This year, I decided a more concerned approach was needed. If I am going to spend several hundred pounds a holiday, I would like it to be in an unspoilt, sewage- and guilt-free environment.
I started with my local travel agent, Going Places, and explained my interest in a trip to East Africa, adding: "But I'd like to stay in hotels with an environmental policy." Maxine gaped. "Right - er - what sort of environmental policies?" she asked. I took the casual approach: "You know, not using too much water, treating sewage - simple things really."
To her credit, Maxine did not pretend she knew the answer but took the only sensible course of action: she passed the buck and rang Cosmos. The conversation went like this: "Hi. You might think this a bit strange but I've got a lady in the office asking - well you probably won't understand what I'm on about - but she wants to know if she can go to Kenya and stay in a hotel with, well, with some sort of conservation-type policy. Yes, I know it's weird." Maxine explained - twice. We were put on hold - twice. "Neither of us has ever come across this before," she said.
"The thing is," she explained during holds, "we sell package holidays. If you want that kind of thing, you need to go to a conservation society or something."
"But I just want an ordinary holiday," I explained.
"I know what you mean, and I'm on your side, but these companies are just worried about numbers. That's not to say they haven't got an environmental policy," she added quickly, flicking through the brochures' back pages, "but at the end of the day - well, it's money, money, money, isn't it?"
There must be an easier way than this, I thought. Unfortunately, the Centre for Environmentally Responsible Tourism (CERT) and Tourism Concern - both charities which campaign to make tourism less damaging to communities and environments - told me there was not. "There's absolutely nothing within the industry that can give you clear guidance about who's doing what," explained Liz Gillings of CERT. "Some companies do leaflets about saving water and being culturally sensitive, but most aren't doing anything."
She suggested I ask companies if they were part of the CERT monitoring scheme or the Green Flag environmental auditing scheme, and also sent me a leaflet to fill in, in which you write what you think of your tour company's environmental performance.
"Many of the tour operators have admitted they won't change until it is essential for them to do so," agreed Tricia Barnett of Tourism Concern, "and that means when it starts affecting business." Consumer pressure is one aspect of Tourism Concern's "Our holidays, their homes" campaign, which focuses on the fact that people are being forced off their land and out of their homes because of tourism development in many Third World countries. Concerned tourists can cast their vote by obtaining an information pack with "things to ask your tour operator", a postcard to send to a tour operator asking about its environmental policy, and tourist guidelines.
So, armed with questions, I contacted four big tour operators: Thomson, Airtours, First Choice and Kuoni, and sent telephonists into flurries of confusion. I moved on to Green Horizons Travel, a travel agency investigating companies in order to recommend which have an environmental commitment.
Following some of their recommendations, my questions were finally answered with intelligence rather than incredulity. Dragoman, a small operator that specialises in overland tours, gave me a definite "Yes" about an environmental policy and sent a leaflet full of environmental and cultural guidelines. At Alistair Sawday Journeys, another small operator specialising in community-conscious travel, I was able to tick off all of my Tourism Concern "things to ask a tour operator" including water, sewage, local benefits and even displacement. It was nothing short of miraculous.
What if I do not fancy an expedition-type holiday and just want a rest with an ordinary package deal? Well, if we do not want to be contracting hepatitis from the sea, stealing people's water, or getting picketed by locals angry that a golf course stands where their houses used to, the answer is clear: we have to put our mouths before our money and ask questions of all our travel agents and tour operators before we go.
Centre for Environmentally
Responsible Tourism (CERT), PO Box 4246, London SE23 2QB (0181-291 0692). Dragoman, Camp Green Farm, Kenton Road, Debenham, Suffolk IP14 6LA (017228 86133). Green Horizons Travel, 12 Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 1AF (01491 579110). Tourism Concern, Southlands College, Wimbledon Parkside, London SW19 5NN (0181-944 0464). Alistair Sawday's Journeys, 44 Ambra Vale East, Bristol BS8 4RE (0117 9299921).
What four operators said when we asked the following: "I'd like to book a holiday but want to know if you've got an environmental policy, or if I can stay in hotels with environmental policies."
"Oooh, not that I know of, but we use recycled paper in our brochures. If you are worried about water, choose a destination without a drought."
"There's nothing in the computer to tell me about that."
"Sorry, I don't know what you mean. I've never been asked this before. You had better ring customer services."
"Oh, I don't know, hold on a moment. Yes, it's all summed up in our motto, `Take only photos, leave only footprints.' That's it really."