When people plan a vacation, they usually consider what the destination will offer them. But more and more, destinations are asking visitors to consider the effects they’ll have on the local landscape. Since 2017, alert travelers may have noticed the rise of the sustainability pledge. Iceland claims to be first, debuting the Icelandic Pledge in June of that year. The Republic of Palau introduced a pledge in December 2017, complete with a full-page passport stamp addressed to the “children of Palau” about how visitors would tread lightly and explore mindfully.

Nowadays, the pledge idea is touching the county level. Beautiful Door County, Wisconsin — long a playground for Midwesterners, especially Chicagoans, seeking an idyllic lake vacation — has hopped on the pledge bandwagon. The county has a lot to protect, from the towering rock bluffs of the Niagara Escarpment to the water quality of Lake Michigan. The  Ridges Sanctuary in the town of Baileys Harbor shelters 475 plant species, making it Wisconsin’s most biologically diverse ecosystem. Even the stars shine extra brightly in Door County, especially if you visit the dark sky park at Newport State Park.

Related: A model for sustainable tourism in the San Juan Islands

Inhabitat talked to Michelle Rasmusson, director of strategy and research for Destination Door County, about developing the Care for Door County program, which includes the sustainability pledge.

Three people with their arms around each other standing behind a table with two posters on either side of them

Inhabitat: Why did you decide Door County needed a sustainability pledge and what did you hope to gain?

Rasmusson: We started seeing record numbers of visitation in 2019, which was creating increased degradation to our natural resources, strain on workforce and increased resentment from our locals when it came to tourism. We needed to reimagine ourselves as a destination marketing organization and reimagine ourselves to include destination management.  One of the first things we needed to do was change our messaging to include what was at stake and what we expected from our visitors when they visited our communities. Our hope was that the Pledge would become a movement to make that happen. 

Inhabitat: Did you work from other existing destination pledges?

Rasmusson: As we dug more and more, we discovered we were not alone when it came to other destinations needing to find a way to protect and reverse the negative impacts on tourism. Palau was one of the first examples we saw and we knew what we had to do. It wasn’t going to solve everything, but it did start the conversation, which allowed us to build partnerships with Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and kick off our Care for Door County movement. I say movement because it’s not a one and done initiative. It was built as a foundation that we as a community can build from to keep moving the needle. 

Inhabitat: Who were the stakeholders who worked together to craft it?

Rasmusson: We started with resident and visitor surveys to see where our pain points were. What was at stake? How do residents feel about tourism?  How do visitors feel about our destination? That feedback basically wrote the Pledge and the movement to create Care for Door County. The voices were so loud and clear. They wrote the Pledge; we were merely the vessel to get that message out.  

A wooden pathway with railings crossing through a field of grass

Inhabitat: What kinds of obstacles and challenges came up?

Rasmusson: It started backwards honestly. We started with the Pledge and quickly realized it was only one piece of the puzzle. The biggest obstacle was trying to wrap our arms around everything we were trying to accomplish and highlighting all the great things the community and its residents were already doing. We are still uncovering new initiatives every day and new opportunities present themselves around every corner. 

Inhabitat: What are the main sorts of businesses participating?

Rasmusson: We wanted to equip folks with all the tools to make it easy to spread the initiative alongside their own missions and it’s been amazing to see the reception from businesses in all sectors. Our outdoor rec businesses embrace the Care for Door County mission as much as our large hotels and legacy restaurants, all alongside our residents and visitors, by working it into their own social feeds and having the collateral available for their guests. It’s a very visual movement and the unified reception across all sectors has been powerful.

People volunteering beside a water bank picking up trash

Inhabitat: Are you doing anything to track the effectiveness of the pledge?

Rasmusson: At anytime you can see how many people have signed the Pledge both on DoorCounty and a live counter in the Welcome Center. We also track engagement through our media buys, the website and our social channels. Starting in 2023, we will have an internal sustainability index to track all the pieces.

Inhabitat: What advice would you give other destinations thinking about launching a sustainability pledge?

Rasmusson: Start with your residents. They are the heartbeat of your destination and are the ones that will be the most invested in preserving your community. 

Images via Destination Door County and Teresa Bergen