Pea, mint or lime green?

So many companies now call themselves "eco". How do I know that my money really will go back to the community when travelling in developing countries? Recently in Thailand, every flyer I saw for elephant riding was eco-something or other. Can I trust what the flyers say or do tour operators just add this word to their advertising to entice people to pick them?

- A. Mari, Randwick.

"Eco" is one of the buzzwords of the tourism industry. It's an appendage that makes people feel a little more comfortable, whether they're booking a trek in Nepal or an off-road, four-wheel-drive tour through a national park. Anyone can use the word, no certification required, so "eco" has lost its currency, just like the term "free-range eggs".

However, just as there are "free-range eggs" and free-range eggs, there are some truly outstanding ecotourism operators who work hard to ensure that theirs is a light footfall on mother earth. And although "ecotourism" can have a negative impact, in many cases it offers a lesser social and ecological impact than many alternative sources of income, such as timber logging. At the very least, it keeps those elephants in the forest rather than roaming the dangerous streets of Bangkok with their owners, hustling for tips.

It's not too hard to find operators who really do live up to the "eco" tag if you ask a few questions and bring your own discriminating intelligence to help you decide which firm truly deserves your patronage.