Trekking and Big Society in Morocco

The following is re-produced from an article in the Peterlee Star on September 25th 2013. The author, David Taylor-Gooby, and his brother Peter, joined Adventure Alternative for a summer trek in the Moroccan High Atlas, including an ascent to its highest point, Jebel Toubkal.

As you may know from the Star I have been in Morocco most of last week, so this article is an attempt to make some observations about health as a result of the expedition.  I am not sure about the effects on my health, but I did manage to climb Mount Toubkal, and I want to thank all those who sponsored me.

 When I go on an expedition like this, I feel like the lines of Keats recently popularised by the BBC, “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold…… silent upon a peak in Darien”.  But when I come back down to earth, several points relating to health stand out when visiting a country less well developed than our own.

Average life expectancy in Morocco is 72, according to the World Health Organisation.  That compares with 80 for the UK and 79 for America.  It is well ahead of central and southern Africa.  You notice that public health in terms of plumbing, toilets and clean water is much worse than in this country. You see fresh meat being carried through the streets on a warm day. But on the other hand you notice that most Moroccans, including the elderly, are thinner than we are.  They eat far less processed food.  Fresh products are sold in markets, and fresh bread is baked every day. And, of course, most of them do not drink alcohol.

So should we sit back on our laurels and think that the answer for Morocco’s health to improve is to become like us?  I saw another piece of literature about health last week, Professor Lieberman’s book “The Story of the human Body, Evolution, Health and Disease” in which he argues that our modern lifestyles and food consumption are becoming more likely to cause cancer. He argues  that the body will naturally put on excess weight if it can so that it has a reserve for leaner times.  Unfortunately we never encounter those leaner times nowadays , so the fat stays with us.  The answer as we all know, is a healthier diet and more exercise. So we may not stay ahead of the game in terms of life expectancy for ever.

Progress is not one-sided.  We can teach countries like Morocco much about hygiene and preventing disease, but in terms of lifestyles we could learn from them. If we ate more locally produced fresh food we would probably be healthier.

Incidentally, if you want to improve your own health, I would recommend a trekking holiday.  There are all sorts of varieties of expeditions, and it is a unique experience.  Look at organisations like “Adventure Alternative” which I can certainly recommend.

David Taylor-Gooby is a Lay Member of the Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield Commissioning Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

David and Peter have between them published a number of books dealing with social policy. You can see some of them on Amazon.

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What Responsible Tourism is Not

The word Sustainable is now everywhere, it has grown beyond its literal, grammatical meaning and is tagged onto a huge number of entities, some deserving, some not.

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In the world of travel and tourism we also find the word sustainable. Though often it is expanded and perhaps made more specific by use of the word ‘Responsible’.

Again, the word ‘Responsible’ is tagged onto many things. It is now an established term in the industry but is, in our opinion, often mis-used as a pure marketing ploy. We are genuinely passionate about acting Responsibly as an organisation. This is not an add-on for us, it is an all-permeating ethos.

Perhaps you will therefore grant us leave to express, in fairly blunt terms, what we feel about certain schemes that are used by certain organisations in order to claim use of the word ‘Responsible’ in association with their services.

Responsible Tourism is many things, but it is not….

  • Simply throwing a lump of money at a community with no background research, establishment of a working relationship or long-term plan and goal.
  • An outside organisation, company or group telling the local community what it is that needs to be done. It should be listening.
  • Setting up a ‘fund’ from which local individuals may or may not be able to apply for a pay-out from.
  • Swamping an area with volunteer labour, displacing local jobs.
  • Constructing a building or facility with no provision for the costs of its ongoing use.
  • Offering cheap deals by squeezing local people on their wages.
  • Using a ‘volunteering project’ simply as another box to tick on an adventure travel itinerary.
  • Inventing a white-elephant project to tick the box above.
  • Paying too much or too little for anything.
  • Reaping the benefits of what a country has to offer without sharing the rewards fairly with it.
  • Hiding possible negative or difficult aspects of a trip from prospective clients.
  • Just using the cheapest provider when you outsource certain services

Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice is a recently released and award-winning feature film which follows photographer James Balog in his quest to photograph and document the recession of glaciers around the world. It seems that the film, and the extreme ice survey project its self, both grew larger and more impressive than any of its subjects realised when it began around 10 years ago.

