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Going High End Requires Some Adjustments

Koror, Palau- — Due to its very nature scuba diving is 8/10th preparation, 1/10th diving and 3/10th boasting. What the majority of scuba diving tourists want is to eliminate as much of the preparation so they can enjoy the diving and boasting. For most, scuba is an expensive hobby. Scuba diving contributed $11 billion into the U.S. economy in 2009. Over 50 percent of the money divers spent on their hobby was on travel.

Diving used to be considered a hobby for the elite, but thanks to standardization by agencies such as PADI, NAUI, CMAS, BSAC and others, together with courses that enable an expedited experience, scuba has been available to multitudes of tourists within hours (for a nominal fee). As a result, the industry has grown from what was essentially a recreational form of military training for hardcore enthusiasts to a factory spitting out thousands of “qualified” divers every week. What this means for the industry is that now there are hundreds of thousands of potential customers who want to be catered to. There are, of course, still those divers out there who have progressed so far with their training that those 8/10ths of preparation are as much a part of their enjoyment as the other 3 /10ths.

The majority, however, want the experience with minimal hassle. Given those statistics and Palau’s incredible natural assets it would be insane not to aim for as large a slice of that pie as possible. What is the best way for Palau to achieve that? Just increasing the number of planes loaded with tourists won’t work.

While divers do want to see a lot of wildlife, they do not want to see a lot of other people. Dive tourism is actually an extreme form of ecotourism. The quality of the ecosystem is what draws the tourists. Not many divers will pay to go to a location where there are more divers than fish.There is a threshold where the number of other people each seeking the same experience begins to detract from that expected experience. Unfortunately, Palau is experiencing mass tourism. The number of divers at certain dive sites has reached that threshold. There are too many divers. How does Palau reverse this downward trend? Ironically, it will be by reducing the numbers of divers. The increased quality of experience will draw those willing to pay more for it.

So how will Palau be able to achieve quality-oriented tourism? There are many ways that it can be done: -

-Limit the number of visitors entering the country; -

-Limit the number of hotel rooms;

-Raise the hotel room rates; -

-Limit the numbers of divers at the most popular sites each day;

The simple facts of economics dictate that as a resource becomes limited its value increases per unit. Instead of 25 boats at each of the premium dive sites and 250 divers potentially in the water at the same time, only 10 boats and 100 divers are now allowed.

Special permits are issued for each site, a ranger is checking those permits and clipping them like a bus conductor as each boat arrives, there are a maximum number of divers per boat and a maximum number of boats allowed at any one time. If the limit is reached at the premium sites, there are plenty of other sites that offer great diving not far away, the unused premium permits will still be valid another day. Because the numbers are limited, the dive customers have a better experience and that equates to an increased value for those dives.

The exclusivity will keep the value high and the added expense of the site permits will be justified. It also creates jobs due to the need for additional rangers.

Customer Service

In keeping with the added value of the experience, customer service must be at a level higher than it is now. The industry calls it “valet diving,” where absolutely everything possible is done for the customer. Most dive shops already provide boat assistants to carry gear, help customers on or off with their gear, switch tanks, fetch refreshments etc and the guides for the most part are good at their job, they know the sites, give good briefings, have enough experience to manage a group of 6-8 customers in some very challenging conditions and bring them all home safely with smiles on their faces.

Palau is one of the hardest places in the world to be a dive guide and only the very best guides should be able to work here. Shops should not be putting inexperienced under qualified interns on their boats unless they have an experienced mentor with them. Bad dive guides allow accidents to happen.

Peripheral Services

There is more to Palau than just diving at Blue Corner or German Channel.As a discerning tourist I would be judging the hotel where I am staying, the quality of restaurants, the cleanliness and safety of the streets. I’ve paid a lot of money to go diving and be in Palau, and I would like to feel that Palau care about me. Facilities include better infrastructure, better customer service at better hotels and good medical facilities in case the worst happens. An interesting incident occurred a few years ago where a certain dive shop was catering to an extremely wealthy client — the 1 percent type. He came with his own Mega Yacht and had every luxury he could wish for. Money was no object. However, during one of his dives, he experienced problems and whether it was his or the guide’s fault, he got bent. This excruciatingly painful and life-threatening condition is most commonly associated with diving accidents and he should have been immediately admitted to a hyperbaric facility on island.

The only problem was that there was no such operational facility in Palau. The man who had tens of millions of dollars to throw in any direction could not get the basic medical attention he so desperately needed because Palau had not considered it necessary to provide it.

Given that Palau’s economy has been supported by the dive industry it is unbelievable that this necessary service is not provided. It says to potential and current clients “We’ll take your money but not look after you.” Unacceptable. If Palau does truly want to cater to high-end dive tourists, it really needs to up its game and provide a high-end experience. Quality over quantity.

Potential customers who have the money to take expensive vacations tend also to be better educated and better educated customers behave better when on vacation. Better educated customers will continue to educate themselves about their choices of destination. The internet is a powerful tool and they are using it, and now more than ever Palau needs to walk the talk.

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