In the middle of a rain forest in Ecuador, surrounded by rare species of birds and plants, vacationers mingle with researchers and Ecuadorians at the Maquipucuna Reserve. Most stay in the modern lodge built with all natural, local materials. They enjoy meals prepared with organic ingredients grown in the reserve and prepared by locally trained chefs.

Maquipucuna is set in a lush, tropical setting and has paid careful attention to preserving and honoring the local environment. As a result it offers all the essentials for ecotourists—travelers who want to soak up both culture and a wide range of endangered plant and animal species, while conserving natural resources. The United Nations supports ecotourism as an evolving concept which appeals to environmentally conscious tourists and offers opportunities to isolated communities in need of support.

"A lot of places people could go and walk through a forest," says Ron Carroll, director of the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia, who works at the Maquipucuna Reserve on a variety of ecological projects. "Often, they'll see a lot of destruction. At our site, they see communities involved in the protection of nature."

What Is Ecotourism?

Because there is no universally accepted ecotourism certification, some tour operators include hotels that offer amenities like recycling bins and optional daily linen service in their broad definition. Environmentalists argue that the concept must extend to cultures and education. "Ecotourism aims to promote and foster a respect and an increase in awareness of other cultures and their perception of nature," says Stephen Wearing, PhD, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.

Ecotourism includes travel that:

  • Is focused on appreciation of nature and native cultures
  • Provides educational opportunities
  • Minimizes the negative impact on the local natural and cultural environment
  • Generates economic revenue for host communities through sustainable activities and businesses

Learning about a travel destination in advance enhances any trip, and preparation can particularly enrich ecotourism adventures. "Most sights become that little bit more interesting when you know more about them," explains Wearing, who co-authored "Ecotourism: Impacts, Potentials and Possibilities."

Before leaving on an eco-focused trip, you can learn a lot about the extent of ecotourist activity at your destination, adds Mark Bonn, professor of services management at Florida State University. He suggests asking:

  • Does the hotel/lodge employ sustainability practices (recycling, water and energy conservation, etc.)?
  • What kind of educational programs are offered to guests? Who operates them?
  • What has been the most significant program developed to positively impact the local environment?
  • Are natives employed? Do they give input into programs and operations?
  • Are there ample opportunities to enjoy locally made crafts and locally grown foods?

Healthy Travel for You and the Environment

Though some ecotourism hot spots are located in populated, and popular, vacation destinations like the Virgin Islands, most are not. Access to medical care in remote areas is limited, so it's important to talk with your healthcare provider about your travel plans in advance. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers specific health guidelines for many global destinations (, and the United States Department of State provides important travel advisories and warnings (

Topics to research in advance include:

Weather—Ask your tour organizer or check with local officials about climate changes. For instance, though the Aquipucuna Reserve is in the middle of a tropical rain forest, guests need light jackets to wear in the evenings.

Distance from civilization—Be aware of how far you are from the nearest city, and what transportation options are available.

Level of activity—Find out what choices you have when it comes to organized tour time versus free time. Is hiking required, and if so, how difficult are the trails? What accommodations are there for any health-related restrictions?

Wildlife and disease—Ask about any special precautions to take or supplies you will need.

The Good of Going "Green"

While ecotourists enjoy trips full of natural beauty enriched by their own knowledge, they're also spreading a powerful message to cultures around the world. "Ecotourism creates real economic value in nature," says Bonn. "It gives people an incentive to protect and be good stewards of the environment."