S2, E31: Do Travel Better Pledges Really Work?

In this episode of Unpacked, an AFAR editor asks: Do “better travel” pledges actually help us tread more lightly on our destinations?

There’s a new trend in the world: Destinations that are heavily impacted by tourism have rolled out pledges that travelers can sign, promising to treat the place in specific ways. This week on Unpacked, we explore those pledges and ask, “Can they really work?”


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week, we are tackling travel pledges.

Have you ever seen one of these or signed one? It’s kind of a promise to be good to the place you’re visiting in a variety of ways. If not, never fear, you’ll know a lot about them by the end of this episode. Our guide for this week is Tim Chester, AFAR’s deputy editor. And he just signed his first pledge last year. He’ll share more about that trip in a bit, but after he got home he wanted to know more about these pledges. He reached out to several countries around the world to understand why they started pledges, what they’re to do, and most importantly, to see if the pledges work.

 Aislyn: Hi, Tim. Welcome back to Unpacked.

Tim Chester: Thanks. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Aislyn: What, what drew you to this story? Why did you want to report it?

Tim: Well, I mean, I had personal experience with, um, pledges when I went to Haida Gwaii, um, a year or two ago. And, uh, it just interested me that this thing had caught on and gone around the globe.

I just found it interesting that this idea of creating travel pledges had been adopted in countries all over the world in a very short period of time. And, uh, it seems like a very timely topic. I was just looking at a BBC story this week on bad tourist behavior. So it was an interesting—you know, could this be the way to help address that?

Aislyn: Yeah. Did it change anything for you in terms of how you went about your trip, reading and signing the pledge?

Tim: Yeah, definitely. Especially going to Haida where with all the history and the culture, that definitely—uh, and we, we spent a week being led around the archipelago with some guides and it definitely, uh, made me ask more questions and listen more and take a much deeper sort of interest in the place and consider how I was behaving and what impact my trip might have.

Aislyn: I love it. And you actually head up a lot of our travel for good and sustainability coverage. What do you hope that travelers get out of this episode?

Tim: I just think it’s good for all of us really to just be reminded about the privilege of travel and how to act in someone else’s home, whether that’s an actual home or an entire country. And I think hopefully people will be interested to hear the different challenges that different nations have and some of the pros and cons that come with travel. And yeah, I think it’s just important to remember to—you know, hopefully our travel can be beneficial for both us and our hosts.

Aislyn: Well, let’s find out about these pledges.

Tim: Last year, I went to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago a few hours north of Vancouver in British Columbia. I spent a week up there and was struck by how beautiful it was, all dense forests and driftwood-covered beaches. It’s a magical place.

It’s also home to the Haida people, an Indigenous population who have called the islands home for centuries. They’re known for many things, including these incredible memorial poles that are carved with various creatures from Haida mythology.

They’re also known for their careful stewardship of the islands. And before I went there, I found something on their website. It was a pledge that I could sign. A pledge to treat the islands as the Haida do.

“I will respect Haida Gwaii and Haida Ways of Being during my visit” it says.

Among the tips, it asks people to speak kindly and listen thoughtfully, ask permission before taking pictures, support local businesses, and give back where they can.

The site reminds visitors of the region’s complex history, referring to “the realities of colonization and the history of genocide and forced assimilation that occurred here and throughout Canada.” It reminds people that “anyone on Haida Gwaii could be directly impacted by these historical traumas.” I think that’s something that’s very important for visitors to be aware of as they’re traveling through the island.

It was one of the first “better travel” manifestos I’d seen. But I soon learned that the Haida Gwaii pledge is part of a larger movement. Around the world, destinations are asking travelers to sign pledges to encourage a variety of behaviors.

They’re all slightly different but they share common threads. They’re guidelines, gentle reminders, politie nudges — often combining advice for treading lightly, and safely, with a sense of humor.

Tim: In Bend, Oregon:

Voice 1: I’ll make my own memories, but not my own trails. When playing outside, I’ll prepare for shifts in weather and random episodes of magic.

Tim: In Lake Tahoe, California:

Voice 2: I will embody the footprint of a ninja; it will be stealthy, light, and my touch will be gentle.

Tim: In Finland, a poem:

Voice 3: The berries and mushrooms are there to be eaten, but I’ll stick to the paths that are already beaten. I know Finns can seem just a little reserved, but with this pledge their trust will surely be earned.

Tim: In Iceland:

Voice 4: I will take photos to die for, without dying for them.

Tim: Iceland was the first to come up with the idea in 2017. A traveler did actually die after falling off a glacier in 2015. The Icelandic Pledge also asked visitors to “never venture off-road” (that kind of driving is banned in the country). It also asks people to “be prepared for all weathers, all possibilities, and all adventures.”

