Members of Parliament, their spouses and staff received nearly $2 million worth of free travel and gifts from foreign nationals and lobby groups between 2005 and 2009, CBC News has learned.

The all-expenses-paid trips, exempt from federal ethics rules, are never audited and logged only in sparse detail with the Ethics Commissioner.

Last year, for example, 54 MPs, or nearly one in six, accepted sponsored trips.

Israel and Taiwan are the most popular destinations. In the five-year period, MPs have taken 101 free trips to Taiwan, 79 trips to Israel and 11 to China.

In the case of Israel, it was not Israeli agencies or individuals who paid for the trips. Rather, MPs were flown to Israel courtesy of the Canada-Israel Committee, a registered lobby group funded by Canadian donors. 

Some of the trips to Taiwan were funded by the Chinese International Economic Co-operation Association, a Taiwanese business association devoted to promoting bilateral economic ties with foreign countries.

'Recipe for corruption,' says CSIS

Such sponsored trips have raised concern in Canada's spy agency, CSIS. The agency's director, Richard Fadden, has warned of growing attempts to influence all levels of Canadian politics.

"It's very much a wide-open system that's a recipe for corruption and dangerous to democracy and dangerously unethical," said Duff Conacher, chair of the group Democracy Watch and a critic of free travel by MPs.

Conacher said foreign interests have clear targets.

'I am not going to wait for Stephen Harper … to say "Yeah, you can go on this trip."'—Bob Rae, Liberal MP

"Whether it's changing a law, a regulation, a policy, a program, a tax, a subsidy or aid or trade, policies and actions — all those things are in the interest of various organizations and countries," he said. "And those are the kind of things they're trying to change the direction of."

No party opposes the free travel loophole, meaning the public rarely learns how extensive such gifts are.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said a better system is needed but that the reality is that MPs have no other way to travel abroad.

"As private members, we get no public funding for trips that we take," Rae said. "I am not going to wait for Stephen Harper or Lawrence Cannon to say 'Yeah, you can go on this trip.' I mean, if I waited for that, I'd be a skeleton on the floor of the House of Commons."

"So, we're going to do it ourselves."