Five years ago, Iceland had a problem.
International tourism had more than tripled since 2000, and many of the visitors were first-timers who were unfamiliar with the rugged Icelandic landscape.
“In the media, you’d often see negative stories about tourists doing something that they weren’t supposed to,” says Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland.
Tourism stakeholders realized they needed to make a change – locals were frustrated by visitors camping illegally, damaging the landscape or using their cemeteries as a toilet.
“Instead of putting up roadblocks and saying, ‘You can’t go there. You can’t do that,’ we wanted to educate,” says Guðmundsdóttir.
Iceland outlined seven common types of problem behavior – from seeking out dangerous photo ops to illegal off-roading. They shifted their approach from reacting after the incident to speaking to tourists directly about why their behavior matters.
The result was a sustainability and responsibility pledge that asked visitors to commit to being a respectful traveler while in Iceland.
Pledges appeal to tourists’ emotions
“Pledges seem so simple,” says sustainable tourism expert Julia Albrecht. Along with GOOD Travel co-founder Eliza Raymond, she has been studying the increasing use of tourist pledges.
Their power, she says, is in how they appeal to a visitor’s emotions.
“It’s a positive approach – places aren’t telling people off. Instead they build the idea that by following these desirable behaviors you’re more likely to have a better, more authentic experience.”
Not long after the Icelandic Pledge was introduced in mid-2017 but well before the Covid-19 pandemic, other destinations came out with their own versions: New Zealand with the Tiaki Promise, Hawaii with the Pono Pledge and Palau with the Palau Pledge.
“All of this happened within less than a year. So it was either some sort of common consciousness of wanting to do things differently or a few destinations picked up very quickly on what Iceland was doing,” says Albrecht.
Protecting nature and people
While the pledges were varied and many tackled local issues, the places that adopted the promises had a few things common.
Many are nature-oriented destinations that attract people to the kind of wild settings for which they might not be properly prepared. In Hawaii, people were trespassing in dangerous areas in the hope of capturing off-limits views. In Iceland, people were putting themselves at risk in search of the perfect selfie.
“As we grow up in (Iceland), we learn how to be safe. But it’s not a given that a visitor knows exactly how to behave in our wilderness,” says Guðmundsdóttir.
Destinations were also trying to balance the increasing pressure of tourism on their infrastructure and the natural environment while ensuring the needs of local people, the survival of traditional cultures and the sustainability of the destination itself.
This meant many of the pledges were designed with a dual goal.
“They aimed to raise awareness and provide education,” says Albrecht, by teaching visitors about local expectations to either “stop bad behavior or keep people safe in the landscape.”
At the same time, she says they were looking to the future, “to make sure that the places weren’t altered too much by visitors or through tourism.”
Do the pledges really work?
Pledges, by their nature, are based on the idea that if you make a public promise – it’s more likely to stick.
For this reason, most tourist pledges are educational and not punitive. One exception is the Palau Pledge which comes with fines up to $1 million for visitors who violate their promises.
Other pledges might highlight behavior that’s unwanted as well as against the law. The Icelandic Pledge, for example, includes the promise drivers will “never venture off the road,” which is also a legal offense you can be fined for. But the pledges themselves are meant to be constructive.
This means that so far, there’s no straightforward way to measure their success, though Guðmundsdóttir says after Iceland’s came out, fewer terrible-tourist stories showed up in the local news media.
Even without any concrete results to show, the concept has continued to catch on in other places.
Promises, often totaling only a few hundred words, popped up on destination websites and as part of advertising campaigns.
In Bend, Oregon, part of the pledge asks people to commit to walking more and driving less.
Aspen, Colorado, asks visitors to skip the high fashion and dress for high elevations.
Finland busted out the rhyming couplets in an effort to protect its shy citizens from boisterous visitors with a verse that reads, “I shall also respect the lives of locals, and will be considerate with cameras or loud vocals.”
Even though many of the pledges are playful or poetic — they do tackle serious issues including tourism backlash. Albrecht says reestablishing local support for tourism has become even more important now that we’re entering the era of post-lockdown travel.
“Places had a break from tourism and don’t want what they had before. Many are looking for a more sustainable reset,” she says.
‘A soft way to give direction’
Maui County, which came out with their pledge in June just as tourism surged in Hawaii, asks visitors to be mindful that they’re visiting “someone else’s home, sacred site, and living history.”
The Islands of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, Canada, which closed their borders to tourists for much of the pandemic, also introduced a pledge that, like Maui’s, hopes to give cultural context to their requests for respect.
“It’s based on fundamental teachings that are central to the Haida way of being,” says Gaagwiis, also known as Jason Alsop, president of the Haida Nation. The goal of the Haida Pledge is to introduce visitors to a handful of ancient laws, or values, that still ring true today, including Yahguudang (respect for all beings), Tll yahda (to make it right) and Ahl kyáanang tláagang (ask permission first).
While pledges are only a small piece of tourism management, the hope is that by getting visitors to think about a destination as more than just a backdrop to their vacation photos, they’ll act more thoughtfully.
“People want to do the right thing,” says Alsop, “and this is a soft way to give direction.”
He goes on to say the overall goal of the pledge is to reduce damage to the environment and curtail conflicts between guests and locals.
“We want guests to have a meaningful experience,” he says. “But we also want them to know that this is our home and after they leave, we’ll still be here, depending on it.”
Top image: Tourists paddle kayaks past an iceberg that has broken off of receding Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in Iceland. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Diane Selkirk is a writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She enjoys writing stories where science, history or social justice intersect with travel. Her writing and photography have also appeared in BBC Travel, National Geographic Travel, The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.