East, west, home is best

<strong>The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of our Holidays</strong>

Leo Hickman <em>Eden P

It can't be easy being Leo Hickman. As the Guardian's "ethical living editor" he must come under constant scrutiny from friends and neighbours for perceived lapses in the high standards he sets himself and his readers. "Ha! Is that a disposable nappy on baby Hickman? Are those air-freighted Kenyan beans in Leo's trolley?"

So, picture the author of such titles as A Life Stripped Bare and The Good Life queuing at the check-in for a flight to Dubai, preparing to stay at the preposterously expensive Burj Al Arab hotel, part of the carbon-exorbitant 30,000-room Dubailand theme park, to research his latest book. It's the equivalent of catching a Wee Free minister in a brothel - on a Sunday.

For The Final Call, Hickman travels the world to investigate the true cost of our holidays - environmental, social, economic. Since his extensive research of tourist destinations across the globe has probably used his lifetime carbon allocation, we must hope his book persuades large numbers of us to curb our wanderlust.

There is a strong chance it will. Hickman is very persuasive and travels with heart and brain fully engaged to reveal the environmental havoc wreaked by the exponential growth in international travel.

From degraded Alpine ski slopes to the sex bars of south-east Asia, the stag- and hen-party vomit-spattered streets of Tallinn and Ibiza, and even so-called eco-tours, Hickman's findings are straightforward. Tourism is wrecking lives, destroying habitats, putting food producers out of business and contributing massively to global warming.

Now one of the largest categories of international trade, tourism transactions totalled $680bn in 2005. In some recent years, the volume of trade has exceeded that of oil and food. Britons contribute greatly, taking ever more holidays. In 2005, we took more than 66 million trips abroad. Increasing numbers of us hope to take three or more flights abroad a year, the majority for holidays. One-fifth of international passenger flights are to or from a UK airport.

The welter of statistics could become overwhelming, but though facts rather than rhetoric are Hickman's weapons, he is a vivid writer, clever at the illustrative detail. From his luxury Dubai hotel ($1,000-$28,000 a night) he visits the giant camp (150,000 people) which is providing labour for the frantic pace of tourist development. "I can't help looking at his sweat-stained shirt and thinking of the bath-and-caviar service at the Burj Al Arab. It would take Rahmatula more than three months of picking up bricks, I calculate, to earn enough money to pay for such a bath."

Hoteliers, airlines and the international industry bodies are all given the opportunity to put their case, though few respond in a way that suggests they recognise the destructive nature of much of their business, nor even the unsustainability of the industry as a whole.

"The industry . . . still clings to the convenient myth that the good ship Tourism brings economic bounty to all that sail in her . . . What seems to be all too obvious is that the bounty is carved up between an extremely select few," he concludes.

Our taste for frantic holidaying is unlikely to abate. Nonetheless, some types of tourism are more damaging than others. Paradoxically, dense developments such as those in Benidorm and Cancun may, Hickman suggests, be less harmful than some so-called eco-tourist developments. Most harmful of all are recent ventures such as the Airtours round-the-world package - a 23-day whistlestop tour of ten countries at a cost of just under £5,000 to the traveller and seven tonnes of carbon per passenger to the planet.

And is such frenzied tourism, on which people embark with impossibly high expectations, actually enriching our lives anyway, Hickman asks, citing the case of "Paris syndrome". In the French capital, the Japanese embassy has a helpline for those of its tourists who are struck down by unexplained psychological symptoms, identified after dozens of youngish women were found to be collapsing in the streets. They had arrived in Paris expecting romance and charm and were being literally shocked to be greeted with traditional Parisian surliness.

Hickman suggests we learn to take our holidays with "as soft a footfall as possible". Do we need to travel abroad every year? A trip to the Lake District from London by train produces one-40th of the CO2 emissions per passenger of a flight from London to Florida. "Are we really saying that a trip to Orlando is 40 times better?" he asks. Sadly, he is almost certainly going to be disappointed when future tourist statistics give him the holiday-going public's answer.