In a world-first initiative, visitors to Palau will be offered exclusive experiences based on how they treat the environment and culture, not by how much they spend.
Despite being home to fewer than 20,000 residents, the Republic of Palau is making an outsized impact to preserve the planet. Not only did the country – made up of 300-plus islands in the West Pacific – adopt the world’s first anti-nuclear constitution in 1979, but it also implemented the Palau Pledge in December 2017, which requires international visitors to sign a pledge stamp in their passports that promises the children of Palau that they will “tread lightly” and “preserve and protect” the islands.
Now, as the archipelago opens up to tourism again after two long years of lockdown, a new programme called Ol’au Palau is offering a world-first initiative of “gamifying” responsible tourism, whereby travellers will be offered exclusive experiences based on how they treat the environment and culture, not by how much they spend.
The programme, managed via a custom app that’s launching in the coming months, offers points to those who treat the island nation gently and respectfully by making sustainable decisions like using reef-safe sunscreen, visiting culturally important sites (such as the Belau National Museum and Bai, the oldest in Micronesia) and eating sustainably sourced local food.
Guests can then redeem their points to unlock cultural and nature-based experiences that are normally reserved for Palauans and their close friends, such as taking an unmarked hike, swimming at a secret cave, sharing a meal with locals and elders or casting a reel in a secluded fishing spot. It also promises new experiences that may have once been rare for tourists to partake in, including a first birth ceremony, which is an important cultural event.
The idea for the Palau Pledge came about in 2015, by which time tourism had reached 150,000 visitors annually – more than seven times the country’s population – many of whom didn’t understand the fragile ecosystem or how important sustainability was to residents. While Palauan culture values hospitality and treating visitors with respect, locals could see how under-educated visitors were eroding their environment.
To combat this, Palau needed a way to educate travellers and have them earn the privilege of being a trusted friend, said resident Laura Clarke, who co-founded the Palau Legacy Project in 2020 with Palauan Jennifer Koskelin-Gibbons to spearhead these preservation initiatives. With Clarke’s background in marketing and advertising, and Koskelin-Gibbons’ work in national preservation efforts, O’lau Palau was born.
In the local language, Palauan, “Ol’au Palau” is a way of calling out to friend to invite them into your space. “So if you’re on a beach, for example, and someone calls out ‘Ol’au’, it means, ‘Hey, come over here, come be with us, share our food, come to this thing.’ Visitors have a chance to earn that privilege of being a friend by doing certain behaviours,” said Clarke.