Tourism’s Rebound Depends On One Thing: Inclusivity
The TSS Earnslaw, a 1912 Edwardian vintage twin screw steamer, arrives back to the pier after taking passengers on a cruise of Lake Wakatipu, in Queenstown, New Zealand. (Photographer: Mark Coote/Bloomberg)

Tourism’s Rebound Depends On One Thing: Inclusivity

Years ago, during my time as a travel editor for a major newspaper, I was nearly always the darkest person wherever I journeyed. Luxury hotels and remote destinations are places for the 1 Percent—therefore, mostly Whites. Even in lower-key locales, I was struck by the lack of diversity among both travelers and the people catering to them. 

It’s not just anecdotal. A prominent study by Mandala Research of 1,700 Black travelers found that they spent $63 billion in 2018 (compared to $48 billion in 2010), while perceiving racial profiling as a greater threat than airport hassles or terrorism; 13% fear for their safety in less-diverse destinations. No wonder more than half of Black travelers limited vacations to within a 150-mile radius of home. 

Especially in the luxury sector, Black Americans are vastly underrepresented. The average American spends $1,979 on each trip; Black travelers spend $2,078. Yet only 2.6% of tourism ads feature Black people, according to Travel Noire, a travel planning and destination-marketing agency targeting the segment. 

In the wake of the pandemic, tourism’s rebound will depend on its ability to tap—and safely serve—every available demographic. Catering to communities of color will become not just a moral imperative but an economic one. 

Marketing Matters

Tourism’s Rebound Depends On One Thing: Inclusivity

A two-pronged solution can begin to untangle travel’s race problem: Target and serve the needs of Black travelers more directly, while simultaneously harnessing the power of the travel industry to better support Black businesses. Together, these can create a virtuous cycle. 

Anything less maintains a sub-par status quo. Small ranks of Black international travelers currently mean there haven’t been enough consumers holding the industry accountable for its poor professional representation, such as the fact that only 3% of commercial pilots are Black. Even domestically, only 2% of hotels are Black-owned. Beyond that, the already small number of Black executives, such as former Holland America Line President Orlando Ashford, has been whittled down in the wake of pandemic-related layoffs.

Yet, even while travel remains on hold, tourism companies can step up by highlighting the voices and faces of Black travelers.

Take Visit Philadelphia, a leader in diversity marketing. The tourism board for the City of Brotherly Love committed years ago to more inclusive advertising and social media campaigns by launching a five-part video series specifically targeting Black travelers

On July 21, Louisville Tourism announced the formation of a Black Tourism Advisory Council, as well as external audits of diversity in its promotional materials. The city has been a focal point of Black Lives Matter protests following the shooting death of Breonna Taylor and the fatal shooting of beloved local restaurateur David McAtee during the riots the ensued. 

Currently, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule.

“We aren’t marketed to, we aren’t being catered to, despite the billions of dollars at our disposal,” agrees Demetrius Walker, co-founder of the Black Travel Club, a three-year old tour operator that works almost exclusively with Black-owned companies on the ground. This lack of focus simply reinforces the false notion that Black consumers aren’t a desirable or profitable travel market.

Taking a Personal Stake

Tourism’s Rebound Depends On One Thing: Inclusivity

Influential travel blogger Jessica Nabongo has shared all-too-common tales of experiences Black travelers endure, such as being mistaken for a travel industry employee or “the help.” It happened first when she was sitting in first class on an airplane and again when someone thought she was a hotel valet at a travel conference. Black doctors have been publicly humiliated on airlines when cabin crew refused to believe they were physicians during in-flight medical emergencies.

 “It’s not enough to just talk about not being racist; you need to be actively anti-racist,” said Martina Jones Johnson, a founder of the Black Travel Alliance (BTA). “We must hold organizations accountable in their allyship.” 

Until more cohesive, industry-wide solutions emerge, here are three ways to deliberately use your voice and your dollars while exploring the world.

Supporting Black businesses:  There has yet to be anything resembling the 15% pledge for the travel industry, but you can attempt one yourself the next time you feel comfortable going on the road.

In June, the BTA created a “Black Travel Scorecard” to hold companies accountable and to help consumers make data-driven choices about where and how to deploy their dollars. It aggregates information shared publicly by companies that relates to Black employment, marketing representation, and philanthropy—making it similar in spirit to the Human Rights Campaign’s LGBT-focused Corporate Equality Index.

According to the still-nascent scorecard, Spirit Airlines has pledged $250,000 to civil and human rights organizations; the Bermuda Tourism Authority has a board that’s 66% Black; and Airbnb has partnered with the NAACP to help communities of color become participants in the lucrative sharing economy. (Airbnb has been accused of fostering a racist culture.)

When deciding on hotels, prioritize independent resorts, which are more likely to be owned by locals than major chain hotels. Then seek out on-the-ground operators that showcase local Black culture as fundamental to a destination’s history, music, and art. Some, such as Experience Real Cartagena and African Lisbon Tours, can be found via the BTA. You can also use the same resources when you travel that you’ve been using to be a better ally at home. Apps such as EatOkra highlight Black-owned restaurants, and such city-specific social media accounts as @blackownedbklyn in Brooklyn or Toronto’s are especially helpful.

Tourism’s Rebound Depends On One Thing: Inclusivity

Choosing Black-friendly destinations: Many Black travelers vet their destinations carefully to avoid discrimination. Allies should do the same. Countries that are champions of inclusivity are often featured by Black travel companies: Travel Noire, for instance, offers city guides and other planning resources. When visiting destinations with colonial history, make additional efforts to learn about the contributions and challenges of under-represented and overlooked communities. 

Walker notes that many travelers presume Black-owned hotels and Black-friendly destinations to be less luxurious—a bias he says is thankfully fading. Take Grenada, for example: The island nation reopened its borders only to private jet travel, and it claims some of the Caribbean’s most exclusive hotels. Several, such as the $800-a-night Spice Island Beach Resort, happen to be Black-owned and can be reached (during normal times) via the primarily Black-owned Air Jamaica.

Tourism’s Rebound Depends On One Thing: Inclusivity

Listen to—and speak up for—your Black friends: Walker adds that asking Black friends or colleagues about their travel habits can help tap into community experiences while creating much-needed dialogue at this moment of racial reconciliation. The process can be as simple as asking colleagues where they took their families last year for vacation or perhaps, where they dream of traveling next. “This is a moment to organize and share information—both with allies and amongst ourselves,” he explains.

Finally, if you experience or witness racism during a trip, speak up and let the operator—and perhaps other travelers—know how you feel. Combating racism is certainly about corporate responsibility, but it’s also about being a responsible consumer.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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