Get back to your grass roots

On World Environment Day, Sue Wheat suggests some options for the green tourist

So you fancy a round-the-world trip? Who doesn't? But increasingly, many of us also have a hankering to something useful at the same time - whether in an active way, or just by staying at the type of place where tourism is doing less harm and more good.

Let's start in Spain. It may be invaded by lager louts and hotels so ugly the authorities are blowing them up, but at Almeria, in the thirsty south, you'll find things are very different. I was lured to the Sunseed Conservation project through a tiny advertisement promoting "green holidays in Spain". Images of serious environmental know-alls sending me out to plant trees in miles of harsh desert haunted me as soon as I sent my booking form in, but what I found there was a group of people of all ages having one of the best summers of their lives.

The houses in the ancient village of Los Molinos, where the project is based, were deserted in the Spanish civil war, so there's plenty of accommodation for the 30 volunteers and full-time workers. We worked for four hours every morning, and while some tasks were physically demanding, such as digging 12-inch holes in rocky hillsides for tree-planting, there were also more leisurely jobs like working in the germination lab or making simple solar ovens, which have been so successful they are to be used in Tanzania. Afternoons were spent lazing in the nearby rock pools. For anyone already counting their travellers cheques, Los Molinos is also hard to beat - pounds 96 per week (two weeks minimum).

With a few conservation techniques under your belt and a few extra muscles, you can move on to Cyprus, and a more leisurely pace. In the virtually untouched Akamas Peninsula of the north-west, the slow pace of traditional rural life seems a world away from the brash coastal resorts.

Yet picturesque though the villages here look, they are struggling to survive now that their youth have flocked to the resorts for work. The Laona Project, conceived by Friends of the Earth (Cyprus) as "a green alternative to mass tourism", has breathed new life into the region by funding the renovation of traditional houses (which sleep two to seven people). They are proving that tourism can take place in a fragile environment without trashing it, while also boosting the local economy.

Next stop, Africa. The Gambia, like Cyprus, is awash with big resort developments, but if you want to benefit the locals, go to a Gambian-owned hotel such the Kololi Inn, Tavern and Art Gallery (pounds 10 per night bed and breakfast), which is just outside the main tourist strip. In contrast to the big hotels, Kololi Inn welcomes visitors into village life, will organise special itineraries and cultural workshops on cooking, tie-dye and batik, drumming and dancing, pottery and hair-weaving.

In the Himalayas, Nepal beckons most globetrotters. In fact, it has beckoned so many that the route to Mount Everest has long been dubbed "the Andrex trail". If you venture, instead, into the Annapurna region, you'll again find yourself in company: 40,000 or so trekkers visit the area every year. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project in Ghandruk acts as a sort of safety valve, working with villages on health, education, reforestation, agriculture, tourism management and environmental education. Trekkers are encouraged to stay in guest houses that use kerosene or fuel-efficient wood stoves, to remove any litter they come across and burn or bury their own, not to use detergents in streams and to choose ablutions bushes at least 30 metres away from water sources.

In terms of community involvement in tourism, Hawaii is home to another success story - and it's also a great place to finish your world tour. On the "garden island" of Kauai,native Hawaiian culture is being re- established. The people of this hauntingly beautiful island (dramatic gorges, mountains, stunning coastlines) are holding crass commercialisation of their culture at bay, and are coming together to re-learn traditional crafts, Hawaiian history and the Hawaiian language. Hui Hookipa, a grass- roots native Hawaiian organisation, will put you in touch with true native life: traditional hula being performed at sacred sites in the open air, kapunas (elders) "talking story" in the moonlight and more.

Who to contact:

Spain: Sunseed Trust, 97 Divinity Road, Oxford OX4 1LN (01480 411784).

Cyprus: Laona Project houses can be booked through Sunvil Holidays, Sunvil House, Upper Square, Old Isleworth, TW7 7BJ (0181-568 4499). Exalt Travel, PO Box 337 Paphos, Cyprus (00357 6 243803).

Gambia: Charles Jarra, Afrikan Heritage, 60B Rowley Way, Abbey Road, London NW8 0SJ (0171-328 4376).

Nepal: Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) Headquarters, Ghandruk Village, Ghandruk Village Committee, Kaski District, Nepal. Specialist environmental tours can be booked through: High Places, Globe Works, Penistone Road, Sheffield S6 3AE (0114 275 7500).

Hawaii: Hui Hookipa, PO Box 88, Kapaa, 94746, Kauai, Hawaii (01 808 246 6000).

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