By Marnie Hunter
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(CNN) -- Adventure was the goal when John and Karen Lewis liquidated their assets to buy a large tract of Costa Rican rainforest in 1990.
The pair from Minnesota wanted a sweeping change that involved a language they didn't speak, a culture they didn't understand and a business they didn't have any experience with. They also wanted their new life to involve travel and a contribution to other people.
The result? Lapa Rios, a 1,000-acre private nature reserve and ecolodge on Costa Rica's remote Osa Peninsula. The business showcases the rainforest through outdoor activities while introducing guests to ecotourism and sustainable development, which emphasize balance in the social, economic and environmental effects on the local community.
"We have a sustainability tour where people go to the kitchen and they see our recycling program. We also have pigs and we generate bio-gas for the employee kitchen. We only have native plants, hire only people from the local area. We have a public school that we built and the school tour is very popular," said John Lewis, 62. He and Karen Lewis are now divorced but remain business partners.
"A lot of what we do ... is talk about our conservation programs, our community involvement programs -- a lot of it has to do with guest education," Lewis said.
Ecotourism, according to The International Ecotourism Society, is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."
For travelers, that can mean things like choosing socially and environmentally responsible travel providers, respecting the natural environment by sticking to trails and leaving plants and animals undisturbed, buying locally and respecting the culture by dressing appropriately and learning to say a few words in the local language.
The label means different things to different businesses, and some travel providers have shied away from it in recent years.
"I think the term ecotourism has gone through a lot of incarnations, and I think through 'greenwashing,' or people saying that they do things and then don't necessarily come through, I think it may have tarnished the term ecotourism," said Ben Bressler, director of Natural Habitat Adventures, a Colorado-based tour company.
But Bressler believes the label is recovering, despite past ambiguity.
"I actually think it's coming back, and true environmentally responsible travel companies are using it, and I do think it's a good word again," he said.
Lewis has seen understanding evolve since he's been in the industry.
"There's a lot less greenwashing now than there used to be because I think people are much more aware," he said.
Navigating the industry
Green travel labels still generate confusion, so the best bet for consumers looking for a responsible provider is to ask questions.
"Don't be afraid to ask if they have an environmental policy and what that is," said Katie Maschman, a spokeswoman for TIES. "What sort of community-based projects they're involved with, how they're involved in those projects, if community members are employed by the organization?
"If a company is doing significant things for environmental and social responsibility, they'll have those stories to share," Maschman said. "If they're not, then you'll get basic answers like 'we don't wash your sheets and towels,' and that's about it."
Maschman also encourages travelers to look for certifications, awards and affiliations with reputable organizations when choosing providers.
There are about 80 certification bodies worldwide, so standards vary, but eco-seals are one way for consumers to narrow their searches.
Various organizations have formed a council to work toward setting up a global accreditation body for sustainable tourism and ecotourism certification programs, and there is much debate in the industry and nonprofit community about how to set certification standards.
"The other big debate in this thing that's going on right now ... is (whether) all of ecotourism (is) kind of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic with the carbon debate?" said Neel Inamdar, a senior adviser on ecotourism for Conservation International, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.
"Basically if you fly somewhere you're contributing significantly to carbon emissions, and should we be taking care of that? Because if we don't, the environment that we say we're trying to conserve will be gone due to global warming," Inamdar said.
Some companies are starting to embrace carbon offsetting. Natural Habitat Adventures purchases offsets through Sustainable Travel International to support environmental projects that mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions caused by the company.
"They take that money and they purchase things like solar ovens to replace coal-burning ovens in Ethiopia. So as they destroy a coal-burning oven and replace it with a solar one, what we're doing is taxing ourselves and making up for it elsewhere," Bressler said.
In 2007, Bressler expects the company to spend $50,000 on offsets covering all of its office operations, business travel and in-country transportation for its guests. Guests are then asked to consider offsetting their own air transportation.
The emphasis ecotourism operations place on contributing to conservation and community development is taking hold in other sectors of the industry that are not centered on delicate ecosystems.
"We've started to see more and more companies that traditionally offer just sun and beach kind of packages or all-inclusives or boat operations or even urban tourism that are embracing these concepts," said Ronald Sanabria, director of sustainable tourism for the Rainforest Alliance, a New York-based international nonprofit dedicated to conservation and sustainability.
The World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations, has developed a series of programs to get governments, tourists and the tourism industry to follow practices that will lead to a harmonious balance between the ecological, the economic and the social effects of tourism.
"That's called triple bottom line sustainability, and in essence it's also described as making sure that whatever you take out you put enough back in that it covers for it," said Geoffrey Lipman, the agency's assistant secretary general.
Since the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the role sustainable tourism can play in the elimination of poverty has been an area of intense interest.
"You can go to the world's poorest country and it has some form of tourism product that it can produce and sell. So the big challenge is to ensure that that product is retained," Lipman said.
"That they don't just have that product for this year, they have it for next year and thereafter and thereafter. And that when the tourists come, they don't destroy the very things that they came to see and experience."
The rainforest and its inhabitants draw visitors to Lapa Rios, a nature reserve and ecolodge in Costa Rica.
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