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 -- listed by destination under "Travel Choice" -- 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).

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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.

New Mexico hasn't become a big ecotourism destination but there are a few options. In Taos, El Monte Sagrado, a resort near the center of town, offers luxurious surroundings totally in tune with nature, utilizing sustainable technologies throughout. Contact tel. 800/828-TAOS; www.elmontesagrado.com. Also, in Taos, the Old Taos Guesthouse Bed & Breakfast (tel. 800/758-5448; www.oldtaos.com) employs many ecofriendly practices.

In Santa Fe, Bishop's Lodge Ranch Resort & Spa (tel. 800/732-2240; www.bishopslodge.com), north of town, recycles water in order to irrigate its lush landscape and employs other ecofriendly methods. Also in the City Different, Santa Fe Mountain Adventures (tel. 800/965-4010 or 505/988-4000; www.santafemountainadventures.com) leads programs that combine outdoor adventures with arts and cultural experiences, and spa treatments. A collaborative effort in conjunction with Outside magazine, the business is eco-conscious.

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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.

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. Specific volunteer options in New Mexico are listed under "Special-Interest Trips".

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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.

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.