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Sustainable tourism is conscientious travel. It means being careful with the environments you explore and respecting the communities you visit. Two overlapping components of sustainable travel are ecotourism and ethical tourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. TIES suggests that ecotourists follow these principles:

  • Minimize environmental impact.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation and for local people.
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climates.
  • Support international human rights and labor agreements.

You can find some ecofriendly travel tips and statistics, as well as touring companies and associations at the TIES website, www.ecotourism.org. Also check out Ecotravel.com, which lets you search for sustainable touring companies in several categories (water-based, land-based, spiritually oriented, and so on).

While much of the focus of ecotourism is about reducing impacts on the natural environment, ethical tourism concentrates on ways to preserve and enhance local economies and communities, regardless of location. You can embrace ethical tourism by staying at a locally owned hotel or shopping at a store that employs local workers and sells locally produced goods.

Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.

In the U.K., Tourism Concern (www.tourismconcern.org.uk) works to reduce social and environmental problems connected to tourism. The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO; www.aito.co.uk) is a group of specialist operators leading the field in making holidays sustainable.

Volunteer travel has become increasingly popular among those who want to venture beyond the standard group-tour experience to learn languages, interact with locals, and make a positive difference while on vacation. Volunteer travel usually doesn't require special skills -- just a willingness to work hard -- and programs vary in length from a few days to a number of weeks. Some programs provide free housing and food, but many require volunteers to pay for travel expenses, which can add up quickly.

For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.

Before you commit to a volunteer program, it's important to make sure any money you're giving is truly going back to the local community and that the work you'll be doing will be a good fit for you. Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a helpful list of questions to ask to determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program.

Sustainable Tourism in El Salvador

Numerous plush and not-so-plush establishments around the world have adopted the ecolodge label to attract well-meaning visitors when in reality their environmental efforts are cosmetic only. El Salvador is not immune to such greenwashing. One notable exception, however, is the delightful La Cocotera in Barra Santiago. This luxury lodge has genuine green credentials with solar-powered water, a turtle incubation project, and a concerted effort to train locals in the hospitality industry. Less luxurious but just as green is Imposible Eco Lodge, close to the national park of the same name.

Where you stay will determine greatly the mark you leave behind. The greenest way to stay in El Salvador is to choose a homestay with a family, but this is not an option if you are on a quick holiday and want some privacy and creature comforts. If you do choose a homestay, try to book directly through a local organization and not a foreign-based agency that collects a whopping commission. The same must be said when signing up for a volunteer program. There are a multitude of Web-based clearinghouses that gouge commissions from your hefty fee while very little of your money reaches the actual community.

Nicaragua and El Salvador are not immune to the boom in ecotourism, with the former especially well positioned to take advantage of the vast amount of untamed nature it possesses. Lodges vary greatly in luxury and amenities: Be sure to choose a lodge that meets your expectations. Also, take into consideration that many by their very "nature" are in isolated areas.

Perquín Lenca Hotel de Montaña (tel. 503/2680-4046; www.perkinlenca.com) is a mountainside, cabin-style hotel in the rugged hinterland of Perquín, in eastern El Salvador.

La Cocotera (tel. 503/2245-3691; www.lacocoteraresort.com) is a gorgeous property tucked between an estuary and the beach, and surrounded by a coconut plantation on the isolated Barra de Santiago. Stylish rooms with an environmental conscience make this an unforgettable stay.

El Imposible Eco Lodge (tel. 503/2411-5484; www.elimposible-ecolodge.com) is located at the entrance to Parque Nacional El Imposible. A-frame wooden huts with private verandas overlook a small, rock-lined pool here with natural spring water.

It's Easy Being Green

Here are a few simple ways you can help conserve fuel and energy when you travel:

  • Each time you take a flight or drive a car, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. You can help neutralize this danger to the planet through "carbon offsetting" -- paying someone to invest your money in programs that reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount you've added. Before buying carbon offset credits, just make sure that you're using a reputable company, one with a proven program that invests in renewable energy. Reliable carbon offset companies include Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.org).
  • Whenever possible, choose nonstop flights; they generally require less fuel than indirect flights that stop and take off again. Try to fly during the day -- some scientists estimate that nighttime flights are twice as harmful to the environment. And pack light -- each 15 pounds of luggage on a 5,000-mile flight adds up to 50 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted.
  • Where you stay during your travels can have a major environmental impact. To determine the green credentials of a property, ask about trash disposal and recycling, water conservation, and energy use; also question if sustainable materials were used in the construction of the property. The website www.greenhotels.com recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Also consult www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com for more green accommodations ratings.
  • At hotels, request that your sheets and towels not be changed daily. (Many hotels already have programs like this in place.) Turn off the lights and air-conditioner (or heater) when you leave your room.
  • Use public transport where possible -- trains, buses, and even taxis are more energy-efficient forms of transport than driving. Even better is to walk or cycle; you'll produce zero emissions and stay fit and healthy on your travels.
  • If renting a car is necessary, ask the rental agent for a hybrid or rent the most fuel-efficient car available. You'll use less gas and save money at the tank.
  • Eat at locally owned and operated restaurants that use produce grown in the area. This contributes to the local economy and cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions by supporting restaurants where the food is not flown or trucked in across long distances.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.