The Republic of Palau, an island country located in the western Pacific Ocean with a population of less than 20,000 people and welcomes more than 160,000 visitors to its idyllic shores each year.
Careless behavior from visitors though has started to erode Palau’s pristine environment and negatively impacting its culture.
To confront and change behavior that detrimentally affects the land and its residents future, Host/Havas has created the “Palau Pledge”—a world-first eco-initiative that asks all inbound visitors to make a compulsory promise, directly to the children of Palau, to preserve their home before they can enter the country.
Palau has become the first country to update its immigration policy and landing procedures to implement such legislation, aimed at preserving its vibrant culture and the beauty of its natural environment for future generations. It also hopes that other countries will follow suit to protect the planet for children worldwide.
Host/Havas Client Business Director Alex Ball talks about bringing the pledge to life, working on a brief that will bring positive change to an entire country, and how you can help.
Why does Palau feel the impact of mass tourism more than many other Pacific islands?
Palau is the 13th smallest country in the world. As you can imagine, being so small means it has limited resources available for the preservation of its environment. In fact, they only have four ranger patrols, who monitor tourists, fishermen and locals alike, in an area of ocean nearly the size of Spain. Simply put, they are not equipped to handle the spike in tourism seen in the past three years.
Palau currently receives around 160,000 tourists a year, which is eight times their own population, and global tourism continues to grow. Coping with this pressure does not come naturally to the Palauans, who are beautiful people with a calm, kind and polite nature. They’re simply not used to other cultures who are often loud, brash and even pushy, and it’s not in their nature to “tell someone off” for doing the wrong thing.
Lastly, and almost most importantly, Palau’s environment is so immaculate – easily one of the most beautiful places in the world – the damage will be more noticeable should we not intervene now.
How did the project get underway?
Our clients, the unpaid founders of Palau Legacy Project (PLP), Laura Clarke, Nicolle Fagan, Jenn Koskelin Gibbons and Nanae Singeo, were a mix of locals and expatriates living in Palau. They came together, all mutually heartbroken by the environmental damage they had seen firsthand, resolute in fixing the behavior causing it before the problem was irreversible.
Between them, they had global experience in PR, client-side marketing, and advertising, giving them the skills and relationships to be able to protect their beautiful island home. They just needed some help. Nicolle, an ex-Arnold Boston employee, had worked with our then CEO Anthony Gregorio previously and reached out to Host/Havas for support for their pro-bono brief. We could immediately see the opportunity to use our expertise in behavior change and creating meaningful connections to do something incredibly positive for an entire country. Suffice it to say, it’s not the brief you receive every day!
What was the insight that led the team to the pledge?
As part of its culture, Palau has a traditional moratorium declared by its local leaders that place a halt to behaviors leading to the detriment or destruction of places, species, and other things. This tradition is called “bul.” Having observed the bad behavior of tourists for many years, the team at PLP knew they had to create a modern-day application of this ancient practice.
In calling out individual tourist’s destructive behavior, it became clear to the team that these visitors simply didn’t understand or see that their actions had consequences. They were largely oblivious to the damage they were causing, though when asked to change their behavior, they would. It became clear to PLP that the challenge was education, but with a twist. Rather than forcing people to learn about correct behavior, it would be important to create an emotional connection with them that predicated their behavior being a choice—a choice in good taste.
A large percentage of the tourists in Palau are visiting from Asian status-driven markets where social pressure to be seen wearing, going to or doing the fashionable thing is valuable currency. We could activate this social pressure amongst tour groups to affect individual behavior thus changing it at a mass level. By ensuring every entrant into Palau had a basic understanding of how they were meant to behave, we could invoke the right sort of behavior in a way that was self-policing. Now, we just had to make sure every single inbound tourist abided by the message.
Was it difficult to get the legislation passed?
Short answer, yes. But through strong relationships on the island, a huge amount of work, and incredible drive from the PLP, we were able to secure the different levels of approvals. In a nutshell, had we not gone about it the right way, we wouldn’t have been able to deliver this project.
