The COVID-19 pandemic has kept people at home and brought an entire industry close to standstill. With vaccines rolling out, however, we can be sure that people will begin traveling again very soon. So what kind of tourism will we see? At its best, tourism promotes inter-cultural exchange and helps instil a sense of universal human community. At its worst, it can damage the environment and destroy local cultural traditions.
The Philippines, a rising star in East Asian tourism with 8.3 million tourist arrivals in 2019, wants more of the better kind of tourism. The “Save Our Spots – S.O.S.” campaign reflects the sense of urgency that many locals felt in 2018 when they saw pictures of waste-littered beaches on their popular island paradise of Boracay. Authorities even had to close the beach in order to clean up.
The Philippines Department of Tourism (DOT) launched the campaign in late 2019 as an effort to educate people on how to be better travellers, and to convince them that sustainable behaviours can enhance their holiday experience.
The campaign shares 20 practical recommendations for tourists to apply throughout their trip: on preparation, on arrival and on site. There are “dos” like using oxybenzone-free sunblock or bringing refillable tumblers and “don’ts” like not touching wildlife or avoiding long showers. Prospective visitors will come across these colourful and engaging recommendations on the country’s official travel website philippines.travel. Meanwhile, on social media, tourists are encouraged to participate in the campaign themselves by downloading GIFs and garnishing their Instagram/Facebook stories with them.
Upon arrival and in transit, tourists will also come across three short videos designed specifically for airports, transport vessels, seaports and accommodation establishments. At first glance, these videos could be mistaken for tourism promotion, drawing viewers in with lavish images of spectacular landscapes and picturesque towns. However, the video’s “Small acts – big change” message quickly becomes clear when local celebrities explain what sustainable tourism is all about.
The SOS campaign has secured support from the national tourism industry, with travel agencies, hotels and tour operators helping multiply the message. For example, see how this tourism operator takes up the campaign. The DOT provides these stakeholders with information and promotional materials and encourages them to include the campaign in their staff training. The Department also offers its own training programmes, like this webinar on how to reduce single-use plastics in the hospitality sector.
The campaign received a lot of support and media attention in the Philippines, with many calling it a bayanihan initiative, a word that refers to a traditional kind of community spirit. Visitors and locals alike can regard their participation in the campaign as a voluntary effort for the common good. The campaign thus combines proven narratives like “We’re in this together!” and “Here’s how you can help!”.
S.O.S. reflects a general reorientation of the Philippines towards sustainable tourism, specified in the latest National Tourism Development Plan. The country’s Voluntary National Report of 2019 highlights the closure of Boracay Island as a starting point for wide-ranging efforts to restructure local tourism in a sustainable way. Indeed, “Save Our Spots” is part of an overarching campaign for sustainability called “More Fun Forever”.
Time will tell when tourists will begin visiting the Philippines and other destinations again. When they do so, campaigns like Save Our Spots will be of crucial importance. They represent hope for the future. They can help turn a devastating economic and social crisis into an opportunity to build more sustainable business models. SDG communications is well and truly core business for the COVID recovery.
This post is published in partnership with Engagement Global, a German service agency working on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to engage civil society on issues of development co-operation.