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Balog is clearly the driving force behind the mission and what started as his own personal passion for photography and respect for the environment has grown into a story that has become one of the most graphic and tangible demonstrations of climate change to date.

In many ways, the project and film can be succinctly summarised by para phrasing one of Balog’s comments in the film where he explains that as a photographer, what he has been seeing is wonderful but as a human being; it is horrible.

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Although Balog does have a solid technical background in the field, he is a photographer first and foremost. He admits to being far more motivated by the sleeves-up, hands-on approach. It is this approach that has allowed his project to cross the gulf, from the high echelons of scientific research, to the minds of the general public. Once you have seen an Alaskan glacier retreat by literally miles, year on year, you cannot help but want to ask some further questions. The small amount of technical information that is presented, is easily and shockingly, grasped from a plot of carbon dioxide and global temperatures compiled from ice core records. The ice cores again neatly linking into the theme of ice being “the canary in the coal mine”.

Of course, there will always be the lobby of the climate change skeptics  Probably the first thing that they will seize upon here is the relatively short sample period of photo-data collection compared with the timescales of natural cycles in global climate. This will be something that will always be brought up and perhaps it is important that there is always a counter-argument. It is this that helps to keep the argument its self healthy and robust, which I believe it is.

As you would expect, the film showcases plenty of incredible footage and stills of ice and its infinitely complex and beautiful forms. And also spectacular time-lapse sequences of glaciers collapsing and calving into the sea in blocks the size of Manhattan. It is this melting and re-shaping that gives the ice its inherent beauty. Yet at the same time, it is this same process, which is now continuing at an accelerating rate, which gives Balog, and the viewer such horror.

This film is one that we cannot recommend more highly. Whether you are an adventurer, a mountaineer, a lover of photography or nature, an environmentalist or a climate change skeptic, there is a huge amount to savour and reflect on in this film.

http://www.chasingice.com/
http://www.chasingice.com/see-the-film/trailer/
http://extremeicesurvey.org/
http://blog.documentarychannel.com/post/35713366045/interview-chasing-ice

First Ever Photo of a Wild Singing Dog?

Is this the first ever photograph of a New Guinea Singing Dog in the wild?

Photo from the trail, cropped to show dog

We had word of some very exciting wildlife news at Adventure Alternative HQ recently. It was of a potential sighting (and photo capture) of one of the rarest (if not the rarest) breeds of dog in the world – the New Guinea Singing Dog (NGSD).

The sighting was made by Adventure Alternative Borneo director Tom Hewitt whilst on trek in the remote Star Mountains of Western New Guinea Island. These elusive dogs have most probably never been photographed in the wild before, so this is potentially huge in the NGSD world.

Tom, who has been living and working in SE Asia for the last ten years, is now based in Sabah and Sarawak from where he runs Adventure Alternative Borneo – the company that came into existence after a chance meeting 3 years ago with Adventure Alternative founder Gavin Bate. Along with a rainforest camp called Lupa Masa next to World Heritage Mt Kinabalu Park in Sabah, Adventure Alternative is also providing assistance to new community tourism and reforestation project based around 6 Penan villages in the remote interior of Sarawak. With financial support provided by Moving Mountains Trust, Adventure Alternative’s partner charity, the villages aim to plant 15,000-20,000 new hardwood saplings per year on previously logged and burnt forest.

Every year or so, Tom leads expeditions to New Guinea, an island shared between the independent Papua New Guinea and Indonesian controlled West Papua.  New Guinea is a truly remarkable destination as these facts and figures testify:

  • It is the 2nd largest island on earth, covering 785,753 sq km.
  • Although this landmass covers less than 0.5% of the world’s surface, it is estimated to contain up to 8% of the world’s known land and sea species, with countless still unknown and waiting to be discovered.
  • In terms of size of continuous rainforest it is exceeded only by the Amazon and the Congo.
  • And whilst only 1% of the world’s population call New Guinea home, the number of native languages spoken, account for over one sixth of all languages on earth – that is over 1,100 distinct dialects!

