Your planet: Travel that doesn't cost the earth

Given the environmental damage caused by air travel, can it ever be ethical to go on holiday overseas? Yes, says Anita Roddick, because in many parts of the planet tourism - of the responsible variety - is a vitally important force for good

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Each year, UK tourists spend £2 billion on holidays in developing countries. This is comparable to our Government's aid budget. Tourism thus has significant potential for reducing poverty - as long as we all travel ethically.

Yet it still tends to be ignored. The Commission for Africa ( www.commissionforafrica.org) and Make Poverty History Campaign ( www.makepovertyhistory.org) websites contain no reference to the tourism's potential to reduce poverty, or to any strategies to ensure that this might happen. Search for tourism on the G8 website and you will find plugs for the Scottish tourism industry, but nothing about the role of ethical travel in helping to reduce poverty in Africa.

Yet Africa's tourism revenues are far bigger than its aid revenues. The World Trade Organisation says international tourism receipts in 2002 in Africa were $11.8bn - and with responsible tourism, up to 70 per cent of the cost of a holiday, excluding flights, would remain in Africa. By comparison, the US aid budget to Africa is just $674 million.

Some people are suspicious of the whole idea of ethical tourism, arguing that, to reach most places, you have to travel by air - which is itself unethical. It is true that the government expects air travel passenger numbers to double by 2030, by which time air travel will be the biggest contributor to global warming. However, it is also true that the airline industry can now create fuel efficient planes. The Sustainable Aviation Group, which includes BA and Virgin, aims to introduce new aircraft producing 50% less CO 2 than 2000 models.

These efficiency improvements will not keep pace with the growing demand for flights. But the airline industry can and must be further incentivised by the EU to reduce emissions by being required to buy permits to cover their carbon emissions in 2008 or before. This is being implemented by the European Emissions Trading Scheme. Money generated from the purchase of permits - and from the existing air passenger duty - must be spent on sustainable energy projects, as well as tree planting to absorb CO 2 , and fund research into renewable energy.

That apart, tourism has great potential to do good in the world. I think, however, that tourism is at least 10 years behind other sectors in terms of social responsibility. Yet the big operators are now finding that there are travellers out there who care about getting closer to nature and to local people, and about doing so in a way that benefits destinations and communities.

It has always taken new kids on the block - such as The Body Shop, when it first started, or, in the travel industry, responsibletravel.com - to translate what seem like radical ideas for a niche group of consumers into something that everybody wants and demands. Such translations should be encouraged.

It is certainly possible to re-connect the buyer (tourists) and seller (local people) in a powerful way that provides benefits to both. Tourists crave discovering new cultures and authenticity.

Fair trade tourism provides the opportunity for tourists to get closer to local communities, and generates an income for local people. Let us not forget that, in tourism, the "product" is often the flesh and blood of local people and their cultures. However, it will be virtually impossible for today's big operators to offer fair trade tourism, because their current business models are designed to achieve the opposite. By owning the travel agent, airline, hotel and local ground transportation and by flying in overseas staff they intend to ensure that they - rather than people in the destination - retain the lion's share of the profits. For example, up to 86 per cent of the cost of one all-inclusive holiday in The Dominican Republic stays in the UK. By contrast, fair trade tour operators such as Tribes Travel ensure that 75 per cent of the cost of a holiday stays in the destination.

Just over a year ago, I supported a campaign from on-line travel agency responsibletravel.com, which targeted three big travel agencies about their lack of complete policies for responsible tourism. I have recently heard that Thomas Cook, Thomson and My Travel have followed First Choice's lead and published their first Responsible Business Policy. Taking a look at these policies I have put below what I believe most stands out as each organisation's commitment. First Choice was the first major travel operator to have a policy and the first line of the policy states: "We recognise that the environment, the communities and cultures within which we operate and our relationships with key groups and individuals are vital to the success of our business."

Thomson state in a section headed "Being a Good Neighbour" that they are to "encourage and recognise initiatives which involve working with local communities and which demonstrate social responsibility", amongst other points about, for example, their environmental impact through aircraft emissions, pollution and inflight waste disposal. My Travel's policy agrees to "raising awareness and understanding of responsible tourism..." and states they will not tolerate exploitive forms of toursim.

Thomas Cook's states that it "continues to recognise the significant impact it has on the areas in which it operates in all social, economic and environmental terms and embraces the opportunity to address them in a responsible and positive manner. Thomas Cook UK & Ireland is therefore committed to reducing and mitigating the negative aspects, improving the positive aspects and building a more sustainable approach to the way in which it runs all areas of its business activities."

This is a big step forward for these operators, even though it is one thing having a policy and another to live it. I'm now keen to see them measure and report on their performance by doing a social environmental audit. That is now their next step forward. I'm also excited about how smaller companies and hotels are taking the lead. For example, responsibletravel.com - a business that I am involved with - has created a place for people to buy really amazing responsible holidays, as well as learn more about and campaign for responsible travel.

There is also a company in Canada with whom my family and I now annually holiday annually: The River League Wilderness Rafting Expeditions, who do just as their name says and organise environmentally aware rafting expeditions down rivers in Canada where sometimes only a bear or wolf has gone before you.

I sense that it is going to be an exciting time for tourism over the next five years. Unsustainable tourism, which sullies destinations and provides very little in return to local people, is no longer an option. People care about these issues. Young people in particular care passionately. The way to market sustainable tourism to them is as The Body Shop market their Community Trade Products - by telling the story behind the product, allowing the buyers to know how they made or contributed to the product and how buying the product affects their communities. In the tourism it would be necessary to tell "the story behind the brochure". People want to know more about the special place they are visiting, and about the people who live there. They want to connect with both the people and the place.

Most of these people are what I affectionately call "light green travellers". The "dark greens" are the hardcore ethical people who live and breathe "ethical". A light green is the average person, who possibly tries to recycle as much as possible, who possibly tries to buy some organic produce, who may have supported Make Poverty History and the Live 8 concerts or who may have marched at G8 and against the war in Iraq or at least supported those who did. Such people are the new travellers, the new consumers and the new public. Five or six years ago, they were hardly seen. Now they are more visible. They need encouragement.

In a recent survey by responsibletravel.com, 88 per cent of respondents said that they felt that tour operators should have a responsibility for preserving the local environment and culture and benefiting local people. Again, we need to encourage such views. The thing that makes tourism unique is that tourists can see first-hand how its bad forms steamroller over local people and cultures. Most of us have not seen first hand the sweatshops that corporations use to make the clothes and shoes we buy, but when we are on holiday we cannot help but see the damage that mass tourism causes. So many people are already receptive to the key messages of responsible tourism.

Think local. Use locally-owned accommodation rather than chain hotels, buy local produce, employ local guides and staff, eat in local restaurants, search out community projects that tourists can visit - and that they and the tour company can support. Invest in proper environmental management. Keep asking questions of your tour operator and hotel, and ask to see their written policies about the environment and local people.

Finally, tourists need to be provided with good information on local cultures and customs. When I travel, I always spend time with the local communities and leaders. I find it enriching and truly believe travel is a "university without walls". There is no other education like it.

Just remember that, when you are abroad, you are a guest in somebody else's home, and that travelling with respect earns you respect.

For more information, look on these websites: www.anitaroddick.com, www.responsibletravel.com, www.riverleague.ca

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