This is the first blog I’ve ever written regarding the subject of race and racism in the travel industry. As a woman of color, I see this as my opportunity to reflect and educate instead of being considered as simply an “angry black woman,” – a stereotype that has long been used to highlight women of color who discuss controversial topics such as racism.
Though the travel industry tends to think of itself as a space of leisure, fun, and escape where atrocities such as racism are left behind for fun in the sun and island breezes. The problem lays in that for people of color, escaping racism is not something they can do by taking a vacation. Racism, like in many other sectors of society, has been built into the travel industry, both knowingly and unknowingly. It’s now the travel industry’s responsibility to do something about it.
I can showcase the pervasiveness of racism in the travel industry through anecdotes of racial attacks on planes and racial biases in hotels or on cruise ships. I can provide accounts of black men and women and people of color who share stories of harassment in various destinations, even those by travel professionals like myself. I get looks all the time when I travel. When I enter a room/resort lobby/airplane/restaurant, I see it on some of the faces. You should see the looks of shock I get when I sit down in first-class seating.
I am providing travelers of color, travel professionals of color, and travel industry leaders of color a space to share their experiences through this article, but it has not been enough to dismantle systems of racism in the travel industry. As we watch the Black Lives Movement work to topple racism in our justice and law enforcement systems through protests, it’s a good time to consider how the travel industry can also do it’s part to fight racism as well.
The travel industry is trying to rebuild after a devastating blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, making NOW the most opportune time to reevaluate how the travel industry has done business in the past, and creatively work toward a future in which it can do better.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but whether you’re a travel professional, tour guide, the owner of a hotel or airline company, the captain of a cruise ship, working in travel PR, or a travel employee in between, please read how you can take part in the travel industry’s fight against racism.
The first thing the travel industry must do is recognize racism, and accept that we all have biases and blind spots. I have it, you have it. We all have it. Ask the hard questions and educate yourself on how you can best serve travelers of color? How can you connect with them?
Many travel professionals are uncomfortable with these basic questions, stating, ‘My agency doesn’t base service on a particular ‘color,’ we service everyone.’ Others confess in some manner, that they ‘don’t see color’—a well-meaning response meant to indicate they’re not racist, but inadvertently meaning they don’t recognize that systems of racism exist and that they don’t ‘see’ that the experiences of people of color are different.
The clear discomfort that travel professionals are speaking about race only highlight that people in the travel industry would rather ignore that racism exists in the industry than do something about it. Start by accepting that racism is here; it is in your company and it affects travelers. Don’t ignore it, don’t attack people of color or others who point it out. Sit in those feelings, accept it, and know you’re not alone on this learning journey.
Inform Yourself About Racism in the Travel Industry and Beyond
If we don’t know what racism looks like in the travel industry, how then can we fight it? Racism in the travel industry isn’t always as overt as hotels refusing black travelers a place to stay. Rather, racism has been built into the travel industry through a lack of equal opportunity, travel technology, poorly designed customs and immigration systems, and ignorance about the experiences of people of color.
Inform yourself as to what racism looks like in the travel industry by reading articles and studies related to racism as well as memoirs written by black travelers and travelers of color like Maureen Stone’s “Black Woman Walking” and Amanda Epe’s “Fly Girl“, a memoir written by a black female flight attendant. Consult sites like Travel Noire, a digital media company serving African Diaspora travelers.
Better yet, hire a consultant within the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (D.E.I.) Industry to assist your travel company. They’ll develop courses and sessions about unconscious bias within your company and services. They’re equipped to lead small and large groups on conversations about racism, how to be an ally to people of color, set up systems in place to stop microaggressions that people of color experience within the company, and more.
It Starts From the Top
Dismantling systems of racism and inequality start at the top of a travel company. When travel company owners and CEOs don’t recognize that racism exists, it’s much harder to fight against.
On June 1, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. CEO and chairman Richard Fain sent a message to his employees discussing racism in the travel industry. He pointed out: “Racism is chronic, a condition of the system that has afflicted us for centuries. And like any chronic condition, we can never stop fighting it, or it will overwhelm us.”
