SPORTS TOURISM. Although Konqer 2018 was largely participated by residents of Palau, it was one of the initiatives undertaken by the Palau Visitors Authority (PVA) to diversify tourist experience in Palau through sports tourism, among others. In the photo were participants of Konqer 2018, helping each other complete an obstacle. (Rhealyn C. Pojas)
Various events that happened this year, and the years prior, had led Palau to rethink the way it is doing tourism.
Talks about the number of tourists visiting Palau had been going on for a while but the decline was badly felt after the country experienced a sudden boom in 2015, the highest number of tourists Palau had in the last five years – a record mostly accredited to the surge of Chinese tourists in the country.
However, the tourism sector took another beating this year when its second largest market, the Japanese tourists, also crashed to about a half of its usual number following Delta Airlines’ cut off of flights to Palau on May 6. The numbers do not lie. Japanese tourists visiting Palau earlier this year never go down below 2,000 per month until Delta Airlines stopped its service. From 2,567 Japanese tourists that visited Palau in April, the number immediately went down in half to only over 1,000 the moment the airline ceased taking Palau route.
It was not until another airline, however, when Palau made headlines again among various news organizations around the globe due to tourism downturn. Palau Pacific Airways (PPA), the airline operated by the Sea Passion Group, caused an international buzz with its announcement of suspending flight operations due to the drastic decline of Chinese tourists that resulted from China’s policy of banning tours to Palau. Although PPA surmised that such policy by China was put in place due to lack of diplomatic relationship with Palau, most were more blatant with their speculation that this was part of China’s tactic – to weaponize tourism in expanding its influence in the region.
Although the Sea Passion Group expected the Chinese tourists visiting Palau to be completely gone by August this year, this has not happened so far. In fact, Chinese tourists remained to be Palau’s top tourism market this year.
With the slump of tourist numbers, President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. tried to downplay the issue, saying in previous reports that Palau’s tourist arrivals were “traditionally” low around the time when the news broke out.
Yet with all this news about downward tourism performance, authorities had sought a new philosophy in promoting its tourism industry.
Remengesau, for instance, had repeatedly mentioned that Palau should not focus its tourism in one market alone and should embrace a diverse market.
“We don’t put our eggs in one basket because we have learned in the past when we only promote our tourism from only one source and when that source [‘s economy stumbles], then we are directly and very much impacted by it. But if we share our tourism in different baskets and if one economy group [is] down, at least we still have some other groups to continue to keep up with the stats,” Remengesau was previously quoted in our report.
The influx of tourists in the past had also made Palau see the dangers of “overtourism” that is seen to impact the environment and the daily lives of the locals. With Palau being a small nation in terms of land and population, it sees the need to recognize the importance of Ecology. Remengesau metaphorically likened Palau’s tourism to that of a person trying to make sure to invite only as much visitors that he or she is capable of feeding or accommodating.
“You can only invite so many people into your house without running out of food or running out of places to sleep,” Remengesau said in one of his interviews.
Meanwhile, the Palau Visitors Authority (PVA) had also taken the steps to bring new tourist attractions and activities to visitors. Realizing that Palau had been too focused in promoting the country as a diving destination for many years, PVA started paving another way by providing more land activities for tourists, especially for those who are not into diving or any other water activities.
PVA had already forged partnerships with the different states to develop their historical sites and bring in more of Palau’s culture at the forefront of tourism sector.
But just as Palau had gained international attention due to the challenges it is facing with its tourism industry, it also impressed the world in the aspects of amplifying its message to protect the environment. Palau’s famous “Palau Pledge”, for example, continued to charm the world as it garnered awards. Palau also added another international recognition by being the first nation to ban “reef-toxic” sunscreen.
Indeed, Palau’s tourism industry had experienced many highs and lows this year. But with every challenge it faces, it tries to embrace new ways of coping up. (Rhealyn C. Pojas)