If you have not been to the hill tribes of Thailand or the coca fields of Colombia by the time you have left university, you are not, these days, a typical graduate. As A-levels and finals end, thousands of young people are planning their escapes to far-flung lands for a stint on the road.

A limited period of exploration in the poorer parts of the planet is becoming a new rite of passage for the young, educated elite of Western countries. And besides, an Amazon adventure is good for the cv.

But these journeys of discovery are becoming a cliche. Telling a potential employer that you trekked through Thailand may sound impressive. But if all you really did was tread the well worn 'youth tourist' trail and drink beer with your fellow travellers, then how has that helped you and those whose lives you passed through?

'I'm going out there to see a different perspective of life - see how other people hang out,' says 21-year-old graduate Russell Down. 'I guess I just want to see the world.'

Russell has finished his degree in mathematics at Warwick University and is planning a trip to South-east Asia and then back on the Trans-Siberian Railway. 'I chose that route because there are not enough toilets in South America and too many creepy- crawly things,' he says.

Ten years ago he would have been doing something different. Today, he is likely to encounter hundreds of other young Europeans, Australians, Americans and Japanese going to the same place, by the same routes, for the same reasons. Russell's trip is no package tour. Like most other travellers his itinerary will be fluid, dictated only by cash concerns, practicality and whim. 'We want to go wherever we fancy, with no pressure on us.'

'Pure hedonism was part of the motivation for my holiday. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that,' says Miguel Florit, 26, who took nine months away from his training as a solicitor. 'Also my employers were keen for me to take a year out before starting with them because they thought travelling might create a more rounded person. I certainly drank enough to become more rounded.'

He may be more honest than most, but talking of his trip to Thailand, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, Miguel hints at some of the anomalies of this Nineties Grand Tour.

'I chose that route because those places fascinated me culturally and for their sheer beauty,' he says. But he is not ashamed to admit to other motives: 'Everyone has a desire to name- drop and these places are superb to casually drop into a conversation.'

For most young travellers the first taste of real independence will be the most important aspect of their trip. Victoria Copeman, 25, a management consultant, travelled through Pakistan when she left school. 'I wanted to travel to be confronted by lots of things I had never experienced before,' she says. 'It was a formative experience because it helped me to be self-reliant.'

This is travelling to learn. But learn what? About the countries they visit, or just themselves? Frank Furedi, chair of development studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury, believes that young peoples' desire to get away are not always healthy. 'Often they are looking for an escapist evasion, a geographical solution to personal problems. But if you can't find meaning in your own society, why should you be able to find it in someone else's?'

He also warns of the ethical problems of travellers finding 'undiscovered' communities. 'The often destroy a culture without replacing it with anything,' he says, but warns that opposing change may be 'trying to conserve for people lifestyles that are not sustainable'.

Tourism Concern, a monitoring and advice group which aims to increase people's awareness of these issues, says travellers can be the advance party that brings rapid change in its wake. A typical story is of the once remote hill tribes in Northern Thailand. Up to 100,000 trekkers a year visit Chiang Mai village, where the people wear traditional dress and the women's necks are elongated by heavy brass bangles. 'You now have hikers walking around taking photos and looking at people as if they are specimens in a zoo,' says a spokeswoman.

There are also the educationally correct sides to the experience. The GAP International Projects for Youth Exchange scheme was set up to help people find meaningful ways of spending their time in other countries. This year they are sending 1,100 students - more than twice as many as in 1990 - to the developing world.

The GAP philosophy is that travel can be beneficial, but only if travellers are giving something back in return. But many young people consider it a right, a good career move and a laugh. Like colonialism and imperialism, all tourism both exports advantages and creates disadvantages. Similarily, it can further understanding or shore up prejudices. But the casual wander has now become a part of our education system. Does that mean the planet is now the ultimate finishing school?

(Photograph omitted)