The Main Photo in Question

The photo taken from the trail of the dog on the hillside above

The same photo again (hence the slightly low resolution)
Now cropped closely to the dog its self

The details of the Sighting

We invited Tom to offer his own account of the trip and the sighting…

A client approached me at the end of 2011 requesting a bespoke trip that was ‘beyond any usual tourist or trek route, ideally mountainous and not hot and humid’. For a long time I had been looking at Mandala Mountain on the West Papua map. It is the 2nd highest free standing peak in Oceania with very little information available about it. It seemed to fit the requirements.

At an unconfirmed 4,760 m (no one is really sure) Mandala Mountain is the highest peak in the Star Mountain range – one of the most remote and unexplored areas of the world and until 40 years ago Mandala mountain even had it’s own permanent glacier. Here the native flora and fauna species, including the secretive singing dogs have remained in virtual isolation and undisturbed for thousands of years.

The twelve day tour included myself and the client, plus a trusted cook and guide that I had used before and seven local porters and guides from the starting village, itself an expensive 1 hour chartered plane ride from the capital of West Papua, Jayapura.

At the time of the sighting we were in a dramatic, wide valley with 4,000m peaks and limestone walls with waterfalls on either side. We spent a total of 4 days camping in this valley and there was regular contact with a number of exciting animals: couscous, possums and even tree kangaroos were seen most days, as well as many unidentified ground nesting birds living in the swamp grass. One species of bird of paradise was heard in the lower forest, but not seen. There were a few highland flowers and grasses and occasional groves of an ancient cycad species – primordial in every respect.

The guide and cook were 10 minutes ahead of us on day 1 of the return the trek, they had stopped I presumed, for us to catch up. When we reached them the guide proclaimed ‘dog’. This took me quite by surprise and it took three explanations by him for me to understand. But sure enough above us on the rocky outcrop in the bush there was a dog – the guide seemed as bemused by it being there as we were. After initially being quite close to the guide, by the time we arrived it had taken position on the hillside above us; this is the position found in the photos. We watched it for around 15 minutes as it continued to watch us. It seemed as curious as we were but not particularly scared or nervous. What stood out was how healthy it looked upon closer examination with binoculars.

I had no in-depth knowledge of NGSD’s at the time of the expedition and the photos in question were merely one of a huge number taken. To my utmost regret I did not make any video footage, nor did I try to get any closer. But in the context of any trip to Papua at the time this was no stranger than other events that happen daily – such as waking up one morning to see one of the porters using a tree kangaroo as a neck scarf to keep him warm.

There have been no previous confirmed reports of Singers in that general area. This can be easily explained by the fact that it is not an area the locals would ever go to, or at least not very often. There is much better hunting in the lower forests and hills. It is also very rarely visited by any other visitors.

When we returned from the trek, I searched for more information on the Singing Dogs of Papua and realized that I had possibly the only ever photo of one in the wild. The photos have since been disseminated amongst various experts including the American based New Guinea Dog Conservation Society.

Here are some more photos that were captured on the trip:

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In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua, Mt Trikora, on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. At 4,750 m Trikora is also in an area that the New Guinea Singing Dogs have been seen by the locals. The scheduled climb will either begin or end with the annual Baliem Valley tribal highlands festival – this is when all the various highlands tribes come together for a big party in Wamena. For all of the trip information, click here.

History of the New Guinea Singing Dog

The intense topography of Papua as a whole coupled with low scale political troubles in the Western side of Papua has meant that little research has been done into the existence of NGSG in the area. The dogs themselves are believed a close relative of ancient dogs that were domesticated from Asian Wolves between 10-15,000 years ago and are related to the dingo of Australia.

The first live ‘Singers’ were caught in the Eastern province of the island in the 1950s and taken to Australia – nearly all of the Singers outside Papua are now descended from these 4 dogs. More recent expeditions have failed to locate any singers, including a month long expedition to the Eastern province highlands in the mid-90s. In this case, the Singers were heard but never seen. The NGSD is considered an evolutionarily significant unit. New Guinea Singing Dogs are named for their distinctive and melodious howl, which is characterized by a sharp increase in pitch at the start and very high frequencies at the end.

The future and the ethical dilemma faced.

