KOROR, Palau — Quiet, calm and slow-paced Palau is devoid of the glitzy Western hotels that pepper other island nations in the western Pacific.
Comprised of more than 300 islands, Palau is known primarily for its breathtaking marine life. Neighboring vacation hotspots — like Phuket, Cebu and Borocay — are experiencing a commercial boom and an overflow of tourists, but Palau has been be able to hold on to its local flavor.
Billy Kwan, a tour guide who has been living in Koror, the largest town in Palau, for almost 20 years says not much has changed since the early 1990s.
“The government has been very careful in developing things here — they want to protect the nature on and around these islands,” said Kwan, pointing to the clear turquoise water filled with colorful tropical fish. “Palauans don’t need much, they like keeping things simple.”
With only one street running from the airport through the rest of the main island, Palau is no secret to diving enthusiasts around the world and visitors from Taiwan, Japan and Korea. But even with a steady increase in tourism over the last decade and a half, the country has been able to preserve its natural environment, mainly due to government efforts.
In 2005, the country vowed to conserve at least 20 percent of its forests until 2020, and 30 percent of its near shore coastal waters.
Palau President Johnson Toribiong also banned shark fishing four months ago at a United Nations meeting, encouraging the rest of the world to follow in its footsteps. The ban is the first of its kind, said Washington-based Pew Environment Group.
As a part of the Micronesia region, Palau’s lush archipelago is considered one of the most dynamic in the world. It is home to Ongeim'l Tketau, a lake with more than 20 million golden stingless jellyfish. Snorkelers can also easily spot schools of sharks at the famous Big Drop-Off, while silver swordfish and barracudas roam around a rainbow of unspoiled reefs near the Rock Islands. At a cove called Milky Way, visitors rub white silky volcano mud onto their bodies that is said to have healing purposes for one’s skin.
Although Palau does face environmental problems including rising sea levels and illegal fishing, the government imposes harsh penalties on people who break quota rules or catch endangered marine animals.
“You could be thrown in jail for digging a giant clam out of the water without permission since some of these are over 75-years-old,” Kwan told his tour group as he pointed to a beautiful large white clam in the ocean.
Palauans and guides are also only allowed to bring tourists to certain areas. Locals are fined heavily for bringing foreigners to off-limit islands, said Kwan.
With about 85,000 visitors a year, many of them scuba divers, government officials have said they do plan to allow more hotel projects onto Palau in the next few years, but that their goal is not for mass tourism.
Once an American military hub, the island nation gained its independence in 1994, and the U.S. agreed to provide the country with $700 million dollars in aid for the next 15 years in return for furnishing military facilities, according to the CIA website. Palau has also been the long-time darling of Taiwan, which has donated hundred of millions of dollars in return for having a political ally amid threats from China.
Environmental observers say its no surprise that Palauans, who each earn a per capita income about 50 percent higher than people in the Philippines and on other Micronesia islands, are setting a good example for environment preservation in the region.
“The country’s natural surrounding is their most valuable asset and they have to preserve it since tourism is their largest economic driver,” said Shawn Chang who works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Taiwan.
“They are definitely more active in conservation compared to many other places in Asia and hopefully they’ll continue to be,” said Chang, who added that Palau’s small population of slightly over 20,700 also makes things more manageable.