What could a more sustainable travel economy look like when the world fully reopens? It’s a question that Palau, a nation made up of more than 300 islands in the Pacific, pondered while its borders were closed to tourism during the pandemic.
The conclusion, and how Palau plans to operate now that it has reopened, involves changing how visitors “pay” for access to exclusive experiences.
Called Ol’au Palau, the new initiative rewards travelers with unique events and activities based not on how much they spend but rather on “how gently and respectfully [visitors] treat [Palauans’] beautiful but fragile island home.”
“Ol’au Palau aims to help the country bounce back from the pandemic and rebuild its tourism sector sustainably by rewarding visitors for measurably protecting and preserving Palau during their stay,” Palau’s tourism board said in a press release.
Guests can earn points on the program’s app (currently available through registration on the bottom of the Ol’au Palau website) after doing things like offsetting their carbon footprint, eating sustainably sourced food, using reef-safe sunscreen, visiting important national sites, and participating in regenerative tourism projects. Those points then “unlock” one-of-a-kind experiences usually unknown to tourists or explicitly reserved for locals, like access to a secret fishing spot or getting the chance to take part in a symbolic ceremony.
In Palauan, “Ol’au” is a greeting, similar to “come in.” That welcome is the basis for the program—behave responsibly and earn the privilege of having these unique encounters.
“By launching Ol’au Palau, we get to reward our most conscientious guests and protect our most highly-prized tourism asset: our pristine environment and unique culture,” Alan Marbou, a board member at the Palau Visitors Authority and former speaker of the Koror State Government, said in a release. “The pandemic has provided our planet with a much-needed wake-up call and an opportunity to see what’s possible when nature has a chance to rebalance itself. We hope that Ol’au Palau will make more destinations think about the true cost of tourism and rethink who they reward with their best experiences.”
Ol’au Palau is just one of the many sustainability initiatives the archipelago has enacted in recent years. Other measures include establishing a marine sanctuary that fully protects its territorial waters from commercial fishing, creating a shark sanctuary, and launching the Palau Pledge, a unique immigration law wherein visitors need to sign a pledge stamped into their passports saying they will “tread lightly, act kindly, and explore mindfully.” Since rolling it out in 2017, more than 653,550 pledges have been taken.
As of May 19, Palau is open to travelers from all countries provided they are fully vaccinated (with the final dose administered at least 14 days prior to departure), have a negative COVID test result taken within three days prior to departure, and are willing to test on arrival.
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