A pledge alone will not solve a multitude of challenges that the community faces in relation to tourism. But a well developed pledge may play a role in a suite of co-ordinated actions. This post takes a look at what to consider when developing a pledge.
Pledges on the rise
Over the last few years, interest has grown in responsible tourism pledges and many questions have emerged:
Do they work?
What are some good examples?
What is the impact of a pledge?
What are the characteristics of a good pledge?
Recent examples of visitor pledges have received considerable attention including, Palau, Hawai'i, New Zealand and Iceland. There are also a number of excellent posts (see for example, Good Travel, Adventure Travel Trade Association, and Deborah Lev-Tov) that discuss these different pledges. It's not the intention of this post to repeat these analyses. Instead, we explore the foundations of what makes a good pledge, while also acknowledging that it is one tool within a suite of visitor management approaches.
What is a pledge?
In simple terms, a visitor pledge is a tool that seeks to positively influence behaviour. Pledges not new, but are part of a much older suite of advocacy tools used to manage tourism. Advocacy tools are soft or voluntary mechanisms designed to influence behaviour through education, awareness building and, in the case of pledges, inner personal development. They are called "soft" because they are said to use influence rather than hard power, and supposedly use less resources to implement.
Other advocacy tools include, for example, codes of conduct, behavioural protocols, visitor guidelines and house rules. The different names reflect the different aims and assumptions underpinning the design of the tool, including:
The implementation of the pledge.
Where responsibility is intended to fall.
The level of resourcing that is required.
Assumptions about best to change behaviour.
For example, a pledge assumes visitors are triggered by their own internal moral compass to adopt and live by a pledge while in the destination. A code of conduct is an older term and often denotes a more formal approach. They may also be voluntary or fines and penalties may apply for non-compliance. In-between, there is all manner of variations.
Palau has changed its immigration laws for the cause of environmental protection. Upon arrival, visitors sign a passport pledge to act in an ecologically and culturally responsible way on the island, for the sake of Palau's children and future generations. It therefore blurs the traditional boundaries between hard and soft implementation, and informal and formal power.
The recent interest in pledges has been driven in part by a global shift in focus from 'me' to 'we' and from 'ego' to 'eco'. This shift was helped along by the pandemic, which reportedly led to a global rise in empathy and a desire to connect with our own values, what gives us meaning, and to connect with others. In tourism, there is evidence that travellers are becoming more aware of their impact on nature and host communities. But not always.
During Covid there were many reports of visitors turning up in small communities, like Flinders Island, thinking they had a right to a vacation. They deserved to 'kick their heels up' after lock-down, and that host communities should be grateful for their presence. We heard stories of community members feeling anxious about these 'people from away'. We heard stories of visitors banging on the doors of shops that had closed for the day, or swearing at locals because coffee or food supplies were unavailable. We heard stories of free campers cutting down trees for firewood, and leaving human and domestic waste for others to trod on... While the vast majority of visitors are respectful, these few badly behaved visitors become the focus of the community's anxiety and trigger discontent with this thing called tourism.
That said, travel and learning about new places is part of our human condition. There will always be travel in some form or another, so the question is how can the behaviour of visitors be better aligned with the values of the places they visit?
Multiple roles of pledges
Pledges have a variety of roles, including to:
Educate and build awareness of the social and environmental values of the locality.
Build alignment between what local values and visitors' values.
Appeal to individual's sense of responsibility for others, human and nature.
Develop visitors' sense of respect and gratitude for being hosted.
Clarify acceptable behaviour.
Increased interest in pledges during the pandemic has likely resulted from: (1) growing backlash against tourism in some communities; (2) a surge in destinations wanting to build back differently by triggering a sense of care and responsibility, and (3) rising awareness in empathy.
But caution is needed if you think a pledge will solve all your problems...
Simple solutions won't solve complex problems
It is important not to fall for a pledge, as appealing as they might be, as the core solution. In tourism, there is a tendency to pick an example we like, or that inspires us, and to adapt it for our own purpose. Change the graphic. Massage the tag line. Pledge done. Tick.
But a simple solution can not solve a complex problem.
The best actions are those that take into account the complexity of the problem within its particular content. Template solutions should be avoided.
Managing tourism IS a complex challenge. That is why it is important to build a deep appreciation of the issues, and the full bandwidth of solutions available. Managing tourism is like conducting an orchestra. A pledge might look like that shiny brass instrument, but it needs to sit within a wider suite of instruments. Each instrument contributes something slightly different but the overall effect is synchronicity. It should be seen and heard at the right moment, with the right timing, and by the right ears.
For this reason, it is important to spend the time understanding how a pledge fits into the broader challenge and the suite of tools available. And, more importantly, allow yourself to imagine and co-create the tools that have not yet been imagined!
