Carried on up the jungle?
True or false: an expedition is just a credit card away? True, at least according to the new Royal Geographic Society Tours - an association between the society and five tour operators, announced this week. But it begs the question: what is an expedition? When you're on a luxury cruise and the only special equipment you need is a pair of sunglasses? Call me old fashioned, but if I went on an expedition I'd expect to come back with more intrepid yarns than how I learnt to fox-trot in the Pacific or how I got my hair damp being ferried ashore in a Zodiac in Antarctica.

The society has been internationally renowned for supporting adventurers since the early 19th century. But the new RGS Tours - involving five operators "which promote the value and enjoyment of geography" - look as if they are mainly suited to those who fancy being explorers without having to do any exercise, be the slightest bit uncomfortable or suffer an injury that can't be cured with the stretch of an Elastoplast.

The RGS operators include Noble Caledonia and Orient Lines (both luxury "expedition" cruise ship operators), Abercrombie & Kent and Wildlife World- wide (both offering luxury wildlife tours) and Adrift (which specialises in whitewater rafting trips). In terms of adventure, Adrift clients are the only ones who battle with the elements (the company has recently pioneered the first ever descent of the Victoria Nile in Uganda), although you don't actually have to be able to swim.

But the RGS also insists the operators are chosen for their understanding of sustainable tourism issues. Cruise-ship waste controls prevent the polar regions being adulterated by caviar tins. All operators talk briefly about respecting the fragile environments they visit. And A&K donates part of your fee to wildlife charity Friends of Conservation. But only Adrift gives a really thorough account of how they have planned their holidays with the local communities and environments in mind.

Environmental tourism, as anyone who has attended an RGS "sustainable tourism" conference will tell you, is not just about appreciating wildlife and recycling. Invariably, the main problem local communities face is the fact that they get only the financial crumbs from tourism and have little say over its development, yet bear the environmental and social costs.

RGS Tours, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR (0171-591 3157)

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