But beyond keeping people safe, the country also wanted to encourage more responsible tourism. The trend quickly caught on, and pledges started appearing across the world in a variety of places.

Adora Nobuo: The Palau Pledge actually came about because of our efforts to keep Palau pristine.

Tim: That’s Adora Nobuo, the program coordinator for the Friends of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, an nonprofit that supports the country’s 475,000- square-mile marine sanctuary. In 2015, the country started to suffer under the weight of tourism. There are only 20,000 people who live on the island, and yet they were receiving 160,000 visitors per year.

Adora Nobuo: That number really taxed our infrastructures, our, you know, way of living. We saw that there were not a lot of people that were environmentally conscious, meaning they were very disrespectful to the environment. A lot of trash, a lot of things that were done that were not aligned with our culture.

Tim: For Palauans, sustainability and managing resources are just a way of life. And it’s been that way for centuries.

Adora: As a Palawan, these are the things we were taught and these are the things that we need to do in order to continue keeping our island pristine and the resources not depleted. You have scientists that come, and environmentalists that come, and conservationists that come, and they try to label us as conservationists or environmentalists, and we’re like, “No, we’re just Palauans. This is how we live.”

Tim: The country wanted to figure out how to get travelers to think the same way. Several women, including the nation’s former first lady, got together to figure it out. And they reached out to a surprising group to help them craft the pledge.

Adora: They went to the children of Palau and they asked them, you know, “What is it about the visitors that come that you would like them to know in order for them to take care of the land that is your home?”

Tim: The kids wrote messages to the visitors. The women compiled those messages and from them, crafted the pledge. And then, in 2017, it was actually signed into law. Now, every visitor who enters the country gets a stamp with the pledge, which they are required to sign.

This is how the pledge starts: “Children of Palau, I take this pledge as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home…”

Adora: At the end it says, “the only thing I shall leave behind are the footprints that will wash away.” And pretty much that is the sort of sentiment that the children wanted to get across.

Tim: The pledge also includes a $100 fee, which goes towards environmental protection.

And they’re working on a new initiative that will reward travelers for their behavior there. A new app will let visitors accrue points based on how sustainably they act. It will unlock unique experiences that are traditionally reserved for the local community.

Adora: We’re really looking at how we can integrate the community, the businesses, and the visitors to all move into that one direction of how we continue to keep Palau pristine.

Tim: As I was reporting this story, I found that these pledges seem to create a chain reaction. One country’s work directly sparks another.

Adora: About two years ago Kanu Hawaii reached out to Palau Pledge and said, “Hey, you know. We’re inspired, uh, by the pledge and we would like to create a pledge for the Hawaiian children.”

Tim: Kanu Hawaii is an organization that works on increasing sustainable tourism in the state. Executive director Keone Kealoha worked with the cofounders of the Palau pledge to create its Pledge to Our Keiki, which they introduced in 2021.

The pledge is similar to the Palau one in that travelers promise to make a commitment to help preserve Hawaii for future generations. But instead of paying a fee or getting a passport stamp, travelers can sign up with volunteer experience with one of 300 nonprofits throughout the state.

Adora hopes that more countries will be inspired by these pledges.

Adora: It’s very interesting that the movement is continuing and hopefully we can get more, countries, getting more people, to become more conscious of their day to day and how they behave in their own communities to continue to protect [the] environment.

New Zealand promotional video:

Ko Papatūānuku te whaea o te whenua: Papatūānuku is our Earth Mother

Ko Tangaroa te moana ngā awa, ngā roto: Tangaroa is our ocean, our rivers, our lakes

Ko Aotearoa o tātou kainga: New Zealand is our home

It is precious. Everyone who lives or travels here has a responsibility to look after it.

Tiaki means to care for people and place. The Tiaki Promise is a commitment to care for New Zealand. For now and for future generations.

Tim: That’s part of the promotional video for the Tiaki Promise, which was officially launched in 2018 by New Zealand—another country inspired by Palau.

Rebecca Ingram: “Tiaki” is a kaupapa, so that means it’s a collaborative initiative, which brings together, uh, seven different organizations.

Tim: That’s Rebecca Ingram, the chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa. She used to work at Tourism New Zealand and is one of the people that helped craft the Tiaki Promise.

It’s an online pledge, calling on visitors to promise to tread carefully, travel safely, and respect culture. They can download an image from the site and share their commitment with their friends.

When creating their pledge, they turned to Indigenous knowledge. .

Rebecca: I think what’s different about what we do in New Zealand, as opposed to say other pledges around the world, is that we have something called Tiaki Care for New Zealand, which is basically the values that underpin the Tiaki Promise.

