Through Palau’s branding as “Pristine Paradise Palau” – a premier tourist destination speaks to the island’s natural environment and culture. As a tourist product, the island is developing an image to visitors that Palau Visitors Authority describes in more flowery language as “Lost in a great expanse of deep blue ocean, there lies a Pristine Paradise, one of the few remaining paradises on Earth.” And in paradise, there are no miseries of normal existence but peace and happiness exist, but that is proving to be a challenge.
“Palau is marketing itself as a pristine paradise and so we want an industry that is consistent with the kind of message we want to project to the rest of the world,” Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism, Umiich Sengebau says in an online publication.
But in early October, a high-powered speed boat with load of Chinese tourists crashed into a rock island killing one and injured several others. The incident sparked discussions on tourists’ safety and fears that the government is failing to properly ensure safety in its push to attract more high-end, high value visitors.
Like many other destinations, Palau’s tourism boom is powered by a growing number of Chinese visitors. Since 2014, visitors from China have been the largest segment reaching more than 50 percent of arrivals in the last two years.
Heavily dependent on the volatile tourism economy with over 75 percent of GDP generated by the visitor industry, Palau can’t afford any more negative news when it’s trying to recover from 21 consecutive months of declining arrivals.
Both the national and state governments have taken steps to protect further accidents by the tour industry.
Reports of unsafe practices by boat operators have prompted local authorities to issue stern warnings for boat operators and tour boat operators. Seeking to cut travel distances, boat operators have been observed avoiding shallow reef markers and cutting through shallow reef areas at high speed.
Boaters have been disregarding the legal speed limit of 5 knots inside Malakal Harbor – home to Palau’s national port. Malakal is a rock island insulated bay, consisting of shallow reefs and deep channels, teeming with dive and snorkeling areas within the lagoon.
Koror State Government, in a public announcement based on its observation of an increase in tour boat misbehavior, is urging a stop to “reckless practices.” Koror State is home to the Rock Island Southern Lagoon—a UNESCO world heritage registered site.
Palau National Government has ramped up its marine law enforcement by increasing boat safety inspections since the tragic boating incident.
Marine law inspectors are conducting daily visits to public docks, issuing citations for boat safety violations. Marine law enforcement has been beefed up with the hiring of 20 additional marine law officers.
“We now have 20 new officers who have completed the police academy and various trainings that have picked up inspections,” says Director Thomas Tutii of the Bureau of Maritime Safety & Fish and Wildlife. Boat inspections have been expanded to the rock island areas and other outlying villages. He says that boats normally pass safety requirements at the time of registration but fail to maintain their good standing afterward.
In its budget, the national government has also responded by appropriating funds to procure a marine ambulance for transporting patients from other areas separated from the main hospital in Koror. For several years now, Belau National Hospital has appropriated funding to maintain a hyperbaric chamber in case of diving accidents – an activity alone that generates $90 million into the economy.
By putting a tremendous effort to safeguarding its tourism, Palau hopes to live up to the image of a pristine paradise and continue to promote it as a premier diving destination and a leader in conservation of these resources.