Secilil Eldebechel, chief of staff for the president of Palau // © 2017 Secilil Eldebechel
Feature image (above): Palau’s government is now aiming to market the destination to high-end travelers. // © 2017 iStock
Earlier this year, the island nation of Palau announced a change in¬ its tourism focus, which has shifted to attract a higher number of luxury travelers while providing sustainable, environmentally focused experiences for them. We sat down with Secilil Eldebechel, the chief of staff for the President’s Office in Palau, to learn more about this recent repositioning.
What is the current tourism landscape in Palau, and how do you see that evolving?
As it stands right now, our tourism sector is at the mercy of a few overseas travel companies that operate chartered flights to bring in more than 50 percent of our tourists on packaged tours. Some of these companies are labeling Palau as a cheap destination. Now, luxury travelers represent about 10 percent of our visitors, but we want that number to increase to at least 30 percent. Although we don't want to overwhelm our environment with mass tourism, we are trying to strike a balance where future tourism increases will mostly be from high-value travelers.
We certainly don't expect to move into mass tourism, given the smallness and the vulnerability of our island environment, as well as the limitations in our infrastructure. So our focus is to diversify our target market. We feel that it's a sustainable, responsible and manageable way to market ourselves.
What are the main attractions you wish to promote to this new group of travelers?
At the moment, we’re seeking to promote scuba diving, snorkeling, water tours and sightseeing on land. Clients are guaranteed to have a unique diving experience in Palau’s crystal-clear waters because of its diverse marine wildlife, which includes sharks, turtles, whales, rays and even jellyfish that do not sting. In addition, we have rock islands, beaches and lagoons that offer plenty of places to relax and enjoy some privacy.
Tell us a little about “Pristine Paradise Palau,” the country’s campaign for luxury travel.
This is a new tourism product that really describes Palau itself. It is our natural environment that we want to keep as pristine as possible in order to offer a sense of real paradise to our visitors. And our definition of paradise is a natural beauty that’s exotic, clean, fresh, breathtaking, peaceful and friendly. We try to satisfy all the five senses in one experience.
What are the challenges of marketing Palau to a greater audience of travelers?
The real challenge for us is air transport service, which does not allow much flexibility for travelers from different destinations. It is often very expensive. We continue to talk to airlines about mutual partnerships that can help us overcome this challenge.
We also compete with our neighboring destinations, such as Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii and the Philippines. While we continue to capitalize on our current market share, we are also recognizing the need to improve ourselves to meet the demands for high-quality tourism.
Are there any infrastructure changes we can expect in the years to come?
We have ongoing negotiations for a public-private partnership agreement to expand the airport terminal building to accommodate more business activities and improve travelers’ experiences. Talks are also underway for the construction of a reef road connecting main points in the town of Koror. This will ease traffic as well as offer more options for boat marinas.
We are also in the process of upgrading our water and sewer systems to complement the expected growth in our economy, and our information and telecommunications system will be upgraded with a submarine fiber-optic cable to provide high-speed internet by the end of this year.
We also anticipate a couple of big-name hotel operators to build five-star hotels within the next five years.