Tim: Those values revolve around something called kaitiakitanga, which I hope I’m pronouncing right, a Māori concept that essentially means guardianship of the sky, the sea, and the land.

Rebecca: We didn’t just want to say, “Please put your rubbish in the bin.” We wanted to help people understand this is how we think about our environment and we think about care.

Tim: One thing was nagging me as I reported this story. The pledges are inspiring and well intentioned, of course, but how successful are they, really?

Rebecca: So it’s fair to say, um, we haven’t had all of the progress that we wanted to make over the last couple of years with international visitors.

Tim: Rebecca says the team are currently tracking the data, but they won’t really know how the Tiaki Promise has performed until next year. Part of the challenge is getting the message out there to all potential visitors—and of course border closures during the pandemic didn’t help things.

Rebecca: Unless you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars to spend making sure that it’s everywhere all of the time, a bit like the Barbie movie, then you, then you, then it’s going to be a slow build.

Tim: Rebecca says she’s OK with that. She would rather see the Tiaki Promise as part of the fabric of tourism in New Zealand, rather than a marketing campaign that dials up when there’s a problem. She says that New Zealanders are really proud of the pledge. And she says she’s seen some positive signs with international visitors.

Rebecca: I can always tell when something’s working well because people want to know where they buy the t-shirt. So, you know, that’s a real signal that you’ve created something that’s connected with people. When they actually want to physically express it on their body, you know that you have created a connection.

Tim: Travel pledges seem like a no brainer. They’re easy to set up and, theoretically, easy to follow. They ask travelers to care for their destination, think about their behavior, and usually share some kind of promise on social media. But are they also something that’s quite easy to ignore or overlook? I reached out to Ben Lynam to get his take. He’s head of communications for the Travel Foundation, a nonprofit based in the UK.

 Ben: There is currently next to no evidence that sustainability pledges on their own either help attract more responsible travelers or encourage more responsible behaviors.

Tim: He said that there’s also a risk of over-emphasising the need for individual responsibility, especially when there are so many travelers in the world.

Ben: That’s why at the Travel Foundation we prefer to emphasize the need for quality tourism, rather than quality tourists (the latter also suffers from a whiff of snobbery). That means real change across the industry: creating hotels, attractions and services that are sustainable by default and are, as a whole, operating well-within the social and environmental constraints of the destination. In such a context, a visitor can make sustainable choices without even trying.

Tim: He does, however, think that pledges can work to some extent if they are part of a traveler’s entire experience. He used the example of a national park that wants visitors to stay on the path.

Ben: At a national park, visitors may pledge to keep to the footpaths, then see the signs telling them to do so—but better still, design-out the problem by making it much easier and more interesting for people to follow the suggested routes.

Tim: As it turns out, Rebecca and her team had already thought of that.

Rebecca: One of the first things we did when we launched Tiaki was to think about the journey a visitor has and when it makes the most sense for Tiaki Care for New Zealand to appear in their journey.

Tim: Right now, travelers are most likely to see the Tiaki Promise video on social media before they leave, or on the flight to New Zealand.

Rebecca: For example, there is a beautiful video about Tiaki Care for New Zealand. And you can see that on your flight on the way over or you might see it through some social media activity when you’re close to departing your home country on your way to New Zealand. Because what we recognize is when you’re around months out from your trip, you’re probably thinking less about the kind of details of how you’re going to travel around the country and you’re thinking more about, “How much money do you need and what are you gonna pack and what activities are you going to do?” You’re probably thinking less about, “How am I going to get rid of my rubbish?”

Tim: Clearly, we need travel pledges now more than ever.. The news lately has been full of stories of people behaving badly on their trips, from a French woman who was arrested for carving her initials in the Leaning Tower of Pisa to a German tourist stripping naked in a temple in Bali.

The Haida Gwaii pledge definitely prompted me to think more carefully about my behavior. It gave me some insight into the history of the place and I hope I listened a bit more carefully to the people I met on the trip. In the end, I think the value of travel pledges is they get travelers into the mindset of the destination. Before they even leave home, they are (hopefully) thinking about what’s best for the place they’ll be visiting.

Rebecca: The best thing that people can do is to make a different choice when they’re here as a result of seeing Tiaki. Yeah, that’s, that’s really what we’re hoping for is that as a result of having a connection with it at some point throughout your journey, you’ll be more cognizant and aware of the choices that you’re making as you travel through the country.

Aislyn: Have you ever signed a pledge, or would you? Let us know at unpacked@afar.com. To learn more about the Tiaki Promise, head to tiakinewzealand.com. For Palua’s pledge, check out palaupledge.com. And for Hawaii’s Pledge to Keiki, visit kanuhawaii.org. We’ll be back next week with an exploration of the world of maps.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. The magazine is @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. We also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. The magazine is @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. We also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.