Palau: Pioneer amidst the Pandemic
Photo © Emiliano Arano
© Good Travel Guide, December 2020 by Ramona Mendis
Palau is one of the few countries in the world that has successfully been COVID-19 free for the past few months. In order to achieve and maintain its COVID-19 free status the country has suspended all commercial flights since the beginning of this year and will continue to do so until further notice.[efn_note]Palau Ministry of Health. (2020, November 16). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report Palau Ministry of Health – External Situation Report 16 November 2020. Ministry of Health. Retrieved November 16, 2020[/efn_note] Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak the outlook in the first quarter of 2020 was very promising and tourism numbers were on track to grow more than 30 percent and estimated to attract 116,000 visitors for the year. Over the past months the loss in tourism has resulted in at least a “22.3 percent decline in GDP and a loss of 3,128 jobs, primarily in the private sector”.[efn_note]U.S. Department of the Interior & Joshua, T. H. (2020, 6 22). Share Initial Economic Impact of COVID-19 Reported for Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. OIA News. Retrieved November 16, 2020[/efn_note]
This loss in tourism will not only impact the livelihoods of locals but also have an impact on the ocean protection programs and initiatives for Palau. Mr. Umiich Sengibau, Palau’s Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism stated the following during a webinar series “Transitioning to a post-pandemic Pacific Webinar Series” hosted by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme:[efn_note]Earth Journalism Network & Krishnamurthi, S. (2020, July 31). Could eco-tourism mark the post-Covid future for the Blue Pacific? Earth Journalism Network. Retrieved November 16, 2020[/efn_note]
“Tourism economy and ocean protection go hand-in-hand…tourism and protection are part of the same sustainable economy, and [when] one is undermined then so is the other”
A carbon neutral destination
Even with the loss in tourist revenue Palau still continues to move forward with sustainable initiatives and projects. A recent project was launched in August that aims to make Palau a “carbon neutral destination”. This project is a joint project by the Palau Bureau of Tourism, Sustainable Travel International and Slow Food.
This initiative will not only help reduce the tourism carbon footprint but will also help create a more sustainable economy by “[creating] income-generating opportunities for local communities and improve food security on the islands”. It will be achieved by doing the following:
- Reducing overseas food imports to the island and sourcing more foods locally
- Bringing more attention to “the islands’ gastronomic heritage”
- Help local farmers and fisherman “to market their products to tourists”
- Promote “sustainable production”
- “[Empowering] women producers to participate in the tourism value chain”
This project will be the pioneer of an online platform called “carbon management programme” which allows tourists to calculate and offset the carbon footprint associated with their trip. The offset contributions will be invested in blue carbon initiatives, such as mangrove restoration, or sustainable production activities in the region that reduce CO2 emissions. It is estimated that this program has the potential to raise over USD $1 million a year for these carbon reduction initiatives.[efn_note]Republic of Palau National Government. (2020, August 11). Project to Make Palau a Carbon Neutral Destination Launched by Palau Bureau of Tourism, Sustainable Travel International, and Slow Food. PalauGov.pw. Retrieved November 16, 2020[/efn_note]
Impacts of the rising sea-levels
There is a pressing need for Palau to have these kinds of green initiatives because its coast will be one of those hard hit by rising sea-levels. Although these projects are good, offsetting will not be enough to compensate for the travel impact of the climate emergency which is further explained in our blog article Travel emissions, carbon offsetting and the climate crisis: questions, dilemmas and suggestions. An interactive map has been created by Green Destinations’ GIS-expert Isabelle Breton to demonstrate the impact of 1 meter and 2.5 meter increase in sea levels on the coastal areas of Palau, this is available here. You will see that a 2.5 meter sea level rise would result in 55 km2 of Palau becoming flooded.
The COVID-19 outbreak will and already has a significant impact on the heavily reliant tourist economy of Palau. Nevertheless, the country is not slowing down in its fight against the threat of climate change and rising sea levels. Palau has for many years, been a role model for the rest of the world by pioneering innovative policies and regulations (further information can be found in the Good Travel Destinations guide on Palau). Even during the pandemic they continue to strive to reach their goal of becoming a carbon-neutral destination.