Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Palau may be a small country but it is positioning itself as a mighty force in the world of ocean conservation and smart growth. Palau created a shark sanctuary in 2001. In 2007, Palau established a nation-wide Protected Areas Network which is funded, in large part, by a Green Fee levied on foreign tourists. In 2015, Palau took the plunge and designated their entire EEZ as a National Marine Sanctuary, closing all waters to commercial fishing and setting aside 80% as a no-take zone. As of this year, the country is doubling-down on smart growth and responsible tourism. Countless international NGOs, foundations, and foreign governments have a presence in the country and collaborate on everything from tuna tagging to aerial surveys for illegal fishing boats.

Taking the plunge (and a mud facial) in Palau’s protected waters.

The OneReef staff flew in from California at the end of June and we had the opportunity to meet with many of the movers and shakers who have helped secure these progressive policy successes. During OneReef’s whirlwind two and half week visit, we shared countless cups of coffee with government officials, state representatives, scientists, NGO staff, and foreign visitors, strengthening partnerships and exploring ideas for the future. We had the honor of attending a cocktail reception with Palau’s President Remengesau who spoke about his vision and pioneering ocean policies.

President Remengesau addressing the group.

It is clear that being a pioneer has its benefits: international acclaim, eager partners with (sometimes) deep pockets, national pride. Yet, it brings its share of challenges, too. Doing things that no one has done before means there are a lot of unanswered questions about how best to implement, enforce, and monitor. Add to that the pressure of having your implementation closely scrutinized by the entire world and being a pioneer could start to feel a bit daunting. Put frankly, success in Palau means prioritizing ocean conservation could become the status quo for Micronesia, the Pacific, and small islands states around the globe. Messy implementation or serious missteps could deter other countries from following in Palau’s footsteps as ocean champions. The policies are in place but the implementation is where the rubber meets the road.

Take tourism, as an example. In the past few years, Palau has seen an explosion in tourist arrivals. Before, the country welcomed a consistent but manageable stream of visitors seeking sun, snorkeling, diving, and an escape from their fast-paced mainland lives. Now, planes deliver hordes of tourists from China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan who are then swept up by pre-booked foreign-owned tour buses and delivered to foreign-owned hotels.Thousands of such visitors have put a strain on Palau’s infrastructure, freshwater resources, and coral reefs while most of the money remains with the foreign travel agencies. Quickly recognizing that low-value, mass, package tourism was unsustainable, the Palauan government set about developing a Responsible Tourism Policy Framework. The framework lays out a five-year plan (beginning in 2017) to invest in high-value growth within the sector instead of high-volume growth. A serious overhaul of the country’s accommodations, services, and marketing strategies is needed to cultivate high-end niche markets for nature-based tourism, cultural heritage tourism, honeymoon tourism, and others. So, the question remains: is Palau nimble enough to implement their ambitious five-year tourism plan, rapidly moving the tourism sector towards high-value growth, in a way that is good for the environment, communities, and the economy? No doubt this question weighs heavily on the communities, businesses, and government agencies tasked with implementation as other small islands states watch from the wings.

WWII relics on the island of Peleliu attract many tourists.

What’s more, it is not enough to focus on the initial thrust of implementation and assume good policies and programs will take on a life of their own. Good policies and programs require constant attention and nurturing. Take, for example, the Helen Reef Resource Management Program. It was one of the first fully-developed community-based conservation projects in Palau and was a pioneer, in its own way. The program made it over the hurdle of initial implementation, legally protecting Helen Reef as a Marine Managed Area, yet years later it is clear that new challenges continue to pop up. Leadership ebbs and flows; staff members come and go; the community’s interest waxes and wanes; political support flourishes and withers. In order to ensure long-term success, the mission must be crystal clear, the community benefits must be direct and tangible, and vigilant monitoring and evaluation must highlight what is working and what is not. If the Helen Reef Program may serve as an example, it is clear that Palau has a lot of work ahead to ensure their policies reach their full potential and thrive for years to come.

In my final few weeks, I will be assisting the Helen Reef Program with a series of community outreach activities, including a mural contest, an ocean trivia night, and a youth day camp. In my free time, I’ve befriended the resident puppies at my house, discovered the one and only donut shop in Palau, struggled through some very sweaty miles on the community track, and done my best to avoid being caught in torrential downpours on my bike. Stay tuned for my final reflections in August!

My four-legged host brother.

My preferred mode of transport, despite the rain.

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