The latest consensus from the experts regarding the photos is that “all of the photos have been examined forensically and there is no indication that they have been tampered with or are fakes. No layering is present. We also have had these photos examined by a PHD in Tropical Biology who is currently involved in rainforest research and conservation in New Guinea and his conclusion of the photos are that the plant life is consistent with the Star Mountain Range of the New Guinea Highlands”.

There are some people that may well question why there is a need to capture a wild animal and take it from its natural habitat. We asked Tom Wendt, founder of New Guinea Singing Dog International to explain further:
There are a couple of reasons why actually capturing a Singer is important. You first need to know that the NGSD is genetically nearly identical to the AU Dingo and the first descendant of the wolf. Although it’s yet to be proven, I believe that before the end of the Ice Age (when PNG and AU were land locked) the AU and PNG Dingo/NGSD were the same being.

The first good reason follows the same theme as the Australian version. Hybridization of both versions threatens their survival in their pure form. There was a day when the NGSD lived everywhere on PNG in a pure form. It was us humans who started the decline of numbers by bringing in domestic dog breeds. The hybridized NGSD or Village Dogs are man-made. This is the main reason that the NGSD could only be found these days in the place where you found one.

Both halves of the island’s governments are in such disarray, there is virtually no interest in setting up and funding some type of sanctuary for the NGSD that would serve to keep it in it’s pure form.

The other threat to the NGSD’s survival is that the natives are known to kill and eat a ‘Singer’ before preserving it. This is especially true in the highlands as the unhybridized versions are supreme hunters. In AU most provinces encourage the hunting and elimination of Dingoes as they are a threat to livestock. The same holds true in PNG.

The goal is to have a healthy population of NGSD’s here available to go back into the wild or to a sanctuary or preserve designed to keep the Singers alive in their pure form. Until the day comes that sanctuaries can be setup in PNG to keep the Highland Wild Dog from going extinct, we are the best option for their survival. With the population here being from a very limited gene pool the fear is that inbreeding will render the captive NGSD’s defective.

The Basenji (Africa’s wild dog) went through some severe health issues years ago and actually got to the point where inbreeding defects had threatened their very survival here. It was a group of folks passionate about the breed (not the experts) who raised the funds for the expeditions that captured new bloodlines and saved the Basenji from going extinct”.

Options for following up this significant and rare sighting are still being considered. Including return expeditions subject to funding and permissions.

More Information:
YouTube video about New Guinea Singing Dogs
For updates on the story, follow us on our Facebook page.
Further photos from the expedition on the Adventure Alternative Borneo Facebook page.
In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua – Mt Trikora on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. For all of the trip information, click here.

Scientific American have written a great article on the sighting, with more extensive information on the NGSD to visit, click here.

Excursions Without Excuses at the World Travel Market

The World Travel Market 2012 kicked off on Monday. It’s a leading global event in the tourist sector and a place for folk in the travel sector to meet, network, negotiate and conduct business.

Tomorrow the spotlight is on Responsible Tourism and Gavin Bate, MD of Adventure Alternative and founder of Moving Mountains Trust, will be joining a host of industry experts on a panel to discuss what makes a responsible excursion; from developing products that give back to developing new trips and auditing. The seminar, named ‘Excursions without excuses – improving the quality of excursions through sustainability’ will see Gavin join Jean-Marc Flambert of St. Lucia’s Tourist office, Andreas Moniakis – the head of Operations Greece, TUI Hellas S.A. and Grete Howard – a tourist who has travelled to over 135 countries. The discussion will start at 15:30 and will be chaired by Salli Fenton of The Travel Foundation.

The seminar will also include a look at The Travel Foundation’s new Greener Excursions tool and give delegates a chance to put their own excursion-related questions to the expert panel. The Greener Excursions tool will offer guidance on auditing current excursions to try and make current trips more sustainable and to help try and develop new and sustainable excursions. You can find the Green Business Tools here.

Adventure Alternative is delighted to have been chosen by The Travel Foundation to represent best practice. During the panel, some of our excursions and projects will be featured as best practice case studies to try to highlight that it is possible to maintain a profitable and healthy organisation whilst being ‘responsible’ – environmentally, socially and financially.

