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Context, the small picture

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Context operates according to the principles of sustainable tourism—that is, we aim to tread lightly on the places where we operate and to contribute to the well being of the cities we love.

How do we do this? Well, for one, we keep our group sizes very small (6 people max) and design our itineraries to venture off the beaten path. We see our mission as connecting our customers to the city and giving them a deep experience of place. Part of this extends beyond the tour itself: As a rule, we encourage our clients to visit local businesses and eat in authentic restaurants.  At Context, we consider that the soul of the traveler is important to the city: If an American comes to Rome or Paris, say, and is moved on a fundamental level by the cultural heritage here, then he or she will become a defender of that cultural heritage. An educated, impassioned tourist can be a powerful advocate.

After the National Geographic Society asked Context founder Paul Bennett to join their geotourism rating panel in the early 2000s, we began to get a lot more interested in the international “sustainable tourism” movement. Eventually, we started honing our general philosophy into something more articulate and coherent—a vision to make our business truly sustainable, so that we can protect the places that we love while enhancing the experience of the people we serve.

Our sustainable program has three main components:

  1. Reducing and mitigating the environmental footprint of our office and our programs.
  2. Controlling the social and economic impact of our programs.
  3. Giving back to the cities where we operate.


Environmental Impact

Greening Context involves two separate initiatives. The first concerns our offices and the daily operations of our staff. Our offices are quite small, comprising a mere 550 square feet of space between three locations in the U.S., Rome and Paris. In each office we recycle waste, use recycled goods, and bike or use mass transit to commute.

Next, we look at our programs. The majority of our seminars are organized as walking tours. When forced to go farther afield on an excursion we use public transit include subways, trains, public boats, and even bicycles occasionally. If there's a way to get around a high-carbon option we exploit it.

Beyond this, we participate in a carbon-offset program. Using a carbon calculator developed by Sustainable Travel International (STI), we estimate that our offices produce about 11.78 tons of carbon each year, including plane travel for our staff moving between our offices in Europe and the United States. We offset this with an annual contribution to a carbon-offset program overseen by STI, a non-profit organization that coordinates research and projects in sustainable tourism (and of which Context is a member).

We also measure how much carbon any of our car-assisted itineraries and car transfers produce, and offset these twice yearly. The cost of this offset is included in our prices. Read more in our FAQs.


Social & Economic Impact

In order to manage our impact on the social and economic fabric of our cities, we generally follow the guidelines of the Sustainable Tourism Initiative and the National Geographic Society’s Geotourism Charter. Specifically, we approach this issue from two directions.

Firstly, we look for ways that we can shape our programs so that they have a minimal footprint on the city. This includes dividing large groups into smaller subgroups and avoiding overcrowded spaces like the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum, except when absolutely necessary. Thus, we find ourselves in intimate groups in intimate settings, whether it’s strolling through a hidden quarter of Paris or sitting down for a salad at a mom-and-pop trattoria in Naples.

This has an obvious economic effect: Instead of directing the spending power of our clients towards touristy chains that have a negative effect on the city, we help them to invest in the health of small enterprises and the living fabric of the place. We also believe that this fosters a great rapport between the host (the local business owner) and the visitor, instead of alienating the one from the other as so often happens in crowded tourist zones. (For a clear example of the enervating effect of tourism economics on a place, spend some time watching the fake gladiators extorting tourists outside of the Colosseum.)

The second tack we take is to include some amount of discussion about the traveler’s role in the social and economic life of the host city into every itinerary we run. This is an uneven and haphazard element of what we do. Since our docents don’t follow a script and work independently to develop their own narrative experience of these cities, the amount of time spent talking about preserving the social fabric of Paris or encouraging our clients to venture outside the Centro Storico in Florence can vary a lot. We distribute copies of
the National Geographic Society’s Geotourism Principles to our clients along with a copy of our own, in-house “Six Steps to Being a Responsible Visitor” document as part of our orientation guidebooks.


Investment in Cultural Heritage

The last component of our sustainable tourism program involvesdonating part of our profits to the Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel, a U.S.-based 501 c.3 charity that invests projects that mitigate the impact of tourism on the seven cities where Context Travel operates. We also encourage our clients to donate to the Foundation as part of their travel experience.

The Context Foundation looks at both the negative and positive aspects of travel, aiming to mitigate the former in enhance the latter. Projects that mitigate the negative effects of travel fall into three project areas: research on tourism and its effects, cultural preservation projects, and economic development to offset the impact of tourism. The Foundation also invests in projects that seek to broaden and enhance the transformative and educational impact of travel by making it available to populations, such as inner-city youths. In 2007-8, the Context Foundation earmarked five projects for support:

  • An apprenticeship program for the artisans of the Oltrarno neighborhood of Florence. Economic changes in Florence fueled by the tremendous rise of mass tourism have put serious pressure on the silversmiths, wood-workers, paper makers, and other traditional craftsmen who have defined the Oltrarno as a center of Italian artisanship for more than a century. In conversations with many of these artisans, with whom Context Travel works as part of their walking seminars there, we discovered that the artisans are facing tremendous difficulties in keeping their businesses viable; and there is a very real threat that in a couple of years few traditional crafts-men will continue to practice in Florence. A major problem for these artisans is their ability to attract and retain apprentices who can learn these crafts and eventually become masters in their own right. The artisans simply can’t compete with global companies, including the tour companies, as employers in Florence. The Context Foundation, in response, has set up a fund to help offset the cost of employing these apprentices. We will begin with a single shop—the Bini Brothers woodworkers, who have resided in Piazza Santo Spirito for more than 100 years. We hope to grow and develop this support for more artisans over the coming years, though it is a race against time.
  • Study of the effects of tourism on Venice. As any traveler to Venice knows, tourism has a major impact there, both on the environment and on its social fabric. To the first point, wake from cruise ships, daunting garbage management issues, and pollution of various types have had a serious impact on a city that is already in a fragile state. To the second point, as tourists and tourism-focused enterprises crowd out the Venetian population, the city is losing population at a tremendous rate. Venice as we know it—as it’s been known for 1000 years—is facing serious challenges. Teaming up with the UK charity Venice in Peril, we are financing a major study of the effect of tourism on Venice by noted ecologist, Venice resident, and Context Travel docent Jane da Mosto, which promises to bring into full relief the challenges facing this city and chart a roadmap for its preservation.
  • Restoration of La Chapelle des Petits-Augustins, Paris. La Chapelle des Petits-Augustins at the Ecole des Beaux Arts is important to the study of French art, for it was here (at the Ecole) that most of France’s greatest painters studied, and the chapel became a kind of repository for their studies–mostly of Italian art, of which it is filled with scale copies. The chapel stands in great need of restoration, which the Foundation helps fund through special visits.
  • Travel fellowship for economically disadvantaged youths Working with the innovative St. HOPE, which has transformed the inner-city community of Oak Park, Sacramento and established a new standard for public education and economic revitalization of urban communities in the U.S., we sponsor a yearly travel fellowship for a high-achieving student. The fellowship includes travel and accommodations in Europe, plus a study trip with the scholars in the Context network. The program is intensive and includes several days of seminars, classes, workshops, and other programs, capped by a writing project. In 2010 with the award of the National Geographic Geotourism award, we have expanded the fellowship to include two students and to last 2 weeks with stays in both Rome and Paris.

The Foundation will continue to investigate new projects that fit its mission in other cities–namely, London, New York, and Naples.


Resources & Notes

  • The World Tourism Organization (WTO) is the UN agency for
    tourism. They produce some of the best reports on tourism economics and
    also advocate for tourism as a tool for economic development. The
    numbers cited here are drawn from their published statistics.
  • Sustainable Tourism International is an American non-profit
    that provides education and outreach services that will lessen the toll
    that travel and tourism takes on the environment and local cultures.
    STI’s blend of environmental and cultural sustainability was very
    influential in our thinking.
  • National Geographic’s Geotourism program was also quite
    important to us and serves an important blueprint for travelers and
    travel businesses alike.
  • Treehugger, a great resource for environmental
    sustainability, published a good report on carbon offset programs,
    which influenced the course of our program.


Carbon Footprint of Context Operations

Air Travel tons C02
short flights between Rome & Paris (6797 miles annually) . . . 1.84
long flights between US & Europe (34857 miles annually) . . . 6.8
Other Transport
Subways (6400 miles annually)
Trains (3200 miles annually)
Buses (1000 miles annually)
Cars (0 miles annually)
Total 2.14 tons CO2

lights & heat 1 ton CO2 annually

Total Carbon: 11.78 tons

Note on Calculations: There are many carbon calculators available today through a variety of environmental groups. We chose to use an amalgam of two calculators developed by Terrapass and The Conservation Fund.


National Geographic Society’s Geotourism Program

Context has modeled its Sustainable Travel Program in part on the National Geographic Society’s Geotourism program. Context founder Paul Bennett sits on the Society’s panel for sustainable tourism and is a contributor to both National Geographic and National Geographic Adventure. The following is taken from NGS’s geotourism website:

About Geotourism

Geotourism is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents. Geotourism incorporates the concept of sustainable tourism—that destinations should remain unspoiled for future generations—while allowing for enhancement that protects the character of the locale. Geotourism also adopts a principle from its cousin, ecotourism, that tourism revenue can promote conservation, and extends that principle beyond nature travel to encompass culture and history as well: all distinctive assets of a place.

What is Sustainable Tourism?

Sustainable tourism, like a doctor’s code of ethics, means “First, do no harm.” It is basic to good destination stewardship.

Sustainable tourism does not abuse its product—the destination. It seeks to avoid the “loved to death” syndrome. Businesses and other stakeholders anticipate development pressures and apply limits and management techniques that sustain natural habitats, heritage sites, scenic appeal, and local culture. It conserves resources. Environmentally aware travelers favor businesses that minimize pollution, waste, energy consumption, water usage, landscaping chemicals, and excessive nighttime lighting. It respects local culture and tradition. Foreign visitors learn about and observe local etiquette, including using at least a few courtesy words in the local language. Residents learn how to deal with foreign expectations that may differ from their own.

It aims for quality, not quantity. Communities measure tourism success not by sheer numbers of visitors, but by length of stay, distribution of money spent, and quality of experience.

What is Geotourism?

Geotourism adds to sustainability principles by building on geographical character—”sense of place”—to create a type of tourism that emphasizes the distinctiveness of its locale, and that benefits visitor and resident alike.

Geotourism is synergistic: All the elements of geographical character together create a tourist experience that is richer than the sum of its parts, appealing to visitors with diverse interests.

It involves the community. Local businesses and civic groups work together to promote and provide a distinctive, authentic visitor experience.

It informs both visitors and hosts. Residents discover their own heritage and how the ordinary and familiar may be of interest to outsiders. As local people develop pride and skill in showing off their locale, tourists get more out of their visit.

It benefits residents economically. Travel businesses do their best to use the local workforce, services, and products and supplies. When the community understands the beneficial role of geotourism, it becomes an incentive for wise destination stewardship.

It supports integrity of place. Destination-savvy travelers seek out businesses that emphasize the character of the locale. Tourism revenues in turn raise local perceived value of those assets.

It means great trips. Enthusiastic visitors bring new knowledge home, telling stories that send friends and relatives off to experience the same thing—a continuing business for the destination.

Reprinted with permission of the National Geographic Society