"The word eco has been hijacked," says Hitesh Mehta, an eco-lodge expert with EDSA, a landscape architecture firm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Like organic food, yoga, and feng shui before it, ecotourism has entered the realm of the lucrative fad, where exploitation is inevitable. Rising gas prices have made people think more about dwindling resources, and last year's hurricanes drew more attention to global warming. "There's a lot more awareness about the effect our lifestyles are having on our environment," Mehta says. "People are becoming more conscious about it."

In some ways, though, the ecotourism movement got started accidentally. "There are a lot of people who are interested in this idea of being close to nature but with a little more comfort than traditional camping," says Stanley Selengut, whose Maho Bay resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands helped pioneer the eco-lodge concept in the late 1960s. He developed the property ecologically because a local park ranger convinced him that doing otherwise would cause erosion that could ruin the area's snorkeling. He didn't realize there was a market for it until years later, when a travel article drew about 3,000 inquiries. With rates starting at $75, Maho Bay is affordable as well as comfortable, but many of today's lodges are high-end operations. Swatting at tsetse flies in a cramped hut or tent is no longer the norm. Rooms often cost several hundred dollars per night -- serious cash to drop on a vacation if you're not sure it's being well spent.

Unlike shopping for organic groceries, where the packages are clearly labeled and products are regulated by the government, shopping for an eco-lodge requires more legwork. (See "How to Find a Great Eco-Lodge, left.") Don't hold out for some kind of certification: Martha Honey, executive director of the International Ecotourism Society, says a globally recognized certification is still years away. In the meantime, all we have are guidelines.

A true eco-lodge has three basic elements, Mehta says: It protects the environment, benefits local communities, and helps guests learn about the local surroundings while they explore them.

Beyond that, eco can exist at lots of levels. Like a shopper choosing between the "100% Organic" snack and the one "Made With Organic Ingredients," an eco-tourist has to decide on an acceptable shade of green. Are you comfortable paying top dollar even if it means being potty-trained by a composting-toilet instructor? Will you be angry if you have to forfeit lobster because it's on the local endangered species list? Will you cross a place off your list if they wash towels only once a week?

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