routine.

Then drought and high levels of toxic chemicals in sunscreen were discovered in Jellyfish Lake, a tourist attraction where divers can swim with millions of beautiful non-stinking jellyfish. Conservationists successfully lobbied to close the lake to visitors in 2016.

Palau officials take action

Next year, a ban on sunscreen takes effect. Customs will confiscate sunscreen that contains chemicals deemed “reef toxic.” Anyone selling banned sunscreen on the island faces fines of $1,000.

“The power to confiscate sunscreens should be enough to deter their non-commercial use, and these provisions walk a smart balance between educating tourists and scaring them away,” said Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau in a statement to the BBC last year.

Remengesau and his colleagues also launched the “Palau Pledge” that requires tourists to sign a contract on their passports where they promise to respect the country’s environment.

“The psychology of signing an official document like a passport and having to sign an arrivals form that makes you opt into keeping the terms of the pledge is deep and cannot be underestimated,” said Laura Clarke, an Australian marketer who helped design the pledge campaign, in an interview with Skift, a tourism news website.

Officials and business cooperate

Lastly, Palau officials and businesses are cooperating with scientists to harvest more open water fish rather than reef fish. The moves came after scientists with the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program, a global partnership of 17 leading research institutions, discovered that overfishing the reefs were undermining their health.

“Dining habits are removing important fish species from local reefs, and it’s ironic that viewing these fish is the reason people come in the first place,” said Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor, an economist who specializes in fisheries at the University of British Columbia. “This is an important step that can be taken now, rather than a future adaptation to climate change.”

Palau can’t alter global carbon emissions that cause climate change. But its people have shown how even a small country can devise a multifaceted strategy to cultivate sustainability.

Combatting ‘overtourism’

Importantly, Palau is also proof that small countries can address “overtourism,” a new watchword among sustainability experts. Europeans are keenly aware of the problem.

“Concerns have been raised from Amsterdam to Dubrovnik about noise pollution, crowded parks, pressure on public facilities and rising rents,” wrote Regina Scheyvens, a professor of Development Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University in the Conversation. “And in what is depicted as a ‘global battle’ between travelers and locals, anti-tourism street marches have occurred in Barcelona and Venice.”

Scheyvens noted that tourism provides one out of every 12 jobs in New Zealand as the number of visitors to the islands increased from 1.2 million in 2013 to 3.8 million last year. But Kiwis are ambivalent. Almost 40 per cent are concerned about the negative impacts of international visitors.

On January 24, Massey University is hosting the world’s first academic conference on tourism and sustainable development goals that the United Nations adopted in 2015. The goals provide a roadmap for international economic growth through 2030 that seeks to curb climate change, pollution, economic disruption and other environmental and humanitarian issues.

“As one of the world’s largest industries, tourism should address sustainability issues head on,” conference organizers state on their website.

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