The diagram below is notional, and not intended to be inclusive of all the tools available. Indeed, these tools have come from the same tourism management system that created the problems in the first place. So let's think about where and how a pledge sits within the spectrum of tools available to manage tourism, and how these tools can be adapted, hybridised, and re-purposed.
Adapted from Dredge, D. Policy instruments In Dredge, D. and Jenkins, J. (eds) Tourism Policy and Planning , Wiley. 2007.
How do pledges work?
As a result of increasing calls to treat nature and communities as legitimate stakeholders in tourism, pledges and codes of conduct have become fashionable again. The value of visitor pledges seek to educate, build awareness and outline a standard of behaviour that is expected from visitors. It's a lost-cost, low-effort tool that seeks to trigger visitors' internal moral responsibility to tread lightly and do no harm.
Pledges can also be taken by the business community, tourism operators, government and community groups. The advantages extending the pledge to different stakeholder groups include:
Increased awareness among those directly and indirectly involved in tourism.
A consistent message from a wide variety of sources can contribute to an overall shift in culture.
A message received from one stakeholder (e.g. transport operator) can be reinforced by another stakeholder (e.g. an accommodation operator).
Sometimes the message from one stakeholder is more weighty than a message from another stakeholder for certain visitors.
Why take a pledge?
While it's nice to think that visitors will do the right thing, there is still no guarantee. Visitors vary in terms of their motivation to travel, the experiences they seek, their awareness of and interest in environmental, cultural and social issues. That is why it's also important to understand why a stakeholder (i.e. visitor, businesses, tourism operators, etc.) might be interested in adopting the pledge. Incentives and behavioural nudges can be used with great effect, but the challenge is to know your stakeholders and understand the perceived benefits of taking the pledge.
Co-designing a pledge
There are four core questions to consider in designing a pledge in your destination or community:
What is the vision and the values that underpin the pledge?
What are the desired outcomes for the pledge to be successful?
How will the visitor (or other stakeholder) engage with the pledge?
Who is the support ecosystem who can reinforce the pledge?
It's easy to get caught up in the content of the pledge (i.e. the points that articulate what is important to the community or destination), but how the pledge is embedded and activated by all stakeholders will likely determine its success.
Co-design is essential, and by co-design we mean genuine co-design, where stakeholders help to design and implement the pledge. Ownership at the beginning is better than trying to get buy-in at the end of the process. That said, designing a pledge should fit within a much wider and more inclusive approach that has already included deep and wide consultation.
The community conversation about a pledge can be broadly divided into four threads corresponding to the questions above:
1. What is the vision and the values the underpin the pledge?
Focus on the values that are important to the community. Take an inclusive approach and determine what are the values and the vision that should underpin the pledge. (We assume an inclusive visioning process has already been completed and the results of these consultations inform this current pledge design process).
2. What are the outcomes we want to see for the pledge to be successful?
From these discussions identify behaviours that are to be enhanced and those behaviours should to be minimised. Sharpening the outcomes from this conversation, it should be possible to identify what a successful pledge might deliver.
3. How will the visitor (or other stakeholder) engage with the pledge?
Using a design thinking approach, examine visitors' journeys. How they come to search, make a decision to visit, how their purchase decisions unfolds, how they arrive, who they encounter at what stage of their visit, and how they exit the place. Look for the touch points in that journey where information can be delivered, and understand how many times a message needs to be reiterated, repeated and reinforced over this journey.
4. Who is the support ecosystem who can reinforce the pledge?
This component of the design process should focus on implementation. Build an understanding of the ecosystem of stakeholders that can support and reinforce the pledge's message. How can these actors adopt and amplify the pledge though their own interactions with visitors? Consider whether incentives and rewards can be offered, and whether disincentives can also be built into the implementation of the pledge.
Note: As discussed above, voluntary mechanisms such as codes of conduct and pledges, rely on visitors making an emotional, social and cognitive connection with the values of the destination. So understanding the psycho-social dimensions of pledges is important background information that a good facilitator can help unpack.
Conclusion - Tips for the journey
Build a compelling pledge that will make the pledge participant feel good.
An effective pledge will speak to head, hearts and instinct.
Make sure the pledge is backed up with reliable, credible, easily accessible information.
Usually a pledge will contain a number of statements that clearly articulate the overall message quickly and easily. Too many points will reduce interest and cause them to 'tap out' of the sign on process.
Engage the widest possible array of stakeholders in design and implementation.
Consider whether behavioural change can be incentivised and/or disincentivised.
Examples of pledges and codes of conduct
One of the earliest examples and which has stood the test of time, is the Galapagos Islands Code of Conduct
This code of conduct is implemented by the National Park Directorate, and is perhaps one of the best known and longest running codes of conduct.
Sampson, H. 2019. Can tourism 'pledges' keep tourists on their best behaviour? Stuff, October 2019.