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Search the Internet and you will come across hundreds of travel websites purporting to be focused on ecologically responsible travel. The term "ecotourism" is widely blanketed over initiatives that are ecologically sound and where development has been undertaken using environmentally sustainable materials in a way that does not endanger the landscape, the wildlife or the biodiversity of the immediate area. Moreover ecotourism by definition should distribute its profits in a way that gives back to indigenous communities or at the very least support the maintenance of the immediate natural environment.

Ecotourism embraces the principles of sustainable tourism by actively contributing to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. Local and indigenous communities are involved in planning, development and operation. Visitors can interpret the natural and cultural heritage of the destination and ecotourism vacations in general are more geared toward independent travelers and small tour groups.

The concept of ecotourism is sometimes misunderstood and, in practice, is often exploited as a marketing tool to promote tourism that is related to nature. If you are interested in taking an eco-friendly vacation, it is important to do your research and understand the trip you will be undertaking. Some ecotourism resorts and tours are luxurious, while others are quite basic and may include camping, homestays or accommodations without electricity or other amenities.

Visiting exotic destinations and immersing yourself in another culture, while traveling in a way that conserves the environment and supports the livelihoods of local communities is a highly rewarding experience both from the travel and social conscience perspective. I have been fortunate enough to visit a number of eco-resorts, from Brazil to Australia, Borneo to Guatemala and there is always a sense of satisfaction to know that my tourist dollars are really going towards assisting local people and supporting their natural habitat.

Some eco-resorts, like the Al Maha Desert Resort (www.al-maha.com) in Dubai, while promoting desert conservation in a region that has had little infrastructure for environmental protection, is also super luxurious and frightfully expensive. A standard double Bedouin suite here will set you back $1,350 per night. On the plus side, guests can explore the desert on camels, observing some of the 33 mammal and reptile species indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula, and enjoy excellent desert bird watching in this 87-square-mile protected area that was designated a national park in 2005. Many African based eco-tours and eco-resorts, especially those that specialize in safari operations can likewise cost several thousands of dollars per day.

For more affordable eco-friendly options, consider the following:

Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) believes that just because you want an eco-friendly vacation, doesn't mean you can't find a budget solution. Their "Egypt Desert Adventure" is a one-of-a-kind 19-day adventure that visits Cairo, Luxor and Aswan with all their architectural and historical masterpieces, but then gets off the beaten track with a journey through the wild and barren mountains of the Sinai, ending up on the shores of the warm waters of the Gulf of Aqaba. Beyond the Nile Valley there is so much to see in Egypt that most tourists never get to experience. On this comprehensive trip, travel through the heart of the Western Desert, a vast, isolated expanse covering a total of almost two million square miles, visiting various oasis towns in the company of Bedouin companions, gaining insight into their traditions and experiencing their amazing hospitality. Spend an evening in a Nubian home, and then join them on the Nile, on their traditional felucca sailboats. A key focus of the trip is the cultural interaction that is encouraged between tour members and the local people. Spend six days with three Bedouin brothers who started their own fledgling tourist business and four days with Nubian villagers and their felucca sailboats drifting with the current from Aswan to Luxor. Tours depart from Cairo on November 5 and19, December 3, 17 and 31, 2005, January 14 and 28, February 11 and 25, March 11 and 25 and April 8 and 22, 2006 and cost $1,042 per person. The package price includes transport by jeep, train, camels and boats, meals, and accommodation predominantly under the stars. Airfare to Cairo is additional.

The Responsible Travel "Yunnan Encounter" is a 10-day journey through China's Yunnan Province, widely regarded as the country's most culturally diverse and scenically spectacular region. The tour brings you in close contact with the age-old customs and traditions of the local Bai and Naxi people, and includes a trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the least tourist-trodden routes in China. This trip is priced at $371 per person and departs from Kunming on November 13 and 27, December 11 and 25, 2005, January 8 and 22, February 5 and 19, March 5 and 19 and April 2, 16 and 30, 2006. The package includes all transport, accommodation in guesthouses and camping while hiking, plus visits to Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, the Yangtze River and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Airfare is additional.

Anangu Tours (tel. + 618 /8956-2123; www.anangutours.com.au) is an Aboriginal-owned and -operated eco-tour company located near Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Central Australia. Locals design tours and lead them in their own language, using an interpreter. You'll stroll through the bush at sunset, hear Aboriginal creation stories, and visit caves holding ancestral paintings. Tours introduce visitors to tjukurpa, the traditional law involving ecological, economic, and religious rules for living. Anangu Tours has used its profits to help the community establish the first Aboriginal Secondary College. The tours have strengthened cultural pride and kindled a renewed interest in traditional skills among local youth. Half-day to full-day tours range in price from $52 to $120, including sunrise walking tours of the rock itself, dot-painting workshops, sunset camel rides and tours of the Mala cave paintings.

Jungle Resorts and Lodges (tel. + 9180/2559-7021; www.junglelodges.com) of India, is an award-winning eco-holiday company. Their Bandipur Safari Lodge, located approximately 150 miles from Bangalore, and is a wildlife haven with luscious deciduous forests as home for exotic birds, elephants, gaurs, wild boars, spotted deer and wild dogs, plus there is always the bonus of sighting an elusive predator like a tiger or leopard. Naturalists are always at hand to help with interpretation and identification, which helps towards the greater cause of understanding and protecting the forests. Their wildlife package is priced at $39 per person per night and includes accommodation, lunch, dinner and breakfast, jeep safari into Bandipur Tiger Reserve, guided trekking, forest entry fees, photography fees and taxes

Nestled in the southern fringes of the Nagahole National Park, the Kabini River Lodge is a perfect getaway for nature lovers. Once the hunting lodge of the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore, Kabini River Lodge has been rated as one of the top five wildlife resorts in the world. Kabini is pure elephant country where you can see numerous herds and possibly an elusive tiger as you roam through the verdant jungle. Once widely known for the mass elephant-trapping operations, Kabini stands as the one of the brightest beacons for wildlife preservation in India today. A wildlife package here is $67per person per night and includes cottage accommodation, lunch, dinner and breakfast, jeep safari into Nagarahole (Rajiv Gandhi) National Park, Coracle ride, Elephant ride, forest entry fees, photography fees and taxes.

Keeping with the wildlife and jungle theme, Borneo Eco Tours (tel. + 60/8843-8300; www.borneoecotours.com) offers a number of budget-conscious but eco-sensitive Borneo adventures. Their "Borneo Wildlife Safari" is a seven-day/six-night package that includes two nights at a the Sukau Rainforest Lodge and four nights at a backpackers hotel, daily breakfast, three lunches, two dinners, a visit to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, a boat journey along Sabah's longest river, Kinabatangan to view birds and wildlife in virgin mangrove, wetland and rainforest habitats and a two hour river cruise to see up to ten primate species including the rare Proboscis monkey. This tour is priced at $285 per person based on dual occupancy and this price is valid until March 31, 2006. Domestic round-trip airfare from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan costs approximately $58 per person extra, plus camera fees are additional. Kota Kinabalu is reachable by Malaysian Airlines, Singapore Airlines or Royal Brunei Airlines.

The International Ecotourism Society (www.ecotourism.org) website provides a directory of Travel Choice members around the globe that have signed a code of conduct stating that they follow the guidelines of responsible ecotourism travel. You can search tour operators, travel agents, transportation provider or accommodation by region.

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