Head to head Are eco-tourists on a mission to save the planet or just an ego trip? Tourism Concern's Patricia Barnett challenges John Gillies of tour operator Exodus
"We visit a lot of exotic places which have some sort of ecological interest, and clearly we try to do so in such a way that our visit has minimum impact. We hope all our tours are ecologically friendly. Wherever possible, we use accommodation which is locally owned and is in keeping with the place we're visiting, so that some benefit goes to the local community, and we only take small groups of 15 or 16 people. Nepal is one of our biggest destinations: we may have quite a number of groups up there in the course of a year. Other companies similar to ourselves might follow us, but it's still only going to be tiny numbers, nothing like those carried by Thompsons or Airtours to Spain. It would be absurd to imagine that you are going to turn the mountains of Nepal into anything remotely resembling Alicante.

In many cases, our tours are proposed to us by local people. They very often can't wait to get into the 20th century and have people do business with them, and it would seem very paternalistic of us to deny them. The problem is that although tour operators often get the blame, a lot of the worst ecological horrors are perpetrated - or at least encouraged - by the local communities or host nations themselves: look at Spain, or Greece, or Turkey. What we can try to do is to ensure that the local communities get benefits, not exploitation. In our case, wherever it's practical to do so we choose our guides and porters, accommodation and forms of transport from local sources.

I don't think exploitation has to happen and in our kind of tourism I don't think it does happen, though inevitably the peoples and cultures you go and see are going to change through being seen. You cannot reverse the trend of people wanting to travel worldwide, without imposing Draconian laws and regulations preventing tourist travel, which is utterly ridiculous. Try telling the local communities that it's better for them never to see a tourist!"

John Gillies is managing director of the adventure-tour operator Exodus (0181-675 5550)



"Nature-based tourism, often now called eco-tourism, has been repackaged and marketed as something different, but actually is no different to any other form of tourism: in fact, it has been called 'ego-tourism' by some travel academics, because it's not so much about what you're contributing to the environment as what you're getting personally and how you understand yourself through it. It's self-defeating to travel to an environment and then claim that you have not affected it at all. How do you know you're not having an impact? How do you separate out the effect of one small operator, from the collective impact of many small operators?

Eco-tourism often involves visiting remote communities. Very rarely have these holidays been developed with the consultation and involvement of local people. When I asked one tour organiser how he involved locals, he replied, `Well, we're using them as porters.' Now, it's fine to use people as porters if that's how they want to be used, but is that all they can expect? Is there really no other way of engaging locals so that they are more appropriately involved with what is happening? It's true that some people in developing areas can't wait to have tourism - if it looks like there's a means to improve your life, you're going to grab it. But while some people do get rich and access that wealth, most people don't. For example, in the Gambia, they've had tourism since the Sixties, but they haven't got a university or proper schools out of it and people are still receiving charitable donations.

There's no question that there are some good operators out there, but they're a drop in the ocean. We'd be kidding ourselves to think it makes much of an improvement to the status quo. We all think we've found the solution in eco-tourism, but unless it's developed with far more consultation with local people, it's liable to just repeat the same old patterns."

Patricia Barnett is director of Tourism Concern (0171-753 3330, www.gn.apc.org/tourismconcern)

Interviews by Fiona McClymont