The basics of ecotourism are fairly easy to grasp: Businesses that cater to tourists follow special policies to protect the environment, aid the local community, and educate travelers.
But considering there's no universal set of standards, and nearly 100 groups offer various "eco" certifications and memberships, doing the right thing is a lot more complicated than one would hope.
A vacationer looking to spend time and money in an environmentally conscious manner might run across names such as Sustainable Travel International, Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance, The International Ecotourism Society, Green Hotels Association, and EcoClub, as well as regional associations like Ecotourism Australia and Travel Green Wisconsin. Each has the same idea at heart, but good values can be put into action in very different ways. Ecotourism Australia awards attractions, tours, and accommodations three categories of certificates: Nature Tourism, Ecotourism, and something called Advanced Ecotourism. The Costa Rica Tourism Board tabulates the results of questionnaires and on-site visits to rate eco-lodges on a scale of 0 to 5 green leaves. The Green Hotels Association sends members a 136-page booklet with info about noise control, composting, and other environmental issues, but the only real qualification to join is payment of an annual fee of $100-$350.
Adding to the confusion are operations that eschew official recognition yet stick to rigorous environmental guidelines, such as the adventure outfit Mountain Travel Sobek.
The best way, then, to find out what a hotel, resort, or tour operator does--and doesn't do--for the earth is to ask questions. You may not completely understand the answers; what does sustainability mean anyway? But you should listen closely nonetheless. If it sounds like the employee you're talking to is making things up or has never heard the questions before (let alone answered them), there's a problem.
How do you conserve resources?
It's easy to request that guests reuse towels; hotels taking water conservation a step further irrigate lawns and gardens with gray water (from bath and laundry sources) rather than fresh water. Guests should be encouraged to walk, ride bicycles, and take advantage of public transportation and energy-efficient vehicles such as hybrids. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, are good signs, as is the separating of trash and composting. Whenever possible, buildings should be constructed with recycled materials and timber from renewable sources. Disposable items are best avoided.
How do you protect plants and animals?
Pedestrians and cyclists should stay on trails, and vehicles on roads. If your guide hacks up trees for firewood or your group disturbs wildlife and doesn't back off, something's wrong. Outside of qualified breeding programs, wild animals are never to be caged.
What do you do to help the community?
Not every company will be locally owned and operated, but outfitters and lodges should at least hire local staff. Beyond jobs, many operations emphasize charity. The owners of Lapa Rios, a five-leaf eco-lodge in Costa Rica, helped build a school in a rural area that lacked electricity and phones, while Guerba, a U.K.-based tour company, has raised more than $64,000 for homeless kids in Tanzania. When it's time to eat, look for restaurants selling regional, organic food.
What ecotourism activities do you offer?
One of the best things an eco-resort can do is impart awareness to guests. Snorkeling above coral reefs, hiking in rain forests, and rafting in remote rivers can be both thrilling and educational. Shopping excursions should focus on goods made locally, ideally with opportunities to learn about workers' lives and culture. And of course, activities ought to be respectful and avoid damaging the environment. Cooking with lightweight gas stoves causes less harm than using campfires. If you do light a campfire, always set it up in an established fire pit or ring. When you're snorkeling, never touch the coral. Optimally, you'll bring these practices home. Truly successful ecotourism changes not just the way you vacation, but the way you think--no matter where you are.