If you’ve taken an Air New Zealand flight in the last 10 months and watched the latest safety video — which follows a young man named Tiaki as he visits the guardians of Aotearoa — you’re in some way familiar with the Tiaki Promise.
A pledge designed to encourage domestic and international visitors to respect New Zealand’s environment and culture, the Tiaki Promise has been around since 2018 — and it’s far from unique. During the pre-pandemic years, responsible tourism pledges proliferated, with everyone from destinations to individual tour companies asking tourists to “do no harm”.
In 2017, Iceland created the Icelandic Pledge, an interactive website where visitors agree to statements such as, “When nature calls, I will not answer the call on nature.” That same year, Palau initiated a compulsory pledge, with authorities permitted to enforce regulations with fines of up to US$1 million. Since then, Finland, Hawaii’s islands of Kauai and Maui, Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island, Byron Bay, NSW, and several other destinations have launched their own pledges.
Paloma Zapata, chief executive of Sustainable Travel International — which has worked with destinations such as Palau to develop and implement sustainable tourism plans — says that tourism pledges aren’t unlike the waivers that guests must sign before undertaking an adventure activity or tour. An expectation-setting exercise, they’re typically framed as a set of simple rules, which allows travellers to understand the risk factors involved in their visit — except in this case, the risk is posed to the destination rather than to the individual. They also ask travellers to take responsibility for their actions.
“The impact of tourism can be devastating and pledges can be a powerful tool, especially for really iconic fragile destinations,” says Zapata.
But while pledges ask visitors to step up, it’s hard not to wonder if they’re just another form of greenwashing or an opportunity for slacktivism. And then there’s the other issue: no one knows if they really work — at least not yet.
“It’s easy to track how many people have taken a pledge but seeing to what extent it actually changes behaviour is quite complicated,” says Eliza Raymond, the co-founder and director of operations for GOOD Travel, a New Zealand-based social enterprise.
Along with Julia Albrecht, an associate professor at the University of Otago’s Department of Tourism, Raymond has been conducting research into the efficacy of tourism pledges. While research is ongoing, she says one thing is clear from the conversations they’ve had with destinations: “What we heard [from destinations] is that a pledge alone is not sufficient. It needs to be continually reinforced and integrated throughout the visitor’s journey to the destination.”
Even if Raymond and Albrecht’s research does find that pledges lead to behavioural change, it may not be enough, says Ben Lynam. He’s the head of strategic communications for the Travel Foundation, a charity that works with businesses, governments and organisations to promote sustainable destination stewardship.
“Rather than trying to convince a billion travellers to do something differently, change is going to come from convincing a small number of industry organisations and governments to change the system,” says Lynam. “That’s where we’re going to get the impact that we need.”
That’s not to say Lynam doesn’t believe individuals have the power to effect change. Instead, he believes that tourists can demonstrate their willingness to support structural and institutional change through how they choose to spend their money. He gives the example of plastic straws; while hotels and airlines were responsible for the policy changes that led to their elimination, it was individual consumers who indicated en masse they were willing to support the change.
In that way, it’s the public nature of pledges that makes them so effective. When you choose to abide by the behaviours laid out in a pledge, you’re demonstrating that you support policy changes that are pro-people and pro-planet.
“It’s about making a public commitment and really shifting the way people think about their role as visitors,” says Raymond.
But since most pledges are little more than a soft promise, it’s up to you, as a traveller, to hold yourself accountable. Raymond recommends taking the time to research what a pledge means in a specific destination. Most are succinct (Palau’s pledge, for example, fits on a single passport page), meaning the context can often be lost, as can thorough guidance for best practices.
“If you’re not sure what it means to show respect in a destination — because every culture is different, just ask,” says Raymond. “The process will probably motivate you to really fulfil your commitments and you’ll feel a greater sense of connection to that destination.”