Alarmed by the impact of global tourism on the poor, one woman took a stand. Now, two decades on, that campaign changes lives, says Alison Rice

In pre-Google, pre-easyJet days, we bought our dream get-aways from tour operators via travel agents.

Glossy brochures sold us empty white beaches, coconut palms, cocktails and sun-lounging bronzed blondes. Few found these pictures of paradise disconcerting. But one traveller was haunted by feelings of having colluded in a very unequal exchange. Alison Stancliffe, then an English teacher in Singapore, travelled extensively as a tourist in the Far East, but found the experience increasingly disturbing. Where were the locals? What did they gain from our holidays in their homelands?

In Thailand, Alison had been thrilled by a paid-for excursion to see the hill tribes. She photographed women in curious colourful costumes but couldn't help noticing their children scrabbling in the dirt.

In the Philippines, young men rowed her to the Pagsanjan Falls. "They smiled with us," Alison said. "They entertained us and rowed our boat in the hot sun. I'd paid in advance for the trip, and had no cash for tips. Their smiles dropped to hostility when I said thank you but offered no tip. Again, it was that unequal exchange that concerned me. I learnt later that tourists' tips were their only income."

Back in Europe, she discovered she was not alone. She learned from aid agencies, church groups and academics how tourism was certainly promoting growth, but the losers were usually the poorest people in the poorest regions – the very places where tourism is often encouraged.

So, from her home in Tyneside, with seed money from Christian Aid's ground-breaking report The UK and Third World Tourism, Alison helped to set up a network of Britons concerned about issues of tourism and justice, poverty and culture. In November 1989 this became a membership organisation campaigning for fair tourism. Tourism Concern was the obvious name.

Taking those glossy brochures as a metaphor for all she wanted to change, Alison aimed for a fairer travel industry, one that would put local people back in the picture. By 1991 Tourism Concern had around 100 members, had moved from Alison's spare room to free office space in west London at Roehampton University, and had gained a director, Tricia Barnet, who joined as co-ordinator, being paid (then as now) a part-time salary for a very full-time job.

Their first campaign tried to stop water supplies in Goa from being diverted from village wells to hotels. They fought hard to talk to the UK industry about the hardship this was causing, but with little success. It's hard now to credit the hostility. There was much name-calling: "bunch of militant academics" at an education conference; "woolly sock brigade" from a leading travel consultant; and "not that lot again, please" from national travel editors. One major tour operator's "responsible tourism" director even threatened to sue them.

"Not everyone who knows about tourism's potential for exploitation will join us," says Alison today. "Ours is not a mass movement. But we plant ideas and the more supporters we have, the more effective we are."

Planting ideas is one of the charity's biggest achievements. The four-day World Travel Market which takes place in London annually is one of the two largest annual global travel trade shows. When, in the early 1990s, Tourism Concern asked the organisers for a business session to outline the issues, the request was received with puzzlement and a firm refusal. Such matters were not considered the business of the travel trade. This November, for the third year running, World Travel Market designated a full day as WTM World Responsible Tourism Day.

Tricia Barnett was determined to find a neutral space where everyone involved in tourism could work together for change. In 2000, she sought help from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which then invested two and a half years in initially prickly Chatham House meetings with an independent facilitator, the big tour operators, and relevant non-governmental organisations. The idea emerged of creating an organisation funded by the industry. This is today's Travel Foundation, with its remit to help UK travel companies take effective action on sustainable tourism.

Other notable successes include a Himalayan Trekking Code (see box), the award winning Looking Beyond the Brochure teaching pack, a report for the Rio Earth Summit outlining principles for sustainable tourism, a Sun, Sand and Sweatshops campaign to expose poor working conditions in resorts around the world, and a report, launched last year at the House of Lords, on how tourism's connections to human rights abuses are being ignored.

Noel Josephides, the managing director of tour operator Sunvil, said Tourism Concern has been "like a small dog snapping at the heels of the industry. After years of throwing money at resorts to build rabbit-hutch hotels, the industry has finally realised that we're running out of carefully managed destinations. Tourism Concern is advising the big companies. It's working and it's worth all their effort."

