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Taking the ethical high road

  • Story Highlights
  • Travelers can bring social and economic benefits to the communities they visit
  • To engage with cultures they are urged to research destinations before they leave
  • Shop in local markets, eat in smaller restaurants and take time to walk around
  • Pressure is also on travel buyers to select hotels that support communities
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By Emma Clarke
for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Armed with a credit card, travel itinerary safely wedged between meeting notes, it's all too easy for business travelers to overlook the impact they -- and their firms' money -- can make on the countries they visit.

For a flavour of a destination, visit a local market.

But travel and tourism can create significant social and economic benefits. Travelers bring foreign currency to the countries they visit and they support a highly lucrative service industry through their meals, hotel bills, taxi rides and tips.

The trouble is local economies in poor nations are still missing out. As Dessa Dal Porto, competitions manager at Ashoka, a global network of social entrepreneurs, says, often large chain hotels and resorts take funds generated from the tourism industry away from the local economy back to where they are headquartered. And this is very rarely in developing countries.

Of course business travelers are limited in the impact they can make. It's not always up to them to choose their hotel, or to allocate time during a demanding business schedule.

Even so, Tricia Barnett, director of UK charity Tourism Concern, says there are plenty of opportunities for business travelers to make ethical decisions while on the road.

This begins with research so travelers can get a clearer sense of the place they are visiting. Read about the culture before you leave, says Barnett, perhaps learn a few words in the local language and find out what is important to people. "Understanding that will mean you can respect the people you are going to be working amongst," she says.

She also advises travelers to get their hands on a decent guide book so they can make their own decisions rather than rely on those presented by the person who booked the flight and the hotel.

And don't linger at the hotel between appointments, she says. Go out for a walk, and if you have notes to read before the meeting, take them to a local café.

"As a business traveler there is too much of a likelihood that you will not notice people anymore because you are so focused on the business that you have in mind," she says. "But once you have got respect for the place you will be doing business in, you will start to treat people differently," she says.

And, as Krissy Roe from ethical travel agency, responsibletravel.com says, traveling with respect earns respect.

Roe also urges travelers to ditch the taxi from time to time and venture out by foot or public transport. "I know a business traveler in a suit on a bus in Bangkok might sound ridiculous, but it can be done," she says. It's also a way of meeting local people on their terms, as well as cutting carbon emissions.

When it comes to buying souvenirs, forget the gift shop in the hotel, says Barnett. By shopping at a local market you can channel money directly into the community. But pay a fair price for everything that you buy, she adds. Video Watch Richard Quest driving a hard bargain in Zanzibar. »

And in the evening ask your business partners to take you to a local place to eat, "not just necessarily the best, but the most fun," she suggests.

Tipping is also essential to ensure people live a reasonable life. Because as Barnett says, no matter how plush the restaurant, or how luxurious the hotel they work at, staff are often paid low wages and rely on the additional income.

"Talk to your waiter or your taxi driver, get to know your cleaner," she says. "Find out what tourism means to them. See what they get out of it and then decide what sort of tip to leave," she says.

Business travelers can only go so far while away. Pressure must also be put on corporate travel departments back at home so they choose hotels that support the communities where they are located.

When selecting hotels, says Roe, travel managers should find out what links hotels with local communities and ask if they employ local people, if they buy produce and services locally, and what they do to protect the environment.

Ethical travel tips

Get a guide book
Do some research
Eat in smaller, local restaurants
Shop in local markets
Take a bus
And don't forget to tip

But at the moment few companies are asking these sorts of questions, says Torsten Kriedt, vice president for innovation and intelligence at travel management consultancy Advito. "These issues are on their radar screen, but it is not high up on the selection criteria for hotels," he says.

Research by Advito has shown that less than 10% of large companies have a corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy for business travel. And the majority of these focus on environmental and not social issues, he says.

Hotels are responding to the CSR demand and are putting in place environmental policies. Hilton Hotels has, for example, introduced a "Conserve to Preserve" water conservation program. And UK hotel chain Apex Hotels uses energy efficient lifts and building management systems to automatically control lighting, heating and air coolers. It also donates furniture and fittings to local charities and businesses after refurbishments.

But, as Roe says, it's much easier for a hotel in a city to be environmentally sound than socially responsible. As a result, she says, there are still very few examples of hotels in cities investing in their local communities.

It may be hard, but there are options, she says. Hotels can invest in community charity projects, employees could give up time to volunteer with local communities, or community groups could be given use of a hotel's facilities.

While group-wide policies in relation to employing local people or sourcing produce locally may be scarce, hotel chains such as Hilton are making links with local charities. Through its charitable trust -- Hilton in the Community Foundation -- the hotel group supports education and health for young people in local communities.

As part of its "Teaching Kids to CARE" program, employees from the Doubletree chain of Hilton hotels have engaged with more than 100,000 school students across North America about the importance of trees and environmental responsibility.

But if business travelers still feel limited in what they can do from their chain hotel and grueling schedule, there's still a chance to employ an ethical approach once the business is done.

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As Roe says: "If business travelers extend their trips for a few days to explore a destination, they can move to a smaller hotel that has community-based links." Or they can use a local tour guide not only so their money goes back into the local community, but also to gain unmatched insights into local cultures.

Because, as Dal Porto from Ashoka says, every bit matters. "As travelers become smarter, we can only hope that the corporate entities get wiser and contribute back to the developing countries that help their companies grow."

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