History and Mission of the Foundation
The Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel was started by Context Travel, an organization of scholars and specialists who design walking seminars for culturally-curious travelers. A commercial enterprise, Context presently operates in over 30 destinations around the world.
Through its work around the globe, the Context team became sensitized to the key role that tourism plays in local economies. With the exception of Naples (which is beset by its own, unique set of problems) tourism is the main industry in most of these cities, driving the economy and decisions of local government and influencing the lives of residents. At the same time, tourism—specifically, mass tourism—has introduced a number of new problems and now threatens to transform or diminish the qualities that have made them so unique over the centuries.
The problems are as unique as the cities themselves. In Venice and Florence, for example, a certain kind of “slash and burn” tourism has pushed residents out of the center, making these cities in some respects less authentic and more touristic than they were previously. In Paris, mass tourism has skewed the federal preservation agenda to favor the most popular sights at the expense of a host of “forgotten monuments” that are literally crumbling before our eyes. In Rome, major monuments like the Colosseum or Vatican are so overcrowded that not only does one fear for their physical security but their meaning—once so powerful, so fundamental to the Western mind—becomes compromised.
The Context Foundation is dedicated to mitigating these negative effects of tourism by searching out local initiatives that counteract them. Sometimes this involves championing and drawing attention to lesser monuments; sometimes it involves helping the local community adapt to the changes wrought by tourism; and sometimes it means simply fighting those changes altogether.
From its vantage point as mediator between visiting clients and host destinations, Context has the enviable position of witnessing the transformative effects enjoyed by each. In order to ensure that these benefits are shared broadly, the Foundation invests in a project that extends the transformative and educational impact of travel by making it available to a wider population, such as inner-city youths.
To learn more about what we do, take a look at our programs.
Context Travel – Our Sponsor
Context was founded on principles of deep travel and sustainable tourism. Our walks are small groups of only 6 people max and are designed to venture off the beaten path. We always encourage our clients to visit local businesses and eat in authentic restaurants. And we always contend that the soul of the traveler is important to the city: If an American comes to Rome or Paris, 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 panel on geotourism and evaluate the sustainability of cities and tourism destinations, we began to get even more interested in the international “sustainable tourism” movement. We honed 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.
In 2011 we were suggested by Untours to go through certification for becoming a B Corp, a new kind of business committed and held accountable to success on a level more important than finance. We have been a proud and active B Corp ever since.
Context Travel’s sustainability program has three main components:
- Reducing and mitigating the environmental footprint of our office and our programs.
- Controlling the social and economic impact of our programs.
- Giving back to the cities where we operate.
We approach our environmental impact from two perspectives. The first concerns our offices and the daily operations of our staff. 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 usually use the train system. When public transport isn’t feasible, we participate in a carbon-offset program.
Using carbon calculators developed by Terrapass and The Conservation Fund, we estimate that our offices produce about 11.78 tons of carbon each year, including plane travel for our staff moving between our global destinations. We offset this with an annual contribution to a carbon-offset program overseen by Sustainable Tourism International (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.
Social and 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 and avoiding over-crowded spaces like the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum. Thus, we find ourselves in intimate groups in intimate settings getting much more contact with our host destination.
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 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. We involve the docents in ongoing discussions around these topics and educate them on their role in inspiring and influencing their guests.
Investment in Cultural Heritage
The last component involves donating part of our profits to the Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel, a U.S.-based 501 c.3. 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. 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.
Read more about our cultural heritage projects past and present.
Learn about the international Sustainable Tourism movement.