To illustrate, just last month, at the annual conference of Abta-registered tour operators and agencies, water in resorts was presented as a major issue for the industry. Tui, a giant in the market, talked of the need for concern about local cultures, and Abta announced a Sustainability System toolkit for tour operators and their suppliers to improve their environmental and social performance.

For 21 years Tourism Concern has challenged the destruction of vital environments and exposed indefensible working conditions. The tourism industry can no longer say that the way they do business has no effect on destinations.

Tourism Concern now has the respect of a large number of thinking people around the world. In two decades one small campaigning charity, with little income, has influenced, for the better, the thinking of governments and tourism companies, and changed the lives of some of the poorest people on earth.

Destination Tsunami

(Stories and struggles from India's southern coast)

Nearly six years since the Boxing Day tsunami devastated the coastlines of India and Sri Lanka, many communities are still struggling to rebuild their lives in spite of the millions donated in aid. Tourism Concern's free touring exhibition features black-and-white images and testimonials from communities affected.

It shows how tourism development is still displacing local people from their lands, and it describes their attempts to withstand the rapid tourism growth promoted by powerful developers and government policies.

For dates and destinations of showings in the UK go to:

Gap-year growing pains

Tourism Concern identified a need for gap-year backpackers to become more culturally and financially sensitive about the way they travel. In 2002, Tourism Concern helped to produce guidelines for backpackers that have been widely promoted and circulated.

Recognising that the newly popular "voluntourism" can exploit both volunteers and their hosts, Tourism Concern then worked in partnership to promote a code of practice that many charitable and profit-making operators have agreed in principle to adopt.

Tourism Concern is now seeking the funding to put in place an audit system to make sure the code is more than just a marketing tool but will be verified and become a certifiable "kitemark".

Himalayan Trekking Code

In the early 1990s, Tourism Concern brought together British tour operators and porters' representatives to discuss how they might improve the alarmingly bad working conditions and wages of porters on popular trekking routes.

They devised a code that covered porters' clothing, rates of pay and right to equipment. The code was adapted also for Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and for excursions to Machu Picchu in Peru. It now forms the basis of the current Code for Working Conditions for Porters. Conditions for porters have markedly improved.

Water, equity and tourism

Water and the race to get hold of it is a major issue for communities facing tourist developments. Sunny holiday destinations are often dry and water can be scarce – yet tourists expect unlimited supplies for swimming, washing, drinking and to maintain green lawns and golf courses.

Tourism Concern first campaigned over water supplies in Goa in 1989. The work had a low profile and interest was limited but, since then, the charity has continued to document these issues and now has a formidable bank of knowledge.

Today, in the Indian state of Kerala, communities are fighting to recover access to traditional wells and in Bali there is huge concern about polluted water courses. In Cyprus, the unfair distribution of water is creating unrest.

Recently, villagers on Zanzibar's Nungwi Peninsula appealed to Tourism Concern for help when their water supply was diverted to a new "eco-tourism" resort. They were also being denied access to their beach, which badly affected fishing and farming. Tourism Concern wrote to the overseas director of the travel firm Kuoni and, within two months, a water tank and pump was installed in the village and the resort's armed guards were taken off the beach.

Tourism Concern's latest campaign, Water, Equity & Tourism, researches destinations where water supply is a problem and raises awareness of the issues so that holidaymakers can question hoteliers and tour operators before booking.

Compact Facts

How to join

Tourism Concern's work is heavily dependent on contributions from supporters and donations are very welcome. UK annual membership is £24 for wage earners, £15 unwaged.

Tourism Concern (020-7133 3800; Stapleton House, 277-281 Holloway Road, London N7 8HN.

Further information

Tourism Concern's Ethical Travel Guide by Polly Pattullo & Orely Minelli (published by Earthscan Press ISBN 9781844077595, price £14.99). Listings for more than 400 destinations including places to stay, projects, trips and tours from Amazon canoeing to luxury breaks in the Indian Ocean. Available from