Donald Greig explains the basics of eco-tourism in the first of an occasional series of articles about environment-friendly travel.

Eco-tourism, green tourism, or sustainable tourism has hit the travel industry in a big way, and every self-respecting company wants to have its own personalised set of ‘green policies’ to hand to the next concerned customer who comes through the door.

The cause is worthwhile, but the philosophising has left travellers wondering if it’s possible to go anywhere without being accused of furthering the destruction of the world.

Mass tourism in particular has been subjected to theories aimed at raising awareness of what’s at stake. Give the Costas a miss, they say, and try a naturist holiday in a spiritualist retreat in Iceland. Why go abroad when you could more easily stay at home? And can you really justify

flying anywhere when the atmosphere is already polluted beyond redemption?

Extremist questions and conscience-pricking are all very well, but you don’t have to be Judith Chalmers to work out that the Costas are over-developed or that animal numbers in Kenya are not what they once were. So what’s the travel industry shouting about, and why should we accept responsibility for the impact of holidays that they created and sold to us in the first place?

The answer lies in the word ‘impact’ - the cumulative effect of individual travellers combined with that of the travel industry as a whole. That impact affects three main areas: the environment, the culture and the economy of our destinations.

In these green days, the conflict between tourism and the environment is the most obvious one, covered by the term ‘eco-tourism’. Culture is less obvious since in some places it’s difficult to separate the manufactured tourist culture from the genuine indigenous one. Tribal dances performed for visitors may seem like a glimpse of

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local culture, but they are often simply watered-down versions of important rituals, originally intended to be performed once a year, but now presented once a week on a Friday at three o’clock.

The effect of tourism on the economy is the least noticeable , since once we’ve parted with our hard-earned cash most of us are concerned with getting the goods we paid for, rather than with what happens to our money next. Have your ever wondered what percentage of the money you spend on holiday actually reaches the economy of the country you visit? That country is, after all, your host, and how many of us expect something for nothing from those who welcome us into their home?

So how can we continue travelling, without damaging the environment, culture or economy of the places we visit? The extreme solution is to stay at home: no tourists, no problem. But this wouldn’t necessarily work. There are some countries, Third World in particular, which now depend on tourism as their main source of income. Take it away and you take away their livelihood.

Instead, carry on travelling, but be sensitive to where you’re going and what you do there. In addition, help to change the travel industry, the actual market place where holidays are dreamt up, put together and neatly packaged before going to High Street travel agents. Exercise your rights as a consumer: consumer , demand can exert a powerful influence on suppliers and change the nature of the product. The availability of ‘greener’ supermarket- products, for instance, came about because people were demanding them. More recently, tourists showed their power by boycotting the Costas, thus forcing the tourist authorities there to consider ways of making their resorts more acceptable.

There are many ways in which we, the travellers, can help to clean up the world as we hop from one country to another. Equally importantly, there are many projects underway around the world, where tourist authorities, companies and governments are working in association with environmental organisations in order to create a more sustainable tourism industry.

The List 24 April —- 7 Maw 1992 61