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The embarrassing, but necessary, rise of the ‘tourist pledge’

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 20/11/2018 Greg Dickinson

ROCK ISLANDS, PALAU - AUGUST 26: Aerial shots of the Rock Islands in Palau on August 26, 2015. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images) © Getty ROCK ISLANDS, PALAU - AUGUST 26: Aerial shots of the Rock Islands in Palau on August 26, 2015. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images) It takes just under 20 hours to fly from the UK to the Micronesian archipelago of Palau, but when you touch down at Roman Tmetuchl International Airport, with sunglasses perched on head and toes twitching in flip flops, there is one more thing to do. You must sign a pledge.

The immigration official stamps your passport with the words: ‘Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.’

Only after reading a checklist and signing your name in your passport will you be allowed entry, for last year Palau became the first country in the world to change its immigration laws for the cause of environmental and cultural preservation.

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river by huge hillock covered with lush foliage, Rock Islands, Palau. (Photo by Anthony ASAEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images) © Getty river by huge hillock covered with lush foliage, Rock Islands, Palau. (Photo by Anthony ASAEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images) Some of the rules are certainly worth spelling out, particularly for those of us who aren’t au fait with tropical paradise etiquette: don’t collect shells, don’t feed the fish and sharks, don’t touch the coral. You could forgive an unwitting tourist for not knowing the damage that these seemingly innocent acts do.

Other rules in the pledge feel painfully obvious. Respect local customs. Don’t chase wildlife. Don’t litter. Don’t take fruit or flowers from gardens. But like a clip-art-laden sign in a unisex loo telling men ‘If you sprinkle when you tinkle be a sweetie and wipe the seatie,’ there’s clearly an embarrassing necessity to remind tourists of the basic rules of civilized behaviour. How did it come to this?

New Zealand yesterday became the latest destination to introduce its own tourist pledge, the ‘Tiaki Promise’, in the form of a video that will be shown on inbound flights. The video asks visitors to protect nature, keep New Zealand clean, drive carefully, be prepared and show respect. New Zealanders have recently hit back at the rise in so-called ‘freedom camping’ – pitching a tent or parking a motorhome outside a designated spot and leaving litter and human waste behind – though Stephen England-Hall, the chief executive of Tourism New Zealand, has insisted the campaign is not specifically directed at them.

The rise of the ‘tourist pledge’ is not just a trend amongst Pacific island nations. Last year Iceland’s Tourism Minister Þórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir introduced The Icelandic Pledge. Describing the initiative she said: “The type of people who come to Iceland want to be responsible tourists, it’s just that they aren’t always aware of what that entails. So as part of our welcome, we wanted to create a pledge which we’ll encourage all visitors to take, creating an army of people who know how to stay safe and also how to look after our delicate nature.”

ROCK ISLANDS, PALAU - AUGUST 26: Aerial shots of the Rock Islands in Palau on August 26, 2015. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images) © Getty ROCK ISLANDS, PALAU - AUGUST 26: Aerial shots of the Rock Islands in Palau on August 26, 2015. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images) The Icelandic Pledge is a voluntary scheme – not part of national law, as it is in Palau. The pledge reads: “I pledge to be a responsible tourist. When I explore new places, I will leave them as I found them. I will take photos to die for, without dying for them. I will follow the road into the unknown but never venture off the road. And I will only park where I am supposed to. When I sleep out under the stars, I’ll stay within the campsite. And when nature calls, I won’t answer the call on nature. I will be prepared for all weathers, all possibilities and all adventures.”

As diplomatically worded as these pledges are, when you strip it back it is quite alarming that after millions of years of evolution, adult humans actually need to be told not to risk their lives in pursuit of a selfie and to pack appropriate clothes for a trip to an island called 'Iceland' at the junction between the North Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Venice has taken a slightly less poetic approach to bringing tourists into line. As of 2017, the council started enforcing a series of rules by deploying #EnjoyRespectVenezia volunteers to keep a check on tourists in St Mark’s Square and on Rialto Bridge. Visitors are not required to sign a pledge, although if they are caught sitting down in the wrong place or wandering about topless, they will promptly be told that they have broken a rule – with potential fines of up to €500.

NBC NEWS -- Great Wall of China -- Pictured: The Great Wall of China -- Photo by: NBC NewsWire © Getty NBC NEWS -- Great Wall of China -- Pictured: The Great Wall of China -- Photo by: NBC NewsWire Some countries have even introduced rules on their own citizens travelling overseas. In 2013 China released a 64-page ‘Guidebook for Civilised Tourism’ to improve the nation’s image overseas after a spate of incidents involving poorly behaved tourists – including Ding Jinhao, the teenager who inscribed “Ding Jinhao was here” onto a 3,500-year-old temple in Egypt. While some of the rules are commensensical, such as “do not curse locals”, others such as “don’t leave footprints on the toilet seat” and the instruction not to steal airplane life jackets feel less pressing.

What’s clear is that the ‘tourist pledge’ is more than a marketing gimmick. This is something we’re going to see more of around the world as tourist boards and government departments act to curtail the damaging effects of tourist behaviour. Because while there are the ‘macro’ effects of tourism – carbon emissions from jet fuel, residents being priced out of city centres thanks to the boom of short-term letting sites such as as Airbnb – the micro effects can be just as damaging when multiplied a thousand-fold. One shell picked off a beach has little consequence. If all 140,000 of Palau’s annual tourists take a shell, it can have a significant damaging effect on the archipelago's marine ecosystem.

The temptation may be to call out against this kind of 'nanny state' initiative, but if guests to your home started defecating in an undesignated place, parking in the neighbour's drive or throwing their rubbish places other than the bin, you’d probably pipe up and politely say something too.

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