The Travel Foundation will also be hosting an interactive art installation that will celebrate sustainable tourism practices. The aim is to inspire exhibitors and visitors to share their sustainable success stories and ambitions. An artist will be on-hand to convert these suggestions into visual form to make a mural that will hopefully inspire change in the tourism industry.

A representation of the mural

You can contribute your sustainable tourism story, inspiration or ambition to the piece in one of three ways:

Via Twitter: send your suggestion using the hashtag #WTMscribbles, and follow @TravelTF for daily news and pictures

In person: pop along to stand No NA383 throughout WTM to see the artwork, meet the artist and submit your suggestion face to face

Via email: send your suggestion to graeme.jackson@thetravelfoundation.org.uk before  9am on Thursday 8 November (the final day of WTM)

It’s not too late to attend the World Travel Market. You can register for free here. All that is required of you is to print off the confirmation e-mail and ‘badge’.  If you aren’t able to register, you can turn up at the ExCel London (closest tube line Custom House on the DLR) event but it will cost you £50.

Are we on track for 2015?

How are we doing in the run up to the post 2015 world?

On Tuesday I attended an event to discuss what will happen when the date for completion of the Millennium Development Goals expires. This week the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, co-chaired by the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron is meeting to discuss the new global framework of development and in particular the role of private business.

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So how does Moving Mountains and Adventure Alternative, two tiny players on the stage, stand up to the assessment of how progressive developmental aid should be carried out?

At the event we met Michael Anderson, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on the Post-2015 Framework, who commented that in developing the new goals we must stay focused on the fact that a vibrant private sector is the exit strategy from aid.

Funnily enough I have always thought that Adventure Alternative should play its role as a partner to development, mainly because our ‘products’ are mostly based in developing countries and it seems only right that the onus for upholding equitable employment standards should be on me. The spoils of tourism can and should be ploughed back into the destination rather than on expensive UK overheads, and that has been a principle of mine ever since I started AA in 1991.

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NGOs are beefing up their private sector teams, to engage with businesses and implement “inclusive” business models. Funnily enough that’s what Moving Mountains has been doing for a long time. I have always felt that if the charity can provide the capital investment for improving infrastructure (like we have done in the Nepalese villages for many years now) then the company can provide revenue and a route to market through tourism.

For example all of our youth trips, gap trips and international development trips contribute financially to communities where previously there was no market, while at the same time promoting the long term development aims of the charity. Our medical camps in Nepal bring important medical aid, but they also bring visitors to the villages, which in turn promotes jobs and income.

The fact is that development happens because people have access to economic opportunities and greater choice.  The exit strategy from aid is a vibrant domestic and international private sector – one that will create the vast number of jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities needed (two things prioritised by poor people themselves). That is exactly what I have tried to establish in Adventure Alternative.

For example, Kevin Onyango  is our book keeper in the Nairobi office, but he came from a very poor background in the town slums around Muthurwa where I started the work of MM. Having put him through school and college, he then got a job with the company. But most importantly his son Cliff will never suffer the same privation that he did, and I am fortunate to see that cyclical effect of combined aid and economic opportunity in the new generation.

Ang Chhongba Sherpa is my oldest friend in Nepal, a one-time porter who now helps to manage AA Nepal and MM Nepal. His own self-determination took him to school but with the opportunity offered by the charity and the company he was able to put all his children into school. Now his family lives in America and his sons Norbu and Sonam study business and engineering at college, and his daughter Tashi studies medicine.

 To my mind this is poverty eradication and sustainable development on a small scale, but reflects the global agenda of the post 2015 discussions.

As a businessman I see my role as teaching and promoting good business practises within the AA family of companies – an equitable gender environment, transparent trading and accounting, fair employment contracts and accountable supply chains to name a few. I can achieve this by investing in communications, staff training and development, and an ethical approach to the product itself. We don’t plant thousands of trees in Sarawak for nothing; the sense of responsibility for causing damage from flights has to be borne by all of us in the tourism sector.

Around the world the conversation has moved beyond “do no harm” and “doing good”, to companies “doing good by doing good business”.  The post 2015 development goals need to be underpinned by a clear recognition of the role of the private sector in driving long-term development, and therefore the factors that are needed to help it grow.

