As an archipelago within Western Pacific Ocean, the Republic of Palau has some interesting firsts. It is the location of the world’s first shark sanctuary, which was set forth 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 gaming app requiring travelers to complete eco-friendly measures.
“Palau’s desire for more positive, sustainable and regenerative behavior from visitors is born from necessity, because its economy is inextricably linked to its ecology,” said Jennifer Koskelin Gibbons, co-founder of the Palau Legacy Project and a local Palauan.
According to Gibbons, pre-COVID tourism made up 85 percent of Palau’s GDP. Yet while tourism remains essential to Palau, its environmental impact can carry more weight.
Without oversight, Gibbons further explained that “those same tourists would have a significant cultural and ecological impact” could result in damaging ramifications to Palauans and overall the island. These factors can range from the risk of harming coral and delicate flora, to not showing respect for the Palauan language and culture.
“So Palau required a way to reinforce and measure more positive tourism behavior,” added Gibbons.
Developed by the creative agency, Host/Havas, Ol’au Palau is a reward-based gaming app that teaches eco-friendly etiquette to visitors. It’s done through a points-based system in which users unlock badges through completed tasks.
“The idea was to apply the reward-based, nudge principles of gaming, which had grown so much over the pandemic, to eco-tourism as a way of encouraging and incentivizing the type of behavior [that] Palau’s fragile ecosystem required,” explained Gibbons.
To gain points, visitors to Palau will be required to carry out certain responsibilities involving simple or significant activities or personal interactions. They include using reef-safe sunscreen, visiting culturally-significant tourism sites and avoiding single-use plastics.
Other badge requirements in Ol’au Palau go even further. Travelers are encouraged to participate in regenerative tourism projects, support businesses focused on reducing their environmental and cultural impact and eating local and sustainably-sourced foods.
Additionally, these “gamers” can correctly answer questions about Palau’s biodiversity and culture. They also will be able to accumulate points through offsetting their carbon footprint by using Palau’s personal carbon calculator. As of this writing, the calculator is in Beta but it is fully functional. It can be accessed and used via this link.
Ol’au Palau also builds upon the Palau Pledge, a commitment established in 2017 that requires visiting tourists to vow to be protective of Palau’s environment and culture. It administers 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 to educate visitors on responsible behavior across all tourism touch-points. Ol’au Palau was born out of this necessity.”
Upon completing tasks, the Ol’au Palau will then unlock unique cultural experiences that are said to be normally reserved for Palauans. They may involve the opportunity to meet with community elders and visit villages and be given access to parts of the island that are usually off limits to the general public.
So, the more responsible you are, the more access you’ll have to Palauan culture.
“For years, Palau had the challenge of how to share important cultural sites that are very special and protected with visitors,” said Gibbons. “With this platform, we can make these places more accessible to worthy visitors who have proven themselves to care. It’s a means of vetting who can gain access to special places and the community in a respectful and mindful way.”
In the local language, Palauan, “Ol’au” is a way of calling out to a friend to invite them into your space.
Ol’au Palau was launched at the Our Oceans Conference in April 2022, which was co-held by Palau and the United States in Palau. Gibbons noted that Ol’au Palau has also gotten backing from those directly tied to the app – Palauans. “We’re so proud that the project has been formally blessed by Palau’s Council of Chiefs. It’s an important validation.”
Currently, Ol’au Palau is available through registration for downloading upon its release. Sign up at olaupalau.com.