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Walking the fine line of socially responsible tourism

Animal lover and Travel Weekly senior editor Jeri Clausing pays to get her picture taken with alpacas without realizing the negative impacts of engaging with the women who parade the animals around Cusco for photo opportunities.

CUSCO, Peru -- As I stepped outside the Sonesta on a sunny morning here, the first thing I saw was a woman and her daughter, clad in traditional Peruvian attire, carrying a baby alpaca and walking what I assumed was the mom by a rope.

The older animal had a collar of colorful pom-poms. And as a lover of all things with fur and four legs, I immediately headed toward them to snap some photos.

The woman shoved the baby alpaca in my arms and I cuddled the soft creature. A passerby took our picture.

I gave the woman my last bit of local currency. Then, of course, I immediately posted the shot to social media.

While the picture became instantly popular with my friends and followers, I got a completely different reaction when

I showed it to one of my hosts from G Adventures, their U.S. vice president of sales, Peter Worthing.

He was tactful, but pointed out that G discourages engaging with the women because it encourages them to bring the alpacas out of their natural habitat and into a busy city. They also don't always treat the animals very well as they parade them around, he said.

Unfortunately, that is something I had noticed after the fact as I walked around the Plaza de Armas and realized the woman and girl I had happened upon were far from unique. There were women and children with alpacas everywhere, often pulling at them quite strongly to get them to line up properly for photos.

I felt bad then, but was glad to have learned yet another lesson about the many things we do as travelers that we think are benefiting the locals but are actually harming them and their community or encouraging bad behavior.

I have learned over the years the different codes of conduct espoused by socially responsible companies like G.

Among the key things they emphasize: Don't take pictures of children without their parents' permission. Don't hand out money, candy or gifts without the same.

In other words, as G said repeatedly on our trip, "If you wouldn't do it at home, don't do it here."

But I either wasn't listening or had forgotten what they might have said about their animal welfare guidelines.  And I have to admit, if I happened upon the same scene at home, I likely would have reacted the same way.

Likewise, Worthing admitted he still has a hard time not giving money to kids.

Good or bad, the encounter served as an important reminder that travelers need to be constantly aware of the negative impacts that even the most seemingly innocent of acts can have on the people and animals in the countries they are visiting.

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