Travel with a clear conscience

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The Independent Travel

Ever-widening horizons: that is what today's traveller enjoys. Those of us fortunate enough to live in a rich nation have the option to travel almost anywhere on earth. Yet your decision about where - or, indeed, whether - to go have significant repercussions for both the planet and the communities who may unwittingly find themselves as the target of your travel wish-list.

Tourism is the world's largest service industry, employing around 200 million people. It can be a huge force for fighting human and environmental exploitation, and an excellent vehicle for transferring wealth from the rich nations of the West to developing countries. But tourism can also trample upon fragile eco-systems and people's rights.

A growing fair-trade movement - including tea, coffee and chocolate - has come a long way in the last few years. From supermarket shelves to having their own stand at the G8 summit and being included in the media "goody bags', the fair trade concept has become fairly mainstream. Yet for tourism, there is still plenty of scope for improvement.

How easy is it to become a better traveller? Challenging the values of an industry designed to appeal to a society which promotes a me-first, instant-gratification attitude in its citizens may not be the easiest thing in the world. Yet the ordinary holidaymaker can make a difference.

Tourism Concern, which has been campaigning for equity and fairness in travel for 16 years, has compiled a handy 10-point Avoid Guilt Trips guide.

1) Be aware. Start enjoying your travels before you leave. Think about what sort of clothing is appropriate for both men and women. If the locals are covered up, what sort of messages may you be sending out by exposing acres of flesh?

2) Be open. Something may seem bizarre or odd to "you", but it may be normal and just the way things are done to "them". Try not to assume that the Western way is right or best.

3) Our holidays - their homes. Ask before taking pictures of people, even children, and respect their wishes. Talk to local people. What do they think about our lifestyle, clothes and customs? Find out about theirs.

4) "One school pen." That is the chorus of children in many developing countries where tourists have dished out pens like trinkets. Giving to children encourages begging. A donation to a project, health centre or school is much more constructive.

5) Be fair. Try to put money into local hands. If you haggle for the lowest price, your bargain may be at the seller's expense. Even if you pay a little over the odds, does it really matter?

6) Be adventurous. Use a guidebook or hotel as a starting point, not as the only source of information. Find out what's going on by talking to locals - then have your own adventures.

7) Ask questions. Write a letter to your tour operator about their responsible tourism policy. (Tourism Concern is conducting a competition to find the best - or worst reply received from a holiday company.)

8) Think before you fly. Help repair the damage you do to the environment by flying less. The more and further you fly, the more you contribute to global warming and environmental destruction. Offset the carbon dioxide you produce from air travel. Visit Climate Care at: www.co2.org for more details and actions.

9) Be controversial... and enhance your travellers' credentials with a Tourism Concern Avoid Guilt Trips T-shirt. Designs include: Exploitation Hotel and Child Labour Villas.

10) Buy the 'Ethical Travel Guide'. By taking one of the holidays listed in Tourism Concern's new Ethical Travel Guide you are personally fighting exploitation. Enjoy your guilt-free trip.

Tourism Concern is campaigning to fight exploitation in tourism. To join the organisation or buy the 'Ethical Travel Guide' (£12.99) call 020-7133 3330 or visit www.tourismconcern.org.uk.

A FORCE FOR CHANGE

The world's highest railway has just opened between Chengdu in China and the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Travellers might regard this as a real boon, allowing access to Tibet. But those concerned about human rights could see it as another nail in the coffin of Tibetan independence. It is easy to imagine Chinese troops in the carriages and immigrants being brought in to swell the non-Tibetan population. It is equally easy to think of tourists paying a lot of money to Chinese operators and then being fooled by an official presentation of Tibet. Yet if the experience of one former Soviet republic is repeated, the railway could actually benefit those seeking to rescue Tibet's sovereignty.

I lose count of the number of boats linking Tallinn harbour to Helsinki; in the 1960s and 1970s the Georg Ots plied the route just twice a week.

This service began despite resistance from Estonian exiles who believed it would legitimise the concept of Soviet Estonia. Yet the effect was to give Tallinn a window on the West. Many passengers managed to embarrass the Soviets about their repression of human rights, as I am sure their successors will do to the Chinese.

So will eyes and ears of visitors to Tibet really be closed and only their camera shutters open? Back in 1972, Thomson Holidays started £29 weekend trips to Moscow. Perhaps 95 per cent of visitors accepted the Soviet Union as it wished to present itself, but5 per cent used it as a lifeline to the dissident movement.

With several charter flights a week linking London and Moscow, restricting contact became impossible. And in 1989, the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain was due to travel. Thousands of East Germans took their holidays in Hungary - which said it would cease to patrol part of the frontier with Austria. Tourism can change the world.

The writer was a director of Regent Holidays, which ran the first package holidays to Albania, China and Cuba

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