Short answer: Community-based ecotourism refers to lodges and tourism attractions that are owned by grassroots community conservation organizations. In these communities, tourism helps to conserve tropical forests, preserves local culture rather than destroying it, and helps farmers supplement their income so that they can stay on the land.
More background information: When I first came to Costa Rica in 1971, it was easy to experience how the people lived. More recently, in the 1990's, when prospective tourists would ask me to recommend a place where they could see "how the people live", I was hard pressed to think of a community that had not given itself over to tourism in a way that obliterated their traditional way of life. Or else the emphasis was on ecology, and the Ticos were excellent guides, but usually not in their own territory.
The New Key to Costa Rica was the first guidebook to provide a sustainable ecotourism rating (from 1992-2002). We gave our highest rankings to ecotourism lodges that used tourism to protect forests and watersheds, while benefiting their surrounding communities, and preserving local culture. This rating effort was taken over by the Costa Rican government around 1998 and has become the CST (Certification of Sustainable Tourism). Doing our sustainability rating showed me that most of the lodges that received our highest ratings were owned by non-Costa Ricans. So when the Small Grants Program of the Global Environmental Facility started funding rural community conservation organizations to have their own ecolodges, I became very interested.
Now there are numerous rural communities that are proud of their commitment to conservation and willing to share their humble way of life with interested tourists. Visitors come away feeling that they have seen the real Costa Rica that few people see. The people-to-people contact makes a difference in visitors lives and in the lives of those they visit.