As an archipelago within the Western Pacific Ocean, the Republic of Palau has some interesting firsts. It is the location of the world’s first shark sanctuary, which was established in September 2009. Then, four years later, Palau became home to a designated fully protected marine sanctuary.
Now, the tourism sector of this Pacific island nation is ushering in another first. Ol’au Palau, a new sustainability initiative, will promote responsible tourism through a game app that requires travelers to complete green measures.
“Palau’s desire for more positive, sustainable and regenerative visitor behavior is born out of necessity, because its economy is inextricably linked to its ecology,” said Jennifer Koskelin Gibbons, co-founder of the Palau Legacy Project and Palau local.
According to Gibbons, pre-COVID tourism accounted for 85% of Palau’s GDP. However, while tourism remains essential to Palau, its environmental impact may outweigh it.
Without oversight, Gibbons further explained that “those same tourists would have a significant cultural and ecological impact” that could result in harmful ramifications for Palauans and the island in general. These factors can range from the risk of damaging coral and delicate flora, to not showing respect for the language and culture of Palau.
“So Palau needed a way to reinforce and measure more positive tourism behavior,” Gibbons added.
Developed by creative agency Host/Havas, Ol’au Palau is a reward-based gaming application that teaches visitors an eco-label. It is done through a point-based system where users unlock badges through completed tasks.
“The idea was to apply the nudge and reward-based principles of play, which had grown so large during the pandemic, to ecotourism as a way to encourage and incentivize the type of behavior. [that] Palau’s fragile ecosystem requires it,” Gibbons explained.
To earn points, visitors to Palau will be required to perform certain responsibilities involving simple or significant activities or personal interactions. They include using reef-safe sunscreen, visiting culturally significant tourist sites, and avoiding single-use plastics.
Other requirements for the credential at Ol’au Palau go further. Travelers are encouraged to participate in regenerative tourism projects, support businesses focused on reducing their environmental and cultural impact, and eat local and sustainably sourced food.
Additionally, these “players” can correctly answer questions about Palau’s biodiversity and culture. They will also be able to accumulate points by offsetting their carbon footprint using Palau’s personal carbon calculator. At the time of writing this article, the calculator is in Beta but fully functional. It can be accessed and used through this link.
Ol’au Palau is also based on the Palau Pledge, a commitment established in 2017 that requires visiting tourists to commit to protecting Palau’s environment and culture. Manages a mandatory passport stamp that must be signed by travelers upon arrival in Palau.
“This was a huge global success and helped change visitor behavior and attract like-minded visitors,” said Gibbons. “But then Palau needed to create a way to continue educating visitors about responsible behavior at all tourism touchpoints. Ol’au Palau was born out of this need.”
By completing tasks, Ol’au Palau will unlock unique cultural experiences said to be normally reserved for Palauans. They may involve the opportunity to meet with community elders and visit villages and gain access to parts of the island that are generally off limits to the general public.
So the more responsible you are, the more access you will have to Palauan culture.
“For years, Palau has been challenged with how to share important cultural sites that are very special and protected with visitors,” Gibbons said. “With this platform, we can make these places more accessible to worthy visitors who have shown they care. It is a means to investigate who can access special places and the community in a respectful and conscientious way”.
In the local language, Palauan, “Ol’au” is a way of calling a friend to invite them to your space.
Launched at the Our Oceans Conference in April 2022, which was co-hosted by Palau and the United States in Palau, Gibbons noted that Ol’au Palau has also received endorsements from those directly tied to the app: Palauans. “We are very proud that the project has been formally blessed by the Palau Council of Chiefs. It’s an important validation.”
Ol’au Palau is currently available via registration for download at the time of its release. Register at olaupalau.com.