Travel, but tread lightly: a look at why we must up our social responsibility

'Travel changes prejudices and perceptions and, importantly, allows us to have our own experiences and judgments,' says tourism expert Greg Klassen

Klassen worked with tourism authorities in Jordan to help position the country as an accessible adventure destination. Courtesy Rupert Shanks / ATTA
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“Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home.”

If you’ve been to the tiny Pacific Ocean archipelago of Palau in the last two years, then you’re likely familiar with these words. They are the opening line of a pledge stamped in every visitor’s passport, which must be duly signed before travellers are permitted into the country.

Introduced in December 2017, the Palau Pledge insists that travellers tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully during their time on the islands. As the first country in the world to change its immigration laws for the cause of environmental protection, Palau is at the forefront of a push to encourage travellers to become more socially responsible.

The Palau Pledge is stamped in the passport of every visitor to the Micronesian nation. Visitors must sign the pledge and promise to tread lightly on the land.. Courtesy The Palau Legacy Project

For Greg Klassen, partner at international management consultancy Twenty31, the Palau Pledge marked a turning point in a decades-long career in tourism. Born on Canada's Vancouver Island, Klassen cut his teeth in the tourism industry and quickly fell in love with it. He eventually became the chief executive of Destination Canada and has been recognised by Strategy magazine as one of the top names in the travel and tourism industry.

He has worked with more than 50 destinations to help them recognise what makes them special. The company has served as research adviser to Dubai Tourism, assisted Ras Al Khaimah in positioning itself as an adventure hub and worked with tourism authorities in Jordan to market the country as a place for off-the-beaten-path travel. However, it was through his work in Micronesia that Klassen found the inspiration to coin the term "traveller social responsibility" – a commitment from tourists to tread lightly on the land.

The Palau Pledge

Klassen was working on a project in Palau while the island nation was experiencing an ocean crisis, with fishermen ransacking its waters searching for prized Ahi tuna. As they fished, they destroyed 95 per cent of everything else they caught. To combat this, Palau declared the entire marine region surrounding its islands as a protected area.

Four women living in Palau laid the foundations for what would lead to the development of the Palau pledge. Courtesy The Palau Legacy Project

Authorities knew the decision would result in a revenue drop for the country, but were hopeful that sustainable ­tourists, attracted by the country’s conservation efforts, would balance the shortfall. The move worked too well. Overfishing declined dramatically, but soon after, one of the world’s smallest countries was overrun with visitors.

“The worry then was that Palau was simply substituting one egregious practice, overfishing, for another, overtourism,” explains Klassen. “Uninformed travellers were standing on the sensitive reefs, extracting coral for ­souvenirs, spending little money in local shops, and largely ignoring their own impact on the fragile local culture and environment.”

Seeing what was happening, four women living in the country began to lay the foundations for what would lead to the development of the Palau Pledge.

What is TSR?

Greg Klassen believes the future of travel relies heavily on Traveller Social Responsbility (TSR). Courtesy Twenty31

“If a tiny island nation could achieve this, imagine what other nations could accomplish by holding their visitors to account under a traveller social responsibility commitment,” says Klassen.

Soon after, he officially coined the term Traveller Social Responsibility, which he believes is critical to the future of travel. "We've all heard of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or the idea that corporations need to step up to the social, environmental and economic challenges facing our world," explains Klassen. "Traveller Social Responsibility (TSR) is similar, but places responsibility on the traveller to commit to tread lightly on the land, and truly respect the people and culture they are visiting."

Following a TSR-led way of travel would mean planning and travelling sustainably. Rather than taking a trip somewhere because it's a popular spot or because there are cheap deals available, TSR would see travellers book destinations based on a place's sustainability efforts. "Choosing to work with businesses that have a social responsibility, whether that's by including local experiences, employing more people from the community or selling local handicrafts, is one way to implement TSR," he explains.

“TSR would also see travellers book trips through tourism corporations like Intrepid Travel or Jetwing Hotels, who support the empowerment of women in the communities they operate in, or with one of the many operators that run full carbon-­neutral operations.”

