FOCUS: ETHICAL TOURISM: Sun, sea and a little ethnic cleansing

Should we holiday in countries with poor human rights records?

Where would you choose to spend an exotic holiday? Sunbathing on a tropical beach with endless white sands fringed with palm trees? Or maybe you'd appreciate something a little more cultural, a mountain trek and a tour of ancient ruins and remote villages?

That's the sort of choice we're used to making.

But what if that paradise beach happens to be just miles from an entrenched civil war? Or an exotic island's business interests are controlled by a military regime?

Some of the most unpalatable regimes in the world are to be found in countries desperate to attract tourists, and they are keener than ever to persuade us that they have some of the most desirable holiday destinations on offer. Take Burma, for example. Next month it will be promoting itself as an ideal place for an exotic break when it takes a stand at the World Travel Market in London's Earls Court. There will be no mention of its record of oppressing human rights and its lack of democracy. Indeed, Burma is becoming adept at putting a gloss on its image: when it freed human rights activist Rachel Goldwyn last week, after she had served less than two months of a seven-year sentence for singing a pro-democracy protest song, the British woman was treated as a "guest" of the military, heading "up country" for a couple of days sightseeing on an approved tour before flying home.

Burma will be in good company at the World Travel Market. There will also be displays by Indonesia and China. Now the sixth leading international tourist destination, China will be awarded the 1999 World Tourism Award in recognition of the "outstanding impact of travel and tourism in generating employment growth".

But does it matter if we holiday in such countries?

Tourism Concern, which campaigns for responsible tourism, says it does. According to its director, Patricia Barnett, visiting such a country condones its regime, while a boycott would make an oppressive government realise that not everyone in the West is willing to turn a blind eye. "You really need to consider why you're going to Bali," she says, "and to think incredibly hard about why you feel the need to have a holiday in a country deeply embedded in civil strife."

The British Guild of Travel Writers has taken a similar stance and, for the first time in its history, has urged tourists and tour operators to boycott Indonesia until peace is restored in East Timor. "Individual tourists and tour operators have got to examine their consciences," said Guild vice-chairman Peter Lilley. "It is all too easy to stand by and convince oneself that the matter does not concern you - or that there is nothing you can do."

But others in the holiday business disagree. Tony Champion, managing director of Magic of the Orient, which features Burma and Indonesia in its brochures, feels that it's not up to business to draw a moral line. "It is better to keep the doors open and leave the final decision to the client. It's very difficult because almost every country has a human rights record, including our own."

Some tour companies also argue that boycotts can do more harm than good because they affect local people. Bishop Carlos Bellos, head of the Catholic Church in Indonesia, has reportedly called for a tourism boycott but with the business worth pounds 6.5bn to the country, thousands of ordinary Indonesians depend on tourism for their livelihood. David Abram, author of the Rough Guide to Goa, says, "If people don't go abroad who's really losing out?

"It's the poorer people - the local hoteliers, the women who rent out the rooms - they're the ones who will be most affected. If you asked those women they'd say tourism is a good thing that helps them to make ends meet."

As global tourism proliferates, the lines become ever murkier. Should we object to lazing on Turkey's beaches when we consider their treatment of the Kurds? What about a week in Moscow now that the Russians are systematically destroying Chechen villages? And what about France when they were nuclear testing at Muraroa atoll?

To muddy the moral maze yet further, enter Libya and Iran, now respectable holiday destinations. After the Lockerbie bombing suspects were handed over for trial in the Netherlands earlier this year, a new Mediterranean resort suddenly appeared in the global tourist market place. Explore Worldwide is planning to move into Libya and British Airways now offers two flights a week, rising to three during the summer. It's only a matter of time before Tripoli is building concrete hotels while its souks are overrun with travel guides and American Express is common currency. Despite the gloss of a European resort, Patricia Barnett argues that tourists should scratch the surface before visiting. "Libya is no different to Bali or China - you have to make a considered decision about an environment that is perhaps not as trouble-free as you'd like to believe."

DILEMMAS OF THE ETHICAL TOURIST

ETHICAL considerations may never play a serious role in your choice of holiday destination, but even if they do, it is not easy to judge what makes a destination "safe", writes Jeremy Atiyah, Travel Editor.

A major difficulty, for example, is the issue of how well the employees in the local tourist industry are being treated. Are they paid fairly? Do they have tolerable working conditions? Or are they treated as something close to slave labour?

There's also money. Is the cash you spend going into the pockets of local people, or the pockets of tour operators back home? And are there opportunities for locals and tourists to relate to each other on any remotely equal basis?

Then you need to think about the consequences of tourism for the environment. In places such as Goa, tourism stands accused of using all the clean water for the needs of luxury hotels. In Spain it goes to keeping golf courses green.

The only simple way to ensure that your tourist dollars do enter the local economy is to spend your money at locally owned and managed concerns.

And if you are still worried, the answer is probably not to go away at all. For your aeroplane will almost certainly cause more pollution than anything else you do during your holiday.

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