If you’re planning a low-impact vacation this year, consider thinking small. Not small in terms of your trip, but in terms of the destination’s size. The Pacific island nation of Palau (population 18,000) is rich in beaches, waterfalls, and tropical rainforest that beckon outdoorsy travelers seeking deep natural immersion. In Palau, you can take a coastal hike along deep blue lagoons and dive in the world’s first shark sanctuary, where you’ll spot some of the nearly 1,500 species of fish swimming through more than 500 types of hard and soft corals.
This is The Climate Win, highlighting sustainability news and experiences throughout the world of travel
Now, Palau is highlighting – and protecting – its natural wonders through a new sustainability initiative that invites travelers to both be mindful of their footprint and participate in conservation. Dubbed Ol’au Palau, the initiative is different from your typical sustainability initiative in that it makes having an eco-friendly travel experience into a game. Visitors can download the new Ol’au Palau app to track the impact of their travels, learn about eco-friendly activities, and collect “points” based on the overall environmental impact of their journey. With a blend of familiar initiatives like carbon offsets and fresh ideas (including immersive wildlife viewing experiences), the Ol’au Palau app makes eco-friendly travel the hip thing to do for modern travelers in Palau.
The app provides is an interactive way to see how the 500-island nation is progressing in its conservation initiatives. It’s a first-of-its-kind program that could – and should – be replicated by other destinations. Matador spoke with Jennifer Koskelin Gibbons, co-founder of the Palau Legacy Project and Palauan local, to get the rundown on the program.
Matador: The Ol’au Palau initiative “gamifies” sustainable travel. Give us the rundown on how that works.
Jennifer Koskelin Gibbons: Ol’au Palau gamifies responsible visitor behavior by unifying Palau’s ecotourism touchpoints in one easy place. Travelers can then earn points from participating in these activities that allow them to unlock unique experiences and places that aren’t easily available to the average traveler. The initiative incentivizes visitors to sustain, regenerate and contribute to Palau during their trip. It creates a new type of tourism value exchange – one where visitors are invited to accumulate points for demonstrating responsible and regenerative behavior. In return, they can use these points to access money-can’t-buy experiences that aren’t available to visitors who don’t participate in the scheme.
The aim was to create a simple, fun way for visitors to help them keep Palau pristine. The hope is that after they leave Palau, this will also make them think of their own country’s future and how they can make different choices back at home.
How are the carbon offsets verified?
Palau partners with The Ocean Foundation to collect funds from its new offset calculator. It will channel these funds into a carbon offset project that concentrates on regenerating marine environments – specifically seagrass beds in Puerto Rico. In the long term, Palau is working with its international partners to investigate the establishment of a carbon offset project of its own.
What are some of the activities that travelers can do to boost their score on the app?
Visitors to Palau will soon be able to download the Ol’au Palau app, which they can use to track actions and earn points for interacting with Palau’s sustainable initiatives and cultural customs. From signing the Palau Pledge and using reef safe sunscreen to offsetting your carbon footprint using Palau’s world-first personal carbon calculator, visiting culturally-significant tourism sites, eating sustainably-sourced local food and participating in regenerative tourism projects, Ol’au Palau makes it easy for visitors to be sustainable and respectful during their visits.
The points visitors earn can be used to become a friend of Palau, which then allows visitors to unlock special places, spaces and experiences that have previously not been accessible to tourists.
Why is it important for travelers to be active and engaged regarding the carbon footprint of their travel?
People travel to beautiful places precisely because they are pristine, unique, and offer something that they can’t see at home. Since tourism occurs in environmentally fragile areas rich in biodiversity (like Palau), its impact on the environment is significant. But guests to Palau – and any other country – need to be respectful of the environment and culture they are visiting, to ensure they leave each place as they find it for future visitors and future generations to enjoy.
To help visitors do this, Palau has created the world’s first destination carbon offset calculator which gives visitors the ability to calculate and offset their personal carbon footprint from their trip. This also earns them points to redeem in the Ol’au Palau initiative.
Palau aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral destination and the launch of the new calculator marks Palau taking its first step on this journey.
Ol’au Palau and the Carbon Calculator are in line with Palau’s high-value, low-impact tourism strategy which aims to attract more like-minded travelers who share Palau’s conservation values. As prevention is more cost-effective than enforcement, this strategy will also help keep Palau pristine for the next generation.