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In the Pacific Country of Palau, Conservation and Luxury Tourism Go Hand in Hand

While the country knows that nature is its top draw, it is also leaning on another rich resource: its culture. The Alii Pass program, launched by the Palau Visitors Authority in 2018 (and revived in 2022, after the pandemic), offers community-led tours with Palauan experts all over the country. These include longtime must-dos like snorkeling in Jellyfish Lake as well as surprises like a historic World War II tour on Peleliu island and a visit to the ancient stone monoliths of Ngarchelong. One trip took me to the mangrove-fringed state of Airai, where locals welcomed me and the Explorer crew with Palauan songs and insight into Indigenous customs. “We don’t let just anyone explain our histories or sites,” said Velma Obak, our guide in Airai. We stood before the majestic Airai Bai, a centuries-old meeting house, as she narrated the legends depicted on the building’s façade. As a historian, she’s working with Palau’s education ministry to ensure that the cultural knowledge she’s researched is shared with fellow Palauans, not just with visitors.

This goal of preservation—of both nature and heritage—is the mantra of Heather Ketebengang of the Palau Conservation Society, who took me bird-watching through the Rock Islands, a necklace of forested limestone isles resembling giant emeralds in a turquoise sea, where white terns and kingfishers sped past. Back on the Explorer, I asked her if she believed tourism could coexist with conservation. Yes, she said, but it must be a form of tourism that supports conservation, giving back to nature while hosting its stewards and the thoughtful visitors who want to see Palau—both above and below the waves. “I want everyone—including my children and grandchildren—to see Palau the way I see it today.”

Some quick facts about Palau

Population: 18,000 (2021)

Languages spoken: English, Palauan

World first: Palau banned shark fishing in 2009

Keep an eye out for: The rainbow-plumed Palauan fruit dove

This article appeared in the April 2024 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.