Black Rock Lodge, Belize
Black Rock Lodge
At a bend in the Macal River, in the Mayan Mountains of Belize, Black Rock Lodge is an off-the-grid rainforest resort with 13 cabins. A restaurant on site serves organic fruits grown on the property, and all water is supplied by a nearby mountain spring.
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updated 4/21/2008 2:41:32 PM ET 2008-04-21T18:41:32

Going green is not a new concept in the world of travel. For decades, resorts like Maho Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Turtle Island in Fiji have demonstrated that eco-awareness and sustainability can coexist with tourism. But in the past five years, the "eco" buzz has been amplified within the travel industry—and throughout popular culture as well.

"Being green has entered every part of many people's lives, including travel," says David Krantz, a coordinator with the Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development in Washington D.C. "Americans take their impact more seriously than ever before." The result? Resort owners and developers around the world have tapped into the eco trend. Resorts such as the Black Rock Lodge in Belize and Ranweli Holiday Village in Sri Lanka are catering to the new ecotourism ethos through environmental conservation, light-on-the-land building techniques and the embracing of local culture at resorts. Sure to redefine eco architecture when it breaks ground in 2008, Star Island in the Bahamas is a private island resort being developed in a fully sustainable way using innovative technology and standards.

More than a trend, there are now thousands of ecologically oriented lodges in more than 60 countries around the planet. "Sustainable tourism is among the most significant movements in all of travel right now," says Krantz.

Eco resorts defy generalization. They can range from thatch-roofed huts on a beach to cabins afloat on raft foundations in fjords; their structures are influenced by sources as diverse as Robinson Caruso and Renzo Piano. Some, like the Avalon Coastal Retreat in Australia—a modern eco cottage overlooking Great Oyster Bay—tout a green theme alongside ultimate luxury. Others are minimalist in nature, such as the light-on-the-land canvas tents offered by Savute Under Canvas in Botswana.

But while they differ by design what all eco resorts have in common (or at least they should, by definition of groups like the Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development): They're committed to conserving natural areas and improving the well-being of local people.

Take, for example, CESiaK, a mid-size beach resort south of Tulum, Mexico that's totally off the grid. Rainwater is collecting in cisterns, and re-used; the buildings are powered through wind and solar energy; local labor was used in the construction of the resort; and its current employees are natives to the area. But CESiaK is just one resort among hundreds around the world that's shooting for complete sustainability. Indeed, at no point in history has a traveler had so many eco options.

The Lodge at Sun Ranch, Montana
Cameron R. Neilson
In Montana's Madison River valley—a 40-minute drive from Yellowstone National Park—the Lodge at Sun Ranch boasts a 26,000-acre property that's shared by a maximum of 16 guests.
The risk, of course, is that "ecotourism" has become a buzzword. It's an opportunity for marketers to take advantage of the hype.

"Because of its open-ended definition, 'ecotourism' is interpreted differently by everyone." Says Cameron Boyd, owner and founder of CESiaK, which stands for Centro Ecológico Sian Ka'an. "You have to watch out for places that promote ecotourism on no real basis."

Arenas del Mar, Costa Rica
Arenas del Mar
The Arenas del Mar, in Costa Rica couples deluxe accommodations with "the highest level of certified sustainability." Among its many eco efforts, the resort uses solar power to heat water; recycles its waste water for use in irrigation; and employs recycled-plastic roof tiles made from discarded bags used in the banana industry.

For example, says Boyd, some beach resorts run diesel generators round-the-clock to provide air-conditioning. Other fly in non-resident employees, displacing locals who could do the job. Even a sightseeing helicopter that passes above a rainforest could call itself "eco-" simply because it's outdoorsy and adventurous. For years, it's been left to the travelers to determine the true "eco-ness" of any given resort.

But that may soon change. Organizations such as the International Ecotourism Society and the Rainforest Alliance are working to launch a global accreditation body. Called the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council, this group is part of the Marrakech Process, a United Nations-led initiative to promote sustainable production and consumption. The goal of the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council is a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval"-type certification. Resorts would apply for accreditation and certification based on criteria such as sustainability, conservation, cultural inclusion and other tenets of the eco movement.

Despite some bumps in the industry's evolution, the future for ecotourism is bright. Popular culture has begun to embrace the green movement. There is a broad desire, as David Krantz noted, to travel in an environmentally-responsible manner, and it is growing stronger each year.

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