How the Travel Industry Can Do Its Part in the Fight Against Racism

One of the first features I wrote about the subject of race and racism in the travel industry, a travel executive reached out to me to ask me who or what had made me so angry to write the piece. As a brown woman of color, he was essentially inferring that I was an “angry brown woman,” a stereotype that has long been used to highlight women of color who discuss controversial topics such as racism.

To say that I wasn’t surprised by his reaction is accurate. The travel industry tends to think of itself as a space of leisure, fun, and escape where such things like racism are left behind for good times. The problem is, for black individuals and 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 the travel industry’s responsibility to do something about it.

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I can showcase the pervasiveness of racism in the travel industry through study after study, through anecdotes of racial attacks on planes and racial biases in hotels or cruises. I can provide interviews with black men and women and people of color who share stories of harassment in various destinations, even those by travel agents like Alfred W. who told me, “I get looks all the time when I travel. I’m a 6′ 6″ 270 lbs. black male and 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’ve provided travelers of color, travel agents of color, and travel industry leaders of color a space to share their experiences through my articles, 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 do their part to fight racism.

The travel industry is trying to rebuild their companies after a devastating blow from the pandemic, making it the most opportune time to reevaluate how the travel industry has done business in the past, and creatively work toward a future in which the travel industry can be better.

I don’t have all the answers, but whether you’re a travel agent, 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 the travel industry can fight racism.

Recognize 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.

I once asked a group of travel agents: “How do you best serve travelers of color? How could you serve them better if you’ve yet to try to connect with them?”

The responses I received were eye-opening and I wrote about them in an article: “Many agents were uncomfortable with the question, stating things like, ‘My agency doesn’t base service on a particular ‘color,’ we service everyone.’ Others, in some form or another, said 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. Some agents turned it around on me, claiming I was biased and my question inappropriate.”

The clear discomfort that these travel agents had speaking about race only highlighted 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 is no longer overt, such as in the 1950s when hotels refused 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.

PHOTO: Women going through airport security. (photo via E+ / vm)

You can inform yourself as to what racism looks like in the travel industry by reading articles and studies related to racism on TravelPulse and other outlets, 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.”

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 episode 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 create an environment in 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 are minimal.

Diversify Your Travel Company

One of the most effective ways the travel industry can fight racism is to diversify their staff and employ people of color at the highest levels of that company.

I had the opportunity to speak with Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, who 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.”

Sheila Johnson is the CEO and Founder of a luxury hotel management property chain, Salamander Hotels & Resorts. (photo via Sheila Johnson)

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.

Grandparents and granddaughter on vacation. (photo via E+ / FG Trade)

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 black families traveling, solo Muslim 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.

Employees work together in a meeting. (photo via E+ / Cecilie_Arcurs)

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 and through groups that uplift people of color. And 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?

Speak Up

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’m amazed at what travel companies will do to help their customers. I’ve seen airport employees search planes for lost stuffed toys to bring joy to a child, travel agents 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 want to see that same enthusiasm, creative thinking, 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.

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