Since the announcement of the Icelandic Pledge in June 2017, initiatives that encourage visitors to commit to responsible behaviours when they travel have become increasingly common. From the Palau Pledge launched in December 2017 as a compulsory visitor immigration requirement, to Tiaki launched in November 2018 to ask visitors and locals to act as guardians of New Zealand, destination managers are increasingly turning to pledges as a tool to protect destinations.
We have been working with Dr Julia Albrecht from the University of Otago to explore the motivations, strategies and impacts related to these pledges. What has prompted the rise of destination pledges, how are these being developed, and are they effective? Last year, we carried out 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.
Why the rise of the pledge?
In part, the pledges have been created as a response to problems being experienced by destinations with regards to certain tourist behaviours and increasing visitor numbers prior to Covid-19. There also appears to be growing prioritisation of sustainability in the tourism sector and a sense of a moral obligation to 'do the right thing' and preserve destinations for future generations.
This [pledge] is not about anything else, but our responsibility to, and for, that which has been given to us to take care of.
Ultimately, the long-term goal of the pledges is to positively influence behaviour. The types of behaviours that interviewees discussed varied, but were commonly related to inspiring greater respect for the natural environment and local culture(s) as well as ensuring visitor safety.
The goal of behaviour change was closely linked to the goal of education. Several interviewees described how visitors do not intentionally seek to have a negative impact on the places they visit. However, when travellers lack information about how to behave responsibly in a new environment or culture, then this can result in inappropriate behaviours and associated negative impacts. Some interviewees believed that behaviour change would therefore be a direct consequence of increased information and education.
It takes a bit of work ... to help people be good visitors. Nobody wants to be a bad visitor... So, how can we just give a helping hand?
However, other interviewees thought that while tourists might not intentionally seek out opportunities to be bad visitors, they do have a tendency to 'turn off their brains' when travelling and forget that every action they take has an impact. The goal of behaviour change was therefore also linked to the goal of inspiring and engaging visitors by highlighting WHY destinations deserved to be protected and the important role that we all play as travellers.
I’m just hoping that the travellers who see the Pledge would maybe stop to think for a while about why is this written? Not just why is it written but ... maybe reflecting on [their] behaviour because sometimes when we are travelling we don’t really realise how our behaviour can be seen by the locals. And quite often unfortunately also it seems that we kind of turn off our brain when we travel.
How are pledges being developed?
Across all destinations involved in this research, the development of visitor pledges involved collaboration and consultation. This was described as beneficial for a range of reasons including the opportunity to incorporate different perspectives and expertise, increase access to funding and resources, and create shared ownership of the pledges.
All destinations acknowledged the importance of creativity and marketing in developing the pledges and talked about the need to be creative in communicating the WHY driving the pledge. The co-founders of the Palau Pledge compared this to other marketing campaigns seeking to influence consumer behaviour and highlighted the importance of creating an emotional connection with consumers that would inspire them to behave differently.
One of the reasons I think that the Palau Pledge has been so successful, is that we took the winning [sales and marketing] formula from companies like Apple... and we said, “Well, we can do this for Palau. We can apply those same principles”. And we always talk about how it’s not good enough to just take a pledge for the sake of taking a pledge. It needs to have a specific emotive purpose... and it’s a pledge specifically to the children of Palau.
Interviewees also described the importance of ensuring destination pledges represented their culture(s) and values. The language, symbolism and stories used were all described as important for communicating the WHY behind the pledges. The incorporation of local culture(s) and language(s) was also described as an opportunity to represent the uniqueness of a destination.
The importance of ensuring that the pledges resonated with different visitor markets was also highlighted. Incorporating the voices of local children in the communication of the pledges was one approach used to effectively inspire visitors across a variety of cultures. Another approach for ensuring the pledges resonated with different markets was through the translation of the pledges into the languages of key markets.
Are the pledges working?
In general, interviewees described the pledges as successfully raising awareness for the need to protect destinations and setting expectations for appropriate behaviour. However, with the exception of Palau, the pledges are optional and uptake has primarily been dependent on the organic reach of the pledges as well as how much they have been promoted through media, social media and industry.
The question of whether the pledges are serving as an effective visitor management tool and successfully influencing visitor behaviour remains. While it has been relatively easy for organisations to monitor the reach of their pledges, it is proving to be much more difficult to measure whether awareness of the pledges is translating into behavioural changes. In addition to the difficulty of developing meaningful impact measurement indicators, interviewees also highlighted the challenge of attributing changes in behaviour specifically to the pledges.
I think the other thing that’s really important to mention, is because this [pledge] is a world first, this is brand new, the measurement component is challenging. So, there are partners in this space, but it is cutting edge. It’s really never been done before.
Nonetheless, Palau is working hard to develop a monitoring framework for the Palau Pledge and is drawing on expertise from a range of organisations including UNWTO. Meanwhile, New Zealand has developed a range of approaches focused on monitoring the response of local people, visitors and industry to Tiaki.
What does this mean for GOOD travellers?
If you're considering a trip to a destination with a pledge, take it! The pledge will give you an opportunity to begin learning about why and how to protect the destination you are visiting. Here is a list of the national destination pledges we're currently aware of:
If your destination isn't on the list, take a look at the Travel Better Pledge by Sustainable Travel International, which has been designed as a global pledge to inspire travellers to any destination to ensure they have a positive impact on the places they visit:
Take the pledges as a first step and then use the pledges as an opportunity to explore some of the issues in greater detail. And remember that every action you take as a traveller matters - a participant from one of our interviews explains:
Quite often unfortunately also it seems that we kind of turn off our brain when we travel because you’re just a visitor, you’re there just for a short while so then it’s more like ‘Oh well, you know, doesn’t really matter how I behave”, when it really truly matters.
What does this mean for destination managers?
With the global movement to rethink tourism, pledges provide a new tool for destination managers to educate and inspire future visitors. So if you’re considering creating a pledge for your destination, you will want to ask:
What specific outcomes do you want to achieve from creating a pledge?
If behaviour change is your goal, how can you bring together the Why and the How to effectively influence behaviour?
How can you ensure that your pledge is unique to your destination and represents your culture and language appropriately? Who will you involve in the development of your pledge?
How can you ensure that your pledge successful connects with visitors across a variety of cultures and languages?
What channels will you use to create awareness for your pledge and maintain momentum after launch?
How will you integrate the pledge into wider sustainability initiatives and behaviour change campaigns to ensure success?
How will you test, monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of your pledge?