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See the world, protect the earth

By Marnie Hunter

Tour operators
Hotels and accommodation
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(CNN) -- References to eco-tours are popping up in magazines, guidebooks and ads for everything from rainforest tours in Bangladesh to birding trips through Oaxaca, Mexico.

But what, exactly, is ecotourism?

That's hard to pinpoint, said Trey Byus, vice-president of field operations and program development for Lindblad Expeditions, a travel company that specializes in marine trips to far-flung locations from Antarctica to the Azores.

"If you asked a wide variety of companies, I think you'd get a wide variety of answers as to what ecotourism actually means," he said.

"You have a company that says, 'Yeah, we're an ecotourism company because we have a green brochure and it's produced with soy-based ink' or something," Byus said. "OK, that's nice, but that's not the whole enchilada. You need more than just that."

Because ecotourism is loosely defined, Lindblad Expeditions disassociates itself from the label. Still, the company says it has a strict environmental management system, works closely with regional conservation partners and often hires local workers.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), a Washington-based non-governmental organization, defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."

Having a positive impact on a destination seems reasonable -- but how does a traveler find out if the hotels, outfitters and attractions that use the ecotourism label really are environmentally sound and socially conscious?

Laura Ell, a spokeswoman for TIES, recommends asking specifics: What does the provider do for the environment and the community? Does it have an education process for tourists and locals? What measures do they take to conserve water and energy?

"The other thing that's getting to be big in this industry is certification," Ell said.

Determining what various certifications mean can be confusing for the consumer, she acknowledged. With 60 to 70 international certification bodies for tourism, standards vary widely.

Cost also is a problem, as certification bodies often lack sufficient funds to visit the operations they are certifying.

The Rainforest Alliance and TIES are working with other tourism organizations to develop an accreditation board.

"We saw a need to bring those all together under one umbrella to make sure that when people end up in a place that's a certified ecotourism destination, that they don't just end up in a place that has an outhouse and happens to be in the middle of nature," said Bina Venkataraman, a Rainforest Alliance spokeswoman.

Despite the variations in certification bodies, they still help point visitors in the right direction, according to Ell.

Sustainable tourism

The Rainforest Alliance promotes sustainable tourism -- which goes beyond interpretations of ecotourism as environmental or nature travel to embrace practices that are socially, economically and environmentally viable in the long term.

Teri and Glenn Jampol, who own and operate the Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn in Santa Barbara de Heredia, Costa Rica, practice sustainable tourism.

The Finca Rosa Blanca works with a school, a children's kitchen and a senior citizens' center in town.

Five percent of the profits from the inn's dinner service go to the local school and the closest national park. Recycling, an organic garden and water heated by solar power are some of the inn's environmental efforts.

Despite a top rating from the Costa Rican Tourist Board for compliance with sustainable tourism standards, that's not what draws most guests to the inn, Teri Jampol said. Most people look to the inn for upscale lodging in a natural setting.

"It's been good because I think those kind of people are pleasantly surprised and very interested in what we're doing ... but probably wouldn't ever have chosen us because of that," she said.

The Finca Rosa Blanca counters any perception of ecotourism as a primitive style of travel.

"I don't think you have to rough it to be an environmentally sensitive traveler," Lindblad's Byus said. "There are many very nice lodges and hotels who operate in a sustainable way."

Also, travelers can do things on their own to protect their destinations.

Respecting local cultures, customs, flora and fauna and depositing trash responsibly are simple measures recommended by the Rainforest Alliance. Dining in local establishments also helps.

"Educate yourself about minimizing your impact, because no matter who you are or how you travel, there is a high potential for some sort of impact," Byus said.

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