Tourism can help indigenous communities. But do they really want us there, asks Mark MacKenzie

Heading off the beaten track to meet indigenous peoples in remote areas has been popular since tourism began. In recent years, the American travel industry has come up with a catchy new phrase to describe experiences based on interaction with such communities: ethnotourism.

And, according to a new report last week by Euromonitor International, an industry body that tracks trends in the global tourism market, our increasing interest in ecologically minded or "responsible" holidays could lead to a massive upsurge in ethnotourism in Britain in the next few years.

Research by Mintel, reported in this month's issue of Green Futures, a magazine dedicated to sustainable living, shows that more than 450,000 Britons took holidays with an environmental component in 2005, a figure set to rise to 2.5m trips by 2010.

"An increasing number of countries [that are home to indigenous groups] are waking up to a type of tourism that not only protects the environment but also benefits indigenous peoples," said Michelle Grant, Euromonitor's travel man- ager for the Americas.

A good example, says Ms Grant, is the Chalalan eco-lodge project, located in the Madidi National Park in Bolivia, which receives around 15,000 visitors a year. Chalalan is owned, managed and staffed entirely by the Quechua-Tacana people and funds health and education services for a community of 500 people.

Central and South America is something of a political football in the debate. Over the past two years, the World Bank has paid out $9m (£4.6m) to communi- ties to help fund ethnotourism programmes.

But some fear growing interest could prove counterproductive, putting communities ill-equipped to cope under pressure as operators strive for a search for a USP in an increasingly crowded market.

"Ethnotourism covers a vast array of peoples," said Fiona Watson, campaigns co-ordinator for Survival International. "The Masai of Kenya are quite savvy and have been well-disposed to receiving tourists for years. At the other end of the scale, there are rainforest communities with little or no experience of the outside world."

All too often, explains Watson, indigenous projects are established without consultation with the community. "There are plenty of unscrupulous guides prepared to pay off one leader who happens to speak a European language. As a visitor, you have no way of knowing that you're not enjoying the support of the whole community."

Work by Survival International has found the number of "uncontacted" indigenous groups is likely to be far higher than previously thought, as many as 100 communities spread around the world. So how can you be sure your operator is taking steps to ensure the community you visit isn't getting a bum deal?

"When choosing to travel, we would recommend asking to see the tour provider's travel policy," says Nigel Winser, executive director of Earthwatch. "It should outline how local communities benefit from visitors and, crucially, how they are involved in the decision-making process."

Watson fears that as the ethnotourism market expands, some operators may turn a blind eye to the fact that many isolated people don't want contact. She cites the example of the Sentinelese people who inhabit North Sentinel island in the Andaman chain; when the Indonesian government flew a supply helicopter over the area in the wake of the tsunami, the local community fired arrows at it.

"The Brazilian government has a department called the National Indian Foundation, dedicated to the affairs of Amazonian Indians," says Watson. "And there is a section for uncontacted groups. They have been doing this for years but they still make mistakes. It's a challenge for operators to be sure their projects are responsible."