Personally, I was glad to see him discuss white privilege and the consequences of racism left unchecked: “At the end of the day, it is still much harder to be a person of color in America than it is to be white. We can go months trying to tell ourselves otherwise; then there is yet another incident like George Floyd’s to remind us of the hard reality.”
Fain noted that Royal Caribbean’s Employee Resource Groups would be leading the way on virtual discussions of racism within the company and that they are “evaluating philanthropic partners who are demonstrating an ability to mobilize for change on this subject.”
As a white male CEO, Fain’s words to his employees creates an environment which promotes conversations of race and racism within the company. This is extremely important: if your company does not discuss racism, the likelihood of the company improving the experiences of black travelers, travelers of color, or black employees and employees of color is minimal.
Diversify Your Travel Company
One of the most effective ways the travel industry can fight racism is to diversify it’s staff and employ people of color at the highest levels of that company.
Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, spoke to this: “As both an African American and a woman – one who came of age in the very heart of the white and male-dominated 1950’s and 60’s – I’ve spent my entire life working and fighting, often against the longest of odds, to gain even the smallest toehold on the American Dream.”
“It is our obligation [as hospitality leaders] to continue to elevate the curious, intelligent, inspiring leaders of the black community and remove the preconceived notion of what that looks like in hospitality.”
She added: “There needs to be a recognition that people of diverse backgrounds bring forth new ideas and experiences and look at life from a different perspective. It is the only way we are going to evolve the industry and make an impact.”
“Change truly starts at the top, and at Salamander Hotels and Resorts, it begins with me.”
More Representation in Sales and Marketing
Look through your marketing materials and travel ads from the past five years: who do you see? Do the people you use in your travel branding look the same? How many people of color are clearly visible? Count them … no, seriously!!
If you want to make your travel company more inclusive of people of color, you must provide visible representation across your sales and marketing plan. Not only does this mean showcasing Muslim families traveling, solo Black travelers, groups of Asian and Latinx friends, and interracial couples on romantic trips, but this also includes hiring writers and editors of color to shape the messages in your ads, social media, branding copy, etc.
Make a Plan to Fight Racism
Travel companies know that the first step to success is a good plan. So, make one to fight racism. It might look like this:
Create an anti-racism committee of diverse employees who will lead the fight against racism within your company and through the services provided to travelers. Have this committee remove racial bias in job descriptions and create policies that allow employees to call out and discuss racial bias and racism in company meetings and policies.
Have them create a mentorship program that helps people of color move up in the ranks of the company. Urge your recruiters and hiring managers to look for diverse candidates, at historically black colleges (HBCUs) and through groups that uplift people of color. Encourage your committee to create opportunities and events for open dialogues and the exchange of new ideas to fight racism.
For small companies or solo entrepreneurs, analyze your travel services. Are they inclusive of diverse groups of people? Does your branding promote unconscious bias? Are you sensitive to the needs to travelers of color or supporting travel companies that fight racism and promote diversity?
If you see racism occur, whether systematically, subtly, or overtly, CALL IT OUT!!!! Bring it to the attention of your managers and human resources department. If you don’t feel like your travel company is doing enough to fight racism, gather coworkers for support and approach management with an idea for a committee against racism.
You have power and you have a voice, even at the lowest levels of a travel company, to fight against racism. It’s up to you who work in the travel industry to fight racism from within so that everyone can enjoy the joys of traveling equally.
To Sum it Up…
I am constantly amazed at what travel companies will do to add value to the experience for their clients. I’ve seen airport employees hunt down lost toys on planes and bring joy to a child in tears, travel professionals move mountains to get their clients a new hotel when the initial one cancels their reservations unexpectedly, and hotel managers craft elaborate surprises to bring cheer to their guests.
I look forward to seeing that same enthusiasm, creative thinking, 5-Star customer service and teamwork among the travel industry to fight racism.
As your employees, company, destination, or industry works hard to make your service or place safe for travelers again after the pandemic, I’d urge you to take on racism now. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not five years in the future. NOW!!!
You can help us fight racism in the travel industry today!!
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