Aspen Times Weekly: Scholar-led tours for the intellectually curious traveler
November 11, 2015
In 2003, after 14,000 miles of travel through 20 countries, National Geographic writer Paul Bennett and his graphic designer partner Lani Bevacqua started a company called Context Travel, an immersive, high-quality walking tour experience in cultural capitals around the world.
"I don't care about the airplanes or hotels," says Bennett in a call from Context's U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia. "It's great if you can spend $1,000 a night in Bora Bora, but I'm not there to sit in a hotel, I'm there to experience the place."
When he found himself in cities and wanted to know more about its history and culture, the last thing Bennett wanted to do was to embark on a traditional sightseeing tour.
"If there is anything I hate it's a big group of people led by someone talking into a microphone, telling bad jokes, telling me nothing. I can't pay attention and I'm not interested," says Bennett. "It goes back to my journalist roots. What I want to find is that local source who is really an expert. I want the professor. I want to know what life is like there. I want a shop owner, with lifelong expertise in that topic to take me on a narrative journey. I want this person to make the city come alive and be immersed in a fantastic experience."
So he and Lani developed a unique offering of walking "seminars" led by "docents," which are not tour guides, but scholar guides with doctorate, master's or other terminal degrees in their fields of study. With Context Travel walking tours, when in Rome you may want to learn about the Colosseum with a scholar of archaeology, or uncover the fashion history of Paris with an art or fashion historian. Its two-to-three-hour tours are tailored to specific interests, led in small groups no larger than six people, or private groups. After expanding into South American, Asian and Australian cities in 2015, Context can now be found in 35 cities around the world, with 1,000 docents in their network.
A certified B Corporation, the company follows the guidelines of the Sustainable Tourism Initiative and the National Geographic Society's Geotourism Charter, and donates part of its profits to the Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel (Deep Travel), a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) charity that invests in projects that mitigate the impact of tourism on the cities where Context Travel operates.
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"We're talking to a very specific segment of traveler who are migrating from old-fashioned altruism, to a much more impactful type of tourism," he says. "They are getting more sophisticated about travel than they were 20 to 30 years ago. People travel a lot, and it's a big part of leisure time and expense each year. There are a certain set of travelers who value the experience above all else and those are very much what our business is geared towards."
This minimal impact approach is also why Context groups are so small, hoping to avoid overcrowded and overcrowding spaces and leaving behind a minimal footprint on the cities in which they operate.
"We are not the only walking tour out there, but we're probably the best," says Bennett.
Amiee White Beazley writes about travel for the Aspen Times Weekly. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @awbeazley1.