Guilt-free guide to holidays

The Indian Ocean catastophe has highlighted tourism's impact on the region. Greg Neale asks if we need to rethink travel habits

Late on Boxing Day, as the news of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster was spreading, I phoned a friend who was to fly for a holiday in Thailand the next day. She had already contacted her holiday destination. The message, she told me, had been unambiguous. "Things are OK here. Please don't cancel your holiday."

Late on Boxing Day, as the news of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster was spreading, I phoned a friend who was to fly for a holiday in Thailand the next day. She had already contacted her holiday destination. The message, she told me, had been unambiguous. "Things are OK here. Please don't cancel your holiday."

As thousands of foreign holidaymakers caught up in the disaster are being evacuated, many others will be wondering whether their planned New Year holiday is still on.

For those still in southern Asia, that decision has been taken. "How quickly the sunseekers forget", blasted a Daily Mail headline on Thursday, above a picture of tourists getting "back to sun, sand and tans" on Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand, "where dozens died three days earlier". Other newspapers found holidaymakers elsewhere in Phuket, apparently unconcerned about the disaster.

It is difficult to imagine anyone remaining indifferent to the colossal scale of human suffering brought by the tsunamis. News reports and internet sites demonstrate how some tourists and holiday companies caught in the disaster have been doing their bit to help the rescue and aid efforts.

The disaster has highlighted the contrast between the prosperity and affluence enjoyed by holidaymakers with the daily lives of most south Asians. That contrast is largely ignored in the travel company advertisements that lure hundreds of thousands of Europeans each year, conjuring up images of unspoiled coastal paradises.

The reality is different. Tourism, especially mass-tourism, is radically altering the lives and environments of south Asians, just as it is around the world. Some of that change is welcome, creating new jobs and development, but some is not. Globally, air transport is pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent. In Asia, as elsewhere, new hotels and resorts mean more demands on water supplies and other resources, more waste and more pollution.

Local customs and traditions can be warped or damaged by the homogenising impact of too many Western visitors, and it is a charge of many campaigners that many jobs created in developing countries by tourism are low-paid, and poorly protected.

So, should British tourists avoid the region, for fear of adding to the damage tourism can do? "It is necessary to inform the public that not the whole of south Asia is devastated," one German travel industry figure said this week. Clearly, the first priority must be the aid and reconstruction effort, but it would be wrong for British travellers to turn their backs on south Asia.

The growing importance of tourism to south Asia has been reflected in the calls from many of the countries hit by the disaster that Western holidaymakers should not be deterred from visiting. Hassan Sobir, the Maldives high commissioner in London, asked tourists not to avoid the islands. Half a million visitors travelled to the low-lying islands last year, some 100,000 of them British. "The tourism industry forms a major part of the Maldives economy," the high commissioner said.

That economic importance is appreciated across the region. The number of tourists visiting Thailand in 2004 was expected to reach 12 million, and one estimate puts the annual value of tourism to Sri Lanka at more than £270m.

Travel and tourism is increasingly important in the global economy. The World Travel and Tourism Council says it accounts for one in nine jobs worldwide, and more than 10 per cent of economic output. By the end of the decade, it is estimated that a billion people will be travelling abroad each year. The numbers of east European, Russian and Asian travellers are increasing. Nearly six million of Thailand's tourist visitors in 2003, for example, were from east Asia, and 2.5 million from Europe.

In the short term, anyone who has booked a holiday should contact their holiday companies, resorts and the Foreign Office's website for its updated advisory notices.

In the long term, we can look at ways of making our holidaymaking more environmentally and ethically sustainable. A good start is to consult organisations campaigning for tourism that is more socially and environmentally responsible.

Shirley Eber, the communications officer for the London-based organisation Tourism Concern, said yesterday: "There really are no words to adequately express what everyone feels, the awfulness and sorrow at the events that have hit so many people and communities around the Indian Ocean.

"We campaign for tourism to be fairer, and that means predominantly for the local communities who earn their livelihood from our visits. In this situation, we cannot tell tourists whether to remain in the areas that have been hit by the tsunami, or whether to leave; that's a personal decision. But it is clear that, as long as they are not getting in the way of aid work, their presence and the money they spend is even more important now than before to local people.

"Tourism can and does bring benefits to local people, but only if it's fair. Often, the economic benefits to them are minimal because most of the money goes to tour operators in the developed world. Many tourism workers depend on tips to earn a living because wages are so low.

"Around the world, communities are displaced and lose their livelihoods to make way for tourism developments on beaches, safari parks and nature reserves. Precious natural resources, such as water, are often diverted from local needs such as agriculture, to fill swimming pools or grow lawns and golf courses.

"For us, if there are any lessons to be learned from this dreadful disaster, it is to demonstrate how dependent some local communities are on tourism. The hope is that as tourist facilities are gradually rebuilt, this awareness will inspire the tourism industry to ensure that more of the benefits go to local people to help them in the reconstruction they so desperately need."

Children are among the most vulnerable, whether in times of natural disaster, or through the impact of tourism in fragile societies. Chris Beddoe, director of ECPAT UK, which campaigns on child prostitution, said: "We fear the tsunami will leave thousands of children at risk of abuse and exploitation. Children left homeless or orphaned will always be at risk, but the loss of life and livelihood on such a scale will leave hundreds of thousands of children vulnerable.

"ECPAT UK urges UK travellers to continue supporting the Asian tourism destinations, but encourages all tourists to put pressure on their travel companies to donate money to children's charities in the destination or charities supporting reconstruction and rebuilding livelihoods.

"Children must continue their education and have hope for some normality in the midst of this crisis."

Tourists concerned about their impact on the social and natural environments of countries they visit should try to apply the principles they would at home. Holiday companies can be asked what they do to ensure best environmental or employment practice where they operate. And the internet offers a rising amount of information on schemes that travel companies, local governments and non-governmental organisations are introducing.

All this might be thought to be too worthy, too preachy. Holidays after all are, for most people, an escape from normal daily cares. But that is to ignore not only the increasing impact our travel and leisure has on the world, but to risk the beauty we seek when setting out.

Greg Neale, editor-in-chief of BBC 'History' magazine, has written extensively on environmental issues, and is author of 'The Green Travel Guide' (Earthscan).

Tourism Concern can be contacted via www.tourismconcern.org.uk or Tel: 020 7133 3330

HOW YOU CAN HELP

* Chose your destination and your holiday company, airline or hotel with care. What is its record on the impact of its operations on the environment or local communities? Is it a fair employer and does it donate to local community charities or initiatives? How much of the money you pay will remain in the local community?

* Think about your actions. Travel lightly, using less fuel, and making less of a footprint in the countries you visit. Do not waste resources that may be in short supply where you take your holiday. Favour local producers, left, for food or other goods. Save energy.

* Respect local laws and cultures, in dress or demeanour. Behave as you would hope visitors in your own country would treat you. Try to learn something of the language of the country you are visiting. Respect the environment and wildlife. And spend more where it benefits local people; a cheap holiday is often at someone else's cost.

* Consider going on a working holiday with an environmental or community group, repairing dry-stone walls in Yorkshire, say, or counting fish on a coral reef in Belize.

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