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All Madelaine Gierc wanted was to be in a photograph. Instead, she wound up at the centre of an international incident.

During a trip to Greece in 2005, the then-16-year-old student from Duncan, B.C., picked up a rock on a path near the Parthenon and was promptly arrested, charged and jailed. Under the country's protection laws, it is illegal to buy, sell, own or excavate antiquities without a special permit - a crime that carries a maximum 10-year sentence. She claimed, however, that she only intended to use the rock as a prop in a photo and was released after two days in an Athens jail.

In April, Finnish tourist Marko Kulju was taken into custody after he was caught chipping part of an earlobe off an ancient moai on Easter Island. The 26-year-old was forced to pay a $17,000 fine, had to write a public apology and was banned from the island for three years. He called his attempt to bring home a piece of the statue, protected by Chilean law, "the worst mistake of my life."

Gierc's actions appeared to be a harmless slip, while Kulju's act was a clear-cut crime, but both cases demonstrate that when it comes to respecting the cultural sites and artifacts of a place, travellers need to learn basic rules of protocol.

Often, says Arthur Frommer, founder of the Frommer's series of travel guides, "people just don't realize that they are in a historic area."

Of course, even when they do, the rules regarding what can and cannot be taken from a site can be unclear.

"That's not to say that a person shouldn't be able to figure it out for themselves, but there should be a greater effort on the part of local authorities to put up signs," he says.

In Gierc's case, she later said she had no idea that what she did was wrong because she didn't see any signs saying "Don't touch" or otherwise prohibiting people from picking up items off the ground.

When in doubt, always ask the tour guide or other official before making assumptions about what is proper behaviour, says Ann Wallace, the editor of Toronto-based magazine The Travel Society.

But even when there aren't any signs or authorities about, Frommer says, travellers should follow the golden rule of treading into nature: "You leave nothing behind but your footprints. You do not tamper, you do not alter, you do not deface what it is that you're visiting. You remember the word 'respect.' It should be uppermost in your mind that you show respect to cultural heritage."

Still, the desire to take home a pottery shard, stone or some other memento from a historical site can be a powerful one, and some tourists may think it is harmless to do so.

"I think people think, 'Well, if I just take this one little thing, it's not going to make any difference,' " says Patty Gerstenblith, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, a U.S.-based non-profit organization dedicated to protecting heritage resources around the world.

But if everyone were to think that way, she says, there would "be nothing left, not only for us, but even more importantly for future generations to appreciate, enjoy and learn from."

For example, Roman newspaper Il Messaggero recently reported that Trajan's Forum, a 1,900-year-old complex in the middle of the city, has been stripped bare of its columns and statues. According to the newspaper, the 20 million tourists who visit the country each year are to blame.

"The thing that draws people to want to take things is that they want a tangible connection to the past," Gerstenblith says. "On the other hand, we want to be able to preserve that tangible past for everybody."

With the number of people travelling abroad expected to increase in the coming years, we can expect to see more cases around the world like the one at Trajan's Forum, Frommer says. "You have not only the number of people who are currently travelling, but now you have the vast multitudes of tourists about to arise from China and India."

But anyone taking home a memento from a historical site may be surprised to find themselves facing stiff penalties.

"If people pick up a little piece of pottery that they find in a field, we might think to ourselves, 'Well, that's not very important.' But it's still against the law," says Neil Brodie, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University and a former director of the McDonald Institute's Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge University. "The law is drafted to protect archeological heritage, and you can't have loopholes in the law along the lines of, 'Well, it's illegal to take an artifact out of the country, but it's okay to take a small piece of pottery."

Of course, it doesn't help when governments themselves put out confusing messages about such practices. For instance, the Italian Government Tourist Board launched a campaign this spring that featured an image of a young couple holding up what appear to be ancient pottery shards. When asked about the photo - which still appears on the board's website, - commissioner for Canada Enzo Colombo acknowledged the problem of "people misbehaving or stealing things. But those are criminal acts, and I wouldn't even comment on that."

To avoid any problems, others in the travel industry recommend doing a bit of homework before you depart on a trip.

Wallace says spending just an hour or two online researching the countries and sites on a travel itinerary is often enough to know how to behave once you arrive.

But many tourists simply don't bother, Frommer says.

"One of the problems of the North American tourist is that we tend to fling ourselves on a moment's notice to all sorts of exotic destinations without spending so much as a single evening in a public library reading about the history and culture of the places we're about to visit," he says.

"We do that on the assumption that someone is going to tell us, once we're there, what it is that we're looking at and how we're to comport ourselves.

"Advanced reading is the key to successful tourism, but it's also the key to having respect for the cultures you're visiting and thus not engaging in this vandalism - because that's really what it is, it's touristic vandalism."