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Travelling with a conscience

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When I hear someone mention "ethical travel" I usually feel inclined to reach for my gun. That's because what follows is usually an attempt to use moral blackmail to impose some ill-thought-through scheme which would restrict my travel options for no useful purpose.

I first struck this nonsense when a story I wrote about a trip to Myanmar (Burma) - one of the most fascinating countries I've been to - prompted a bunch of self-appointed moral guardians of the planet to admonish me for ignoring their travel ban.

As it happens, at the time I went I wasn't aware there was such a ban, but it wouldn't have made any difference if I had.

Sure, the military junta which rules Myanmar is an appalling and incompetent outfit, but so what? They're hardly alone in that.

Anyway, before we start imposing boycotts we need to look at who they'll hurt and what they're likely to achieve. Imposing a ban on travel to Myanmar may help some people to feel good but given that the regime has now been in power for 47 years, it doesn't seem to have had much effect on the ruling generals.

The odd businessman who supports the regime may have lost out a little from a fall in tourist numbers. But in the main the victims would have been ordinary Burmese running guesthouses, restaurants, souvenir stalls, guiding services and so on.

The other losers would have been those helped by the charitable projects which lots of travel companies run in the places they visit.

Intrepid Travel, the company we went with, had several projects in Myanmar at the time, and naturally enough when our group visited a couple of them everyone chipped in to provide a bit of extra help.

The moral guardians must feel very pleased with themselves to have stopped that sort of nonsense.

Anyway, my reason for mentioning this is that I recently got a list of Top 10 Ethical Tips for 2009, from Hands Up Holidays, a company specialising in volunteer holidays, which actually seems pretty reasonable. Their tips - which particularly apply in third world countries but do have relevance in the developed world - are:

1. Give back to the communities you visit by volunteering to help some project or making a donation if that's appropriate.

2. Go green by paying for trees to be planted to offset your plane flights - the one suggestion I do feel cynical about - use public transport, take trains, walk and cycle.

3. Support community-based tourism initiatives, like hotels and restaurants, that are locally owned and operated and keep money in the community.

4. Find out about the country you're going to, especially etiquette and culture, so you don't unwittingly cause offence.

5. Bargain fairly.

6. Interact with locals so you get a perspective on their lives.

7. Consider human rights in your destination but - and this bit I think is very sensible - "this does not necessarily mean you should avoid travelling there but perhaps you have to be even more vigilant in ensuring the money you spend is retained in local communities . . . not going to support a regime that perpetrates abuse on its inhabitants."

8. Pick up litter even if it is not your own.

9. Don't give sweets as this causes tooth decay and encourages begging.

10. Use local guides.

That's not the sort of impractical claptrap that is often put forward for ethical travel. It's actually a very sensible, workable set of guidelines.

As anyone who's tried it can testify, if you manage to mix with the locals while you're on holiday, whether at a pub in Mangonui, a cafe in France or a longhouse in Borneo, you'll have a much better time. And if in the process you can help make the world a better place, then that's a nice bonus.

Pictured above: Getting to know the locals is an excellent way to gain an understanding of a country. Photo / Supplied

- Jim Eagles

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