Countries take leaf from Tiaki Promise but do pledges make better behaved tourists?

vandalised huts and misused facilities

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Since 2018, visitors arriving in New Zealand have been asked to make a pledge to the country.

The Tiaki Promise is an initiative through Tourism New Zealand and their six partners, asking tourists to make a pledge to the country: to care for people and place.

A five-step whakatau to welcome international visitors to the land, and let them know a few housekeeping rules.

If you can cast your mind back to the last time you passed through arrivals gate – that could be a while ago – you’ll probably remember some of the pledge.

While travelling in New Zealand I will:
Care for land, sea and nature, treading lightly and leaving no trace.
Travel safely, showing care and consideration for all
Respect culture, travelling with an open heart and mind

New Zealand is hardly the only country to adopt a formal pledge for visitors.

In the space of a year Hawaii, Palau and Iceland had all launched their own formal promise for visitors.

Separated by thousand of miles, sometimes on the other side of the world all of these destinations had experienced a similar tourism story to New Zealand. They are all Islands, famous for stunning natural beauty and experiencing huge numbers of international arrivals.

The Icelandic Pledge had identified seven particular areas which had been causing problems.

In Nordic form these were spelled out in black and white.

“I will only park where I am supposed to” and not “I will take photos to die for, without dying for them”, were both part of the pledge, along with promises not to wild camp or defecate in the bushes.

vandalised huts and misused facilities

When nature calls, I won't answer the call on nature: Iceland's tourism pledge asks tourists to 'please poo in a loo'. Photo / Sean Roche, Unsplash

Anyone who has been to Iceland will tell you the tundra offers very little in the way of cover.

Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir head of the national tourism board says that the pledge helps visitors overcome cultural boundaries, and prepare them for the reality of a landscape that is equal parts stunning, remote and sometimes dangerous.

“It’s not a given that a visitor knows exactly how to behave in our wilderness,” he told CNN.

The Tiaki Promise is a little less prescriptive. An appeal to “drive carefully” is perhaps the most direct part of the promise. It’s certainly nowhere near as blunt as the Icelandic Pledge.

But do the pledges work?

The idea behind the pledge is that a public promise is more likely to be upheld.

A very literal ‘social contract’ that – depending on your philosophical bent – works by peer supervision or simply by exposure to the values of the place you are visiting.

More recently pledges, promises and various ‘outdoor oaths’ have been popping up around the world. Particularly US States RTOs have made their own pledges.

Colorado and Oregon have recently created pledges and pithy aphorisms to declare their guiding principles for tourist behaviour.

Adopting rhyme and reason to plead with visitors to “drive less, walk more” and “respect the land”.

“I do solemnly swear to never ski in jeans”

vandalised huts and misused facilities

Oregon: 'we are all visitors here' says The Bend Pledge in the US parklands. Photo / Jeff Finley, Unsplash

There’s humour, there’s personality and purpose in these pledges. However it is hard to tell if it is merely a branding exercise or if the pledges have a genuine effect on curbing tourists’ worst behaviours.

“It’s a positive approach – places aren’t telling people off. Instead they build the idea that by following these desirable behaviours you’re more likely to have a better, more authentic experience,” Julia Albrecht co-founder of GOOD Travel told CNN, on the tourism pledge phenomenon.

Tourism backlash is real. Even after almost two years without international visitors and a pandemic that has closed our borders, public sentiment is still strong on issues such as freedom camping and public loos.

In February a report was published by New Zealand’s parliamentary commissioner for the environment, titled “Not 100% – but four steps closer to sustainable tourism”.

It determined that domestic tourists also needed educating in the Tiaki principles as well as identifying areas such as freedom camping and strengthening the power to collect fines.

vandalised huts and misused facilities

The Tiaki Promise ask tourists to care for New Zealand, not matter where they've travelled from. Photo / Supplied

Similarly a recent DoC Summer Insights report said rangers’ most common complaints were “litter, trampling of vegetation and damaged facilities”.

With regular reports of vandalised huts and misused facilities, is it time to update the pledge for local tourists?

Perhaps we could take a leaf out of Iceland for a more direct guide to stewardship. If Albrecht is right a pledge is an opportunity to be more direct about our values and the issues we care about as a destination.

“I pledge to poo in a loo”.

It would certainly make a strong first impression.

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