Palau, as a small island, has a hugely interconnected social presence. Everyone knows everyone. We had to identify every possible stakeholder and ensure they were engaged in a respectful way and in the correct order. Jenn, as a pillar of the Palauan community, was able to help us navigate this complex and culturally important process all the way to the President Tommy Remengesau himself.
Thankfully, the idea itself is so simple, yet pioneering; it was met at every meeting through the long process with huge praise and excitement. Participants could see how well the idea would work in practice, and the prospect of humanizing the idea through the children, the Palauan people’s literal future, often led to tears of joy. Further to this, the cultural sensitivity expressed in the idea demonstrated a level of understanding they never expected of non-Palauans. We were welcomed with open arms and hugged by Ministers and the First Lady alike. It’s not exactly how most of my other client presentations end!
How did the team come to work with children to create the pledge?
Once we had approval from the President we were able to work directly with the Minister of Education, Sinton Soalablai, to coordinate a workshop with 30+ children from each of the 16 states in Palau. It was an incredibly important step for the project as the proverb “We did not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” has been a guiding principle throughout the entire project.
Working with a mix of ages, we kept the tasks really simple so as to be able to engage everyone and also hopefully hit upon some simple, but key insights. We asked the children to write a letter to a visiting family and draw pictures of their favorite places, activities, and animals. Their words and drawings became the backbone of the pledge. Their love for their home and environment was infectious; the islands of Palau and all its creatures are quite literally a part of who they are.
Interestingly, our intent had always been to remain positive in communications with tourists — not chastising them for poor behavior but encouraging good. Amazingly, the children, with no direction at all, instinctively used that tact in their letters. Not a single one criticized, but instead just asked visitors to be kind, loving and respectful. It was an incredibly moving day.
How did you get celebrities such as The Rolling Stones on board?
Our client, Laura Clarke, has 15+ years of experience in PR and with that comes a lot of connections. On top of this, with Palau being a magnet for the rich and famous, Sergey Brin and Larry Page are regular visitors. So, some good old-fashioned hustling got the project in front of some key global influencers.
Further to this, Leonardo DiCaprio visited Palau when filming “Before the Flood” and interviewed the President, and has now pledged his support in promoting the cause to his large community of social followers. Similarly, other environmental influencers such as John Kerry are poised to take this project to the masses.
But, to answer your original question, we were able to have the opportunity to ask The Rolling Stones, excluding Mick, unfortunately, for their support through Ty Wood, Ronnie’s son. As the founder of Project Zero, there’s a natural synergy between our two causes.
What long-term goals do you have for this campaign?
While this project has just launched, it’s an ongoing initiative. The changes to legislation, landing procedure, and immigration passport stamps are in place and will impact every tourist for years to come.
Tourism, as an industry, is continuing to grow and is showing no signs of slowing down. As a global population, we need to act and ensure we protect what’s valuable to us.
That’s why we hope this project will act as a tipping point for other countries to implement a similar pledge. After all, if a small country such as Palau can lead the way, surely bigger markets suffering similar issues can follow.
In terms of results, it was a confronting moment for us when we realized that the success of this project would not be immediately measurable. After 18+ months of work, you feel like you should at least get to celebrate the impact you’ve had. But unlike the day-to-day job, there are no sales reports or brand awareness tracking to determine our success. Our efficacy will be measured in decades, and through generations knowing that our actions helped preserve one of the most beautiful places on earth.
What can others do to help–especially those who won’t be visiting Palau?
As a network, our population is actually double that of Palau’s. I ask everyone reading this to share the work as a demonstration of solidarity for the tiny island nation that’s spearheading a global issue.
Visit palaupledge.com, watch the in-flight film (spoiler alert: there’s a furry giant in it), learn how to be an ethical tourist and most importantly, sign the pledge digitally and share it with your social networks.
Further to this, we see the project as being a guide for the sensitive behavior of all tourists; not just those visiting Palau. If we all act more consciously of our impact when traveling we can preserve the world’s most beautiful, important places for all of our children to enjoy.