the elephant was so close, I could see the hairs sprouting from his huge black nostril. "Keep still," said the ranger. "You don't want to break his line of vision."

There was little danger of my moving. I was petrified. The experience was about as pleasant as root canal treatment. But what had I expected? This was the South African bush, not Regent's Park Zoo, and I had asked my travel agent for something "different, distant and exotic", and then declined to prepare myself for the experience.

Next year, more British holidaymakers than ever will be coming eyeball to eyeball with the distant and exotic. The price of long-haul holidays is set to fall dramatically: some British Airways Caribbean holidays, for example, will be up to pounds 1,000 cheaper, while European holidays get more expensive. The definition of "long distance" has changed. Many travellers no longer categorise a mere crossing of the Atlantic as long haul. Serious long distance is "in", and BA Holidays has produced five glossy new brochures for next year to make sure it stays that way.

But are the British ready for exotic travel en masse?

Ruth Malone and David Ferreira had scrimped and saved for their holiday of a lifetime. Ruth's 30th-birthday present was to be a holiday in India, and she and David, educated professionals, never imagined that anything could go wrong.

"It was going to be the perfect holiday," says Ruth. "It turned out to be the holiday from hell. We had planned two weeks in Goa, but took three days out to go to Delhi. We made it back to Goa just in time to get to the bathroom, and spent the next week running between the toilet and the sink. I timed the activity. Food and water stayed inside me for precisely seven minutes. On one of his trips to the toilet, David slipped and cracked the bottom of his spine on the tiles. He spent the last few days of his holiday face down on the bed with an ice-pack on his back."

Like many others, they had expected everything to run like clockwork - they had paid good money for their holiday, after all. It seems that the more easily available the package, the more we are inclined to treat it as a commodity - we buy it, and it has to deliver the goods.

"Buying a holiday is becoming a trivial transaction," says Simon Calder, travel editor of the Independent. `

Middle-class young professionals are quite capable of setting off for far-flung parts knowing nothing about their destination. Ann and Saul Johnson went to Barbados to "switch off in the sunshine" - during the rainy season in the Caribbean. They simply hadn't asked about the weather. The travel agent hadn't told them, and their holiday was a washout.

"We just assumed the sun always shone in Barbados," says Ann Johnson. "For the first week, I just sat in the bar watching the rain and crying. And I don't suppose we'd really done our homework on the hotel either. It was filthy, so I ended up buying disinfectant and rubber gloves and scrubbing the floor of our bedroom. I couldn't wait to get home."

At least the consequences for the Johnsons were no more grave than two wet weeks. They didn't set out to seek any more than a suntan from their holiday - cultural enlightenment was not on the agenda. But what about the Britons who buy a package deal to Thailand, aiming to spend three or four days soaking up the ambience of Bangkok? They must have their wits about them, surely, on this unfamiliar territory?

"No," says Norman Allin, emphatically. Allin is an official tour guide in Bangkok. "Basically some of them just seem to lose it when they come out here. I've had couples come to Thailand and spend their life savings on a holiday home within 48 hours of getting here. According to Thai law, a foreigner can only own 49 per cent of a property. The other 51 per cent has to be owned by a Thai national. So they'll put more than half their property in the hands of a complete stranger, and then they're surprised when it all goes horribly wrong."

When far from home, the British tourist can display more than just "innocence abroad". Sometimes there's a deeper laziness, verging on downright disinterest in the culture of the country of their destination. Take Pamela, a marketing director, who planned a "dream holiday" for herself in the Caribbean. She was shocked on her arrival in Cuba.

"I thought Cuba and I thought luxury. I certainly didn't think communists," she says. "I expected wonderful and varied food. The first day we were served lobster. The second day we were served lobster. The third day we got lobster with a can of Heinz mixed vegetables. By the end of the week I never wanted to set eyes on another piece of seafood."

Pamela's story is not an isolated incident. In his research for his Survival Travel Guide to Cuba, Simon Calder came across numerous British tourists with a similar lack of awareness. "They don't understand the political system. They don't even know if Fidel Castro's still there. They don't bother to find out this is the place to come to lose weight, not to eat good food. If they took the trouble to open a guide book they'd find out."

Even when we do bother to find out, it is often with the minimum amount of effort. Sales of the skimpy Berlitz guides to Cuba, India, and other far-flung holiday spots soar above those of any of the other, more serious travel literature. There is a logic in this. If all aspects of purchasing our long-distance package have been achieved with consummate ease, why should we want to put any effort into studying our destination?

James Daunt, owner of Daunt Books, a specialist travel bookshop, agrees that this rather dim attitude stems from the fact that people don't have to plan their itineraries themselves. "Just hand over the credit card and the world is literally your oyster," Daunt says. "You'll soon be able to buy a package deal for a trek in the Ethiopian highlands. It's just all too easy."

The ability to take off almost anywhere at affordable prices has duped us into believing that travel no longer carries an inherent risk. The Foreign Office issues constantly updated information about the dangers of travelling to certain areas, but its advice is routinely ignored by holidaymakers. It warned against travel in Kashmir this year. Last year it strongly advised tourists to avoid Egypt, because of the danger of attack by Muslim fundamentalists. One British tourist who ignored this advice was hit by gunfire and paid with his life. Defiant Britons who visit Egypt this year will also find it a hot spot in other ways - the temperature there this summer has reached 114F (42C).

Blinkered tourists not only put themselves at risk, they can cause harm and offence to local people. Much of the damage is inadvertent. Natural landscapes in the Gambia and Goa are being spoilt by unsightly hotels, and farmland is becoming parched because tourists are exhausting precious water resources.

Tricia Barr of Tourism Concern is also worried about British tourists' lack of respect for local customs and religions. Bare breasts, for example, are taboo in Sri Lanka, but British women, whether through ignorance or defiance, continue to shed their tops. "They think they buy the right to behave exactly as they want when they pay for their package deal," Barr says. "A Thai woman came up to me and said she thought British people ought to have to be invited by a guest before they came to Thailand. Rather shocked, I asked her why, and she said: `Well, a load of British tourists just walked straight into the middle of my wedding uninvited and started taking pictures. They disrupted the whole party. How would you like that that to happen to you?' "

8 Some names of people interviewed in this article have been changed