Image: Alaska's Alsek River
Alamy  /  Alamy
Tourism outfitter Mountain Travel Sobek of Emeryville, Calif., provides professionally guided tours through the glacier-studded Alsek River.
updated 5/12/2010 10:14:36 AM ET 2010-05-12T14:14:36

It's springtime and early bird travelers aren't waiting for summer deals to hit the road. Though flying hasn't become less harmful to the environment, you may be able to minimize your carbon footprint by taking a "green" vacation.

Ecotourism has made its mark worldwide as a popular way to see the sights without leaving a trace. Such tourism could grow to 25 percent of the global travel market within six years and account for $470 billion a year in revenues, according to The International Ecotourism Society.

"Ecotourism tries not only to minimize the negative impact of travel but to maximize the positive impact," says Ayako Ezaki of The International Ecotourism Society. "We all know travel experiences are rewarding for people who take the trips. At the same time we try to give back to the destinations and the people who make these experiences possible."

Ecotourism is defined by The International Ecotourism Society as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well being of local people. It's often tourism that focuses on the outdoors and gets you out of your hotel room.

For Forbes' list of the best ecotourism destinations, we chose spots that meet three criteria: All tourism providers or locations respect local wildlife, employ local staff and focus on the outdoors with minimal impact to the natural environment.

These resorts cater to a variety of budgets. On the pricey end, the Misool Eco Resort on a private island near Papua, Indonesia, offers a cabin right on the water for $2,200 per person for seven nights, including meals.

That doesn't include fees for diving excursions or the airfare to get to Indonesia. (Even if you can't afford to go, check out the Web site for some stunning photos and a place to daydream about.)

For smaller budgets, a kayaking excursion in one of the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California will set you back just $175.

In general, ecotourists lean toward budget travel. American ecotourists spend $66 per day on travel outside the U.S., compared with $88 for Americans engaging in traditional travel options, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization.

Image:Compass Cay, Bahamas
Courtesy of
At Compass Cay, a private island in the Bahamas, owner Tucker Rolle watches over a school of nurse sharks that are friendly enough to pet and feed. Guests can swim with the sharks or touch them from the dock as they poke their noses out of water.

Companies at the forefront of ecotourism are designing trips that introduce visitors to native tribes, donate a portion of trip profits to conservation groups or serve locally sourced organic meals.

Most ecotourism companies offer the same amenities as normal tour operators and often provide a more immersive travel experience. Mountain Sobek Travel will have you floating alongside glaciers in Alaska. Trucker Rolle, who owns an island in the Bahamas, will let you pet, feed or even swim with nurse sharks that hang out around his dock.

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