Go to strange countries, see exotic new cultures. And then destroy them. Not necessarily, says Sue Wheat
KEEN TO see the Britain beyond the Beefeaters? Or the India beyond the maharajas' palaces, or the Spain beyond the Flamenco? A new trend in cultural tourism now offers the hope of changing our perception of what it is to "experience different cultures".

In the same way as we carefully cut out telephone wires from our holiday snaps, so we tend to crop cultures to fit our ideals. And so tourist boards and tour operators have tended to present cultures in a way they hope we will like. Our thirst for cultural experiences has led to societies becoming packaged in easily viewable or purchasable forms. "We are selling our souls to tourists," a Hawaiian performer told me. "I hate myself, but we have to pay the rent."

Fortunately, learning about another way of life is possible, though not without hard work. Ramesh Jangid, a guest house owner in Shekhawati, Rajasthan, insists this is true. "Most travellers get a distorted picture of my country and its people. Agencies from all over the world sell a `dream' to tourists who want to discover the land of the maharajas. I don't know who is to blame - the traveller who is dreaming, the travel agencies who make them dream, or the local operators who co-ordinate the process."

To redress the balance, Ramesh set up his own alternative tours around Rajasthan. Visitors stay with families, particularly in rural areas, travel entirely on local transport (camels, horses, trains and buses) and are guided by villagers who are learning English. Clients attend study circles and lectures in their home countries before going to India, both to get an idea of practical and cultural conditions and so they can also be aware of the worst aspects of travelling in India as well as the best. "Traditional tourists," explains Ramesh, "complain about the food, accommodation and transport, and offend locals by walking into temples and kitchens with their shoes on. But this is India - it's not the same as back home."

Similar small, locally run tourism businesses are beginning to appear across the globe in an attempt to curtail the negative cultural impact of tourism.

The heavy commercialisation of parts of Cyprus for example, has led to the formation of the Laona Project near Paphos, which is financing the renovation of houses in rural villages to rent to tourists. If you are interested in walking, eating in the local tavernas, absorbing rural life (and not going to discos), this is a wonderful place. The tourist income will benefit the villages economically and may attract back the young people who have migrated to the coastal resorts.

Even the long-downtrodden Australian aborigines are reasserting their own control. Desert Tracks is an Aboriginal-run eco-tourism operation in central Australia, which has chosen to teach Aboriginal lore, culture and lifestyle to tourists who go on their trips around the Pitjantjatjara area.

For the tourist, learning from Aboriginal people how to dance, how to throw a boomerang, or how to survive in the Outback is a unique cultural opportunity. For the Aboriginal community, tourism can also serve in preserving their culture - young people are learning traditional skills from the elderly that might otherwise be lost.

The award-winning Kimana Community Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the first Masai-run safari park in East Africa, is another example of a community fighting to save not just its culture, but its very existence. Over the last two decades the Masai have been forced off their ancestral lands in Amboseli national park. Over-zealous conservation methods as well as the desire to attract foreign currency through developing safari tourism made the national parks people-free zones. The Masai lost their grazing lands, access to salt licks and watering holes for their livestock, and many now live in poverty.

Two years ago, with the support of some outside agencies, around 800 pastoralist Masai set up Kimana on the peripheral land that was designated to them after they were displaced from Amboseli. They have not regained their lands, but at least they are clawing back a livelihood. Revenues from entrance fees and accommodation goes to fund community development projects.

Perhaps then, supporting projects like Kimana is what cultural tourism should really mean. Sadly, though, many more Masai and tribal peoples in East Africa still have no access to the pastoral land they want. They face little choice but to resort to selling cultural icons to tourists or performing sacred dances - a cultural experience for the tourists, cultural prostitution for the Masai who have no wish to perform such dances in public.

The mainstream tourism industry has generally washed its hands of these complex social issues, despite research suggesting that holidaymakers do care.

The newly launched British tour operator Discoveryinitiatives, with its highly innovative community-based approach, is however grasping the nettle. Travelling with Discoveryinitiatives involves "working" on local environmental projects essential for the survival of many remote cultures. And the important point about your involvement is that it has been specifically requested by the communities themselves.

But "work" is perhaps the wrong term. If you're interested in real cultures what could be better than talking to Huaorani people in the Ecuadorian Amazon, or travelling on horseback with local park rangers in Mongolia?



Ramesh C Jangid Alternative Travels, Nawalgarh-333042, Shekhawarti, Rajasthan, India. Tel. 00 91 1594 2129. Fax. 00 91 1592 32280.

Laona Project in Cyprus is available through Sunvil Holidays, Sunvil House, Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex TW7 7BJ. Tel. 0181-847 4748.

Desert Tracks operates from March to November. Tel: 0061 29 389 7480. Fax. 0061 29 389 7480.

Kimana Community Wildlife Sanctuary, the Masai cultural project, can be contacted at PO Box 362, Loitokitok, Kenya.

Discoveryinitiatives, No 3, 68 Princes Square, London W2 4NY. Tel. 0171- 229 9881. Fax 0171-229 9883.

Tourism Concern campaigns to reduce environmental problems. Contact Tourism Concern, Stapleton House, 277-281 Holloway Road, London N7 8HN. Tel. 0171- 753 3330. Fax. 0171-753 3331.