Context Travel Honors SPI and Shares its Mission of Sustainability

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Guest Blog Post by Context Travel's Paul Bennett

These past holidays, Context Travel honored SPI with its annual charitable gift. Context Travel is a travel company dedicated to sustainable solutions that preserve our shared global heritage for future generations. Our thanks goes out to Context for that honor and please read on to hear about another dynamic, growing organization interested in saving sites and transforming lives.

Sustaining Cities the Context Way

by Paul Bennett

In the mid 1990s I wrote an article for National Geographic Adventure about “ecotourism.” At that time, the concept of sustainability and sustainable travel—a broader, more inclusive idea that included consideration of cultural preservation and local communities—was nascent. The focus was on nature and fragile ecosystems. My piece zeroed in on an ecolodge deep in the Amazon jungle that was doing some interesting things with the local indigenous tribe. But, it was an ecolodge nonetheless. Everyone assumed that sustainable travel was about nature.

We’ve come a long way since then. I’ve moved on out of journalism (for the most part) to run my own travel company that considers sustainability a critical part of our mission. We don’t do nature.

Context is an urban walking tour company. We have bases in five cities (Philadelphia, London, Paris, Rome, and Istanbul) and run walks in 16 more, including Barcelona, Beijing, Boston and a bunch in between (not all beginning with B). When we first started out ten years ago we considered ourselves a rogue: Instead of employing guides, we’d work with scholars. Instead of leading huge groups, we’d limit ours to six. Instead of doing tours at all, we’d do something we called “walking seminars,” an in-depth alternative.

We still consider ourselves outsiders to the travel industry, which is partly why we’ve gravitated towards a sustainable approach. Everyone in our organization—from our nine full-time staff to the 300+ docent-scholars who lead our walks—care deeply about the cities where we live and work; and none of us want to be involved in anything that compromises their cultural integrity or human fabric.

But tourism is a compromise. There’s no way around it. Every year millions of tourists traipse through the fragile archaeological monuments of Rome or Istanbul, putting far more pressure on the physical infrastructure than local administrations can handle. But, there’s more to the story than the constant struggle to preserve and conserve the great monuments and artworks of Paris, Berlin, or Naples. As the tourism industry grows—and this year the industry outpaced global GDP—surpassing the automotive to become one of the largest industries on the planet, huge crowds also impact the local culture of these great places.

Take Venice, for example. On a given day in Piazza San Marco, when up to 5 or 6 enormous cruise ships can match the city’s entire population (60k), it can be hard to even see the paving on the ground, much less to connect with the piazza’s great history and cultural importance. The Piazza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; yet one learns more about tourism dynamics here than about Venice and its role in world history.

Against this backdrop, we decided to take action and started a sustainable travel initiative in 2007. Part of this program was a simple “greening up” of our business. We went through a popular sustainable travel accrediting scheme, and improved our carbon footprint, offsetting, and recycling. More significantly, we looked closely at our message to our clients, 10,000 of whom take walks each year. We invested in docent training on ways to engage these travelers around conservation and preservation, by making the lasting preservation of a site—or the struggle to preserve it—part of our teaching narrative. And we armed our docents with a set of sustainable recommendations for locally owned restaurants and shops.

We also started the Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel, a 501-c3 charitable organization, which invests in projects. We focus on two main areas: projects that mitigate the negative effects of tourism in our cities and projects to boost the positive impact of travel on society at large.

Over the past five years, we have invested in or run a wide range of projects related to the first set. These have included special visits to sites like the Stanton Street Shul on the Lower East Side of Manhattan or to the Chapel des petits augustin in Paris to raise money for their restoration. Our longest program—and the one that I’m personally most proud of—is an apprenticeship program that places young artisans in the workshops of older, establish artisans in Florence. The aim of this program is to help sustain those established workshops—some of which have been in business for hundreds of years—in the face of a changing economic landscape, fueled by tourism, in which it’s increasingly hard for artisans to find apprentices. Partial funding for this comes from an artisans walking tour that we run in Florence.

The Context Foundation’s biggest program, now entering its sixth year, is the Transforming Youth Through Travel scholarship that we cooked up with St. Hope Public Schools in Sacramento, California. Each year, as part of this project, we send 1 or 2 high-achieving inner-city students to Europe for a 10-day cultural boot camp. We send them on walking seminar after walking seminar, engaging them with Ph.D.-level scholars for one of the most in-depth learning experiences out there and a life-changing adventure. The best evidence is the kids themselves, who produce pretty amazing projects about the trip, and then share these projects with their community back home. For most of these kids this is the first time we’ve left California, never mind the U.S.

In the end, our impact is small. We’re a tiny organization, and the Foundation runs on a shoestring. Yet, however incremental our work may be, it fits strongly with a love of the world’s cultural capitals and a recognition that if we stand by and do nothing they will literally drown in bus tours and tourist menus.