In the tourism sector there is a cynicism and boredom with words like ‘sustainable tourism’, a fatigue borne of over-exposure to confusing semantics and underwhelming action. For many people, it’s still about using low energy light bulbs. I sit on the sustainable tourism committee at the Association of Independent Tour Operators and our biggest problem is that the majority of the membership think that sustainable tourism is not an integral feature of the association.

 ‘Sustainable tourism’ is out of step with how far the general business and development discussion has come.  We have moved onto the question of “how”, while many people are still at the “why?” stage. The cutting edge of global developmental policy is already onto granular issues, but many people are still navel-gazing on whether it’s something they want to do. And the “Why” is vital because people generally follow a vision and a cause, and at the moment sustainable tourism has no visionary to take it forwards.

I am very happy that in its own small way Adventure Alternative and Moving Mountains reflects a joint business model that is progressive and accountable; it requires a dynamic approach to business management, especially nowadays in the current climate. Flexibility, adaptability and knowledge of online technology and marketing is a big part of my ‘toolkit’.

But when I look at Kevin Onyango and Ang Chhongba and how far they have come, and how far their children will go, I know it is all worthwhile. I keep in mind the essential vision of the company which is this:

We believe in combining good business sense with concern for the social inequities we have created on this planet, and we do this by providing authentic holidays and amazing adventures to far flung corners of the world.

Are You Being Fooled by the Greenwash?

Even before ‘greenwashing’ had made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, it had been sneakily adopted by the cynical and irresponsible in every industry, not least tourism. Many tour operators, travel agents, hotels and lodges are guilty of adopting the word ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’, but simply donating money to ‘green’ causes, choosing to recycle or any other lip-service does not a sustainable organisation make.

Similar to agriculture, transport and energy, tourism is regarded as a climate-sensitive industry with many tourism and leisure organisations dependent on the climate and the health of the local environment in order to operate. Can tourism and travel ever be truly ‘green’? Tourism often involves air travel and other carbon-intensive activities that would suggest not.

This blog is in response to Justin Francis’ (Chief Executive and Co-Founder of www.responsibletravel.com) outrage at the claims made in Travel Weekly Magazine. The magazine congratulates Las Vegas hotels for their green attributes:

Las vegas Lights

“Las Vegas Strip, that legendary bastion of glitz and neon, is actually a model community when it comes to sustainable environmental practices.” – Travel Weekly USA, October 10th.

The article then goes on to say: “Today, agents can sell most cruises as responsible, some even as eco friendly.  Perhaps no major line has been more active than Royal Caribbean in promoting its image as a green company.” –  Travel Weekly USA, September 26th.

The problem seems to be that the award schemes that these organisations sign up for reward incremental performances.  By showing relative annual improvements, these organisations are apparently worthy of a Gold Rating in sustainable performance. Many hotels in Vegas have the same environmental outputs (energy, waste and water) as a small town, whilst cruise ships have a notoriously bad history when it comes to staff welfare. Consumers will see these ratings and will be led to believe that these establishments are at the pinnacle of sustainable practice. This is dangerous for sustainable tourism, allowing the greenwashers to win. Of course incremental improvements should be celebrated, but in order to be meaningful, sustainability should really be measured in the absolute sense.

Adventure Alternative have put together a list of questions that you can use to help you to look beyond the greenwashing, the glitzy marketing and the price.This guide by no means covers everything; it is intended to be a pragmatic user guide rather than an overwhelming and head-melting mass of questions. We categorised the points so that you can choose to focus on the areas that are of most importance to you and your travel companions. You can likely answer many of the queries by snooping around on websites or perusing brochures, but don’t hesitate to call up and ask tricky and invasive questions.

Photo: Alamy

We are also planning to produce a further list of questions aimed specifically at trips involving volunteering or charity work. This is an area of tourism where recent history has uncovered a huge amount of cynical ‘box-ticking’ exercises by providers. Many incidences have left both participants and potential beneficiaries equally let down by the poor methods of project identification and administration.

By demonstrating that consumers are taking an interest in sustainability, the industry will be forced to comply to consumer demand and up the sustainability game. You have a lot of power! Your choices as a consumer can significantly impact upon the development of communities and the conservation of culture and natural resources.