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For too many years, the onus of travelling responsibly has been left to the corporate world. As is often the case when profits are involved, many companies have paid only lip-­service to their responsibilities. And when it comes to travellers, the only real decision to date has been deciding whether to re-use hotel towels or leave them lying in the bathtub to be replaced. In today’s informed world, travellers are thirsty for more options.

Flight shame

Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and her army of millions are making their voices heard about protecting the planet. She has spearheaded action against climate change and people, especially youngsters, are making it clear that they passionately agree with what she says. Thunberg has also been responsible for the rise of flygskam. The flight-shaming movement began in Scandinavia and is slowly picking up pace around the world. Yet while not everyone can afford to journey by private zero-­carbon yacht as Thunberg recently did, many travellers are seeking new ways to offset their environmental footprint.

Younger generations care more about their responsibilities as they travel the planet and are paving the way for responsible tourism. Courtesy Wikimedia commons /  Intothewoods7

While travel does have the potential to do damage when carried out irresponsibly, for Klassen it's simultaneously the ultimate educator. "Travel changes prejudices and perceptions and, importantly, allows us to have our own experiences and judgments. We need first-hand experiences and those of our peers to tell us that the world is, in fact, a pretty awesome place."

The Responsible Tourism Institute also acknowledges the importance of travel. “Never before have people travelled so widely, nor encountered such a wide variety of cultures. These connections spur dialogue and exchange, break down cultural barriers and promote the values of tolerance, mutual understanding and respect,” states the non-profit NGO.

Tourism can be an effective tool for promoting cultural diversity, peace and sustainable development. It also offers economic yields, often for destinations that have no other major means of revenue. “The tourism industry is an employer of one in 11 people in the world and is the top foreign exchange earner for many countries. Travel is one of the hardest working industries in the world with an opportunity to reach all parts of a community,” explains Klassen.

International tourism arrivals continue to grow. Created by Flourish, data from The World Bank

Official tourism statistics predict that by next year an estimated 1.5 billion people will travel annually. That number draws attention to the impact that travellers could have if everyone committed to doing so more responsibly. And while tourism can never be entirely green, the mindsets of today’s travellers are certainly more responsibly focused. “Much of the tourism industry we know today has been built by baby boomers for baby boomers – coach tours, 10 cities in 10-day visits, cruising etc” says Klassen. “Millennials and generation Z travellers seek a vastly different travel experience.”

The World Tourism Organization concurs, stating that: "More than any other market segment, youth and student travellers are paving the way for responsible tourism." This change of mindset is fundamental to the success of TSR, which needs conscious travellers to embrace their responsibility.

TSR-led travel means learning about the cultural aspects of destination to discover more about customs, dialects, traditions and social norms. Courtesy National Parks Association

Tourists following this approach to travel will do so under the direction of various sustainable pillars – from supporting the development of a destination by consuming local products and services, to learning about the cultural aspects of any place visited to learn more about customs, dialects, traditions and social norms. Respecting diversity, minimising impact, avoiding excessive consumption or waste of water and paying attention to how spaces exist in a destination to ensure travellers don't alter local life, also play a major role in the philosophy.

A TSR approach to travel also means contribution to conservation and committing to the protection of ecosystems, a principal Klassen embraced when working with authorities at Parque das Aves in Brazil’s Iguazu Falls. “Iguazu Falls is a haven for thousands of the world’s animal species, including hundreds of birds, but there are dozens of those species at critical risk of extinction due to the loss of rainforest habitat,” he explains. The bird park had always had a conservation focus, but it was originally built as a tourist attraction. Klassen and his team sought to change that, repositioning the park as a conservation project first, with tourism as an add on.

“From signage to education and training of the staff, to ­volunteers, platforms for ­advocacy and a brand that summed it all up, Parque das Aves is now the most successful organisation dedicated to the preservation of the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil.”

As lesser-visited destinations become the new tourism must-sees, TSR has an important role to play and Klassen is positive that the new generation are ready to step up to the environmental mark. "The future of travel will involve travellers who are willing to take accountability for their own travel footprint, whether that be environmentally or socially," says Klassen.

It's fitting, then, that the concluding words of the Palau Pledge, which so inspired Klassens work, read: "The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away."