When Lynn Englum of New York City visited the Republic of Palau in February as part of a travel project exploring places imperiled by climate change, she received an elaborate stamp in her passport. The full-page stamp featured a 59-word promise, addressed to the “Children of Palau,” to “tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully.” She was required to sign the stamp, known as the Palau Pledge and adopted in December 2017, as a condition of entry designed to promote respect for the country’s natural resources.
Though the procedure was rushed, given the immigration lines, Ms. Englum, 37, later wrote in an email, that “it did make me aware that Palau is very concerned about its environment, especially for the sake of future generations, and they are asking me to be equally concerned as I visit their country.”
In recent years, tourism pledges have proliferated as destinations from Iceland to Hawaii seek to train travelers in sustainable practices and cultural awareness. Largely voluntary, these multipoint pledges cover a range of responsible travel vows, from not littering on trails to parking legally, minding safety cautions and respecting local communities.
Iceland claims to be the first country to introduce one. In June 2017, the popular destination launched the Icelandic Pledge through an online portal, with vows including “I will take photos to die for, without dying for them.” and “When nature calls, I won’t answer the call on nature.” Tourists can sign the pledge online at InspiredbyIceland.com, a tourism site, after which they are encouraged to share it on Facebook.
“Tourism is growing in the world and it is important that people understand how to behave in new and unfamiliar places,” wrote Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, the director of Visit Iceland, in an email. She also noted that destinations should make efforts to make this information accessible.
Educating travelers in local ways isn’t exactly new; in recent decades Americans were often advised to leave their baseball caps at home to better assimilate. But the rise of tourism globally — growing at 3.9 percent and outpacing the global economy for the eighth consecutive year, according to a report this year by the World Travel & Tourism Council — has intensified efforts amid reports of overcrowding in popular destinations and risky behaviors for the sake of a selfie.
Iceland inspired the central Oregon mountain town of Bend to create its tourism pledge in October 2017, a decision based in part on complaints by locals about a perceived shift in culture. The countywide population grew 16 percent, twice the state average, between 2010 and 2017.
“Our geese honk, our cars don’t,” said Kevney Dugan, the president and chief executive of Visit Bend, where the pledge, directed at tourists as well as new residents, includes “I’ll be friendly and courteous, because that’s the Bend way.”
“The economic development provided by tourism is important to our destination, so in no way is this meant to deter visitors,” Mr. Dugan said. “We all have things to learn when we go to a destination.”
Since Bend’s 10-point pledge, a number of destinations across the United States have introduced them or plan to, often relying on humor to advance their messages on tourism websites. A draft of the forthcoming Visitors Pledge in Sedona says, “I won’t get killed for a killer photo.” The Aspen Pledge addresses responsible practices (“I will take awesome selfies, without endangering myself-ie”) and pokes fun, concluding with “I will not ski in jeans.”
“Preaching to people will not get the message across,” said Debbie Braun, the president and chief executive of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. The pledge can be found in restaurant bathroom stalls as well as in visitor centers.
Introduced last November, New Zealand’s Tiaki Promise tries to convey local norms, like being prepared for abruptly changing weather conditions and winding mountain roads.
“There are cultural differences and understandings about how you behave in nature, so we needed to tell people what’s normal here,” said Rebecca Ingram, the general manager of New Zealand and government relations for Tourism New Zealand, explaining that national parks don’t have garbage collectors. “In some parts of the world, if you drop rubbish, you’re keeping someone employed. That doesn’t happen in New Zealand.”
Where popular destinations have successfully marketed themselves to travelers, tourism pledges represent an attempt to manage their success.
“You can see a locality setting a tone to signal to the market that this is what we care about and who we want to attract,” said Mark B. Milstein, the director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University. “It starts to raise awareness and get the tourist to think about how they impact the quality of a place and whether it will be there for future visitors.”
The Bend Pledge has more than 30,000 signers and the Palau Pledge more than 226,000. But whether these have changed behaviors is hard to track.
“It’s too new to know yet,” said Jonathan Tourtellot, chief executive of the Destination Stewardship Center, a nonprofit devoted to sustainable tourism, who believes the advent of overtourism will likely inspire more powerful pledges. “A lot of people don’t know it’s bad to leave the hiking trail. If a lot of people leave the trail it carves a new trail and causes erosion. This requires a level of thoughtfulness they may not have considered.”
One group is advancing pledges from platitudes to fund-raising. Visit Bend, along with four other mountain towns recently launched Pledge for the Wild, a program that encourages visitors to donate to local nonprofits that care for the wild places they visit in those communities. It suggests travelers donate one dollar for each hour spent in the wild on a trip and ensures the money goes to local conservation groups and land managers maintaining them.
“A pledge falls short of creating resources and revenue to tackle real problems, which could be maintaining trails,” Mr. Dugan said. “We celebrate wild places. The differentiator is, we give back.”