The recent Beijing Olympic Games turned the spotlight not only on China's recent growth, but also on its attitude towards human rights.

Was letting China host the games turning a blind eye to its failings? Will exposure to foreign tourists and media change the way China acts in the future? These are important questions for Dr Brent Lovelock, of the University of Otago's Department of Tourism.

"Many tourism studies have focused on environmental and economic sustainability, but little has been done on the ethical and political aspects of tourism," he says.

Lovelock has seen tourism working in many parts of the world. "I have been to many destinations with a variety of regimes, issues and problems. Most importantly, I have witnessed the power of tourism - as a phenomenon and as a force for change."

In Myanmar in 2005, he saw child labourers carrying huge loads of rocks to build the road his tourist bus was on and heard from locals about how difficult life was under the military junta.

"The work we are doing may help to resolve the confusion many feel when travelling to destinations with social, political or even environmental issues."

"I felt confused and guilty because my tourist expenditure was helping to shore up a corrupt regime and perpetuating human-rights abuses, but I also saw the value of tourism.

"People I spoke with - from school teachers to guerrilla fighters - valued the contact and support from the outside world that tourists brought with them." Lovelock's work on ethical travel is being furthered by Andrea Valentin, whose PhD thesis looks at the political attitudes of travellers.

"It's always exciting having postgraduate students who share the same interests," says Lovelock. "The work we are doing may help to resolve the confusion many feel when travelling to destinations with social, political or even environmental issues. What are the ethical issues involved - and how should we, as individuals or the tourist industry as a whole, address them?"

Lovelock recently surveyed New Zealand travel agents and found that the level of awareness of political, safety and humanrights issues in destinations was generally quite low. He produced the same result asking agents for travel products in countries with human-rights problems.

"Despite advances made in terms of the environmental sustainability of tourism, I think it is fair to say that ethical travel has yet to be taken on board by the tourism industry as a whole. Very few operators engage with the concept of ethical travel.

"The demands of such a competitive business environment simply do not allow the luxury of considering the ethical implications of booking someone a ticket to Myanmar or Zimbabwe, for instance.

"Many agents pointed out that limiting travel to destinations with no humanrights issues might severely reduce travellers' options. But, on a positive note, study participants did want more up-to-date and in-depth information on destinations with political and humanrights problems."

Lovelock is now working towards a book on ethical travel, and planning to undertake comparative research into tourism ethics in other countries and in other sectors of the industry.

Funding

University of Otago Research Grant