Chaloea Williams doesn’t see anywhere near enough people who look like her in the front offices or advertising of an industry she patronizes heavily.
Williams, an attorney in Boston, is Black and, at 31, has jetted all over the world. African-Americans collectively spend $63 billion a year on travel.
Yet they’re vastly underrepresented in the management ranks of travel companies and the marketing campaigns those companies use to promote themselves. They’ve been discriminated against when booking trips, experienced racism while on them, and avoided altogether destinations they considered unwelcoming.
“I feel taken for granted,” said Williams, who said she spends as much time researching other Black travelers’ experiences of places she visits as she does the best rates and attractions.
Now a formal campaign is pushing travel brands and destination management organizations to stand behind their public expressions of support for racial justice with greater diversity and representation.
“The travel industry should reflect the world it represents,” said Davida Wulff-Vanderpuije, a Black travel writer and founder of the blog Wonders of Wanders. “We all get the same joy from travel. It’s not limited to just one group.”
Black travelers, however, describe very different experiences from white travelers.
When she was the only Black guest on a cruise, Wulff-Vanderpuije recounted, other passengers assumed she was an employee. “I’m not dressed in a uniform, I’m here holding a glass of champagne like you are,” she said. “Why do you assume I’m staff?”
Martina Jones-Johnson, who, with her husband, runs the Instagram account and website That Couple Who Travels, was abroad when a woman approached and, uninvited, started feeling a braid from her hair.
“Sometimes it’s like being treated like a zoo animal,” Jones-Johnson said. “What really got me was when she started patting my face like I was a pet. I think oftentimes people feel like they can do or say whatever they want to Black people, and that just needs to stop.”
Wulff-Vanderpuije, Jones-Johnson, and other Black travel influencers and business owners have formed a new group, the Black Travel Alliance, launched soon after the killing of George Floyd reignited calls for equity. They want travel companies to prove their commitment to it by hiring more Black managers and employees and increasing the numbers of Black speakers at their conferences, journalists on their press trips, and travelers in their advertising.
Less than 3 percent of travel advertising focuses on African-Americans, according to the travel website Travel Noire, even though they make up more than 12 percent of the population and account for 6 percent of travel spending.
“You scroll through their social media and you don’t see Black people in these amazing shots or featured in these articles,” said Chadricks Everette, CEO of Dipaways, which runs group and private tours primarily for Black travelers.
There’s also been outright discrimination. A Harvard study found that travelers with names that sounded Black were 16 percent less likely to get an Airbnb booking in selected cities than travelers with white-sounding names.
“The majority of my travel experiences are positive, and that’s why I continue to travel, and I think that’s the case for most other Black travelers, but yes, we do face biases and discrimination that other travelers don’t face,” Jones-Johnson said.
The Black Travel Alliance has started with a scorecard listing participating travel companies and how they fare in measures of racial equity. More than 60 have responded so far, including Marriott, Airbnb, Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, and a dozen destination management organizations.
Like the Corporate Equality Index, which rates companies based on how they treat gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees, the scorecard is meant to help Black travelers determine where and with whom to spend their money.
Demands for change come at the confluence of two dramatic global trends: renewed attention to the race divide and the desperate need to attract every possible traveler as the sector struggles to recover from pandemic shutdowns.
“The travel industry is on its knees, worldwide,” Wulff-Vanderpuije said. “If it’s looking to rebound, it has to include everyone.”
Black travelers make up a significant and fast-growing market. The $63 billion African-American travelers spent in 2018, according to the firm Mandala Research, was up from $48 billion in 2010, an increase far ahead of the inflation rate.
“That just reveals even more the huge opportunity that the travel industry is missing because they don’t market to Black people,” Jones-Johnson said.
Seventy-two percent of Black millennial travelers in a survey conducted for the marketing company Digitas said they were more likely to book with a brand that acknowledges their racial and ethnic identity, and 80 percent that they are more likely to visit a destination that does.
Twenty-four percent said they’ve experienced discrimination when booking within the last two years, and 29 percent have encountered it while traveling.
“Being a Black person going to some of these places that aren’t Black, it can be scary,” Everette said. “We have enough of those problems at home. We don’t need them on vacation.”
Black travelers avoid some places outright, other research shows. Fear of racial discrimination still discourages African-American tourists from coming to South Carolina, for example, a study conducted at the University of South Carolina found.
All of this has fueled a network of sources such as Facebook groups for Black travelers to share their experiences — and warnings — about particular travel providers and destinations, and a robust industry of group tour companies such as Dipaways catering almost entirely to Black guests.
“They can let down their guard and not feel like they have to cater to anyone other than people who already get them,” Everette said. “They don’t have to feel like they’re always having to do what they’re doing at work all the time, which is being careful that everybody’s happy.”
Among other reasons Black travelers said they rely on social media to plan their trips is that mainstream travel journalism also underrepresents them. “When I open up the glossy [travel] magazines, they’re still white, and a particular kind of white — privileged white,” said Williams.
There are signs of change. A new travel publication aimed at Black readers, The Black Explorer Magazine, just produced its first issue. Airbnb has created a non-discrimination policy and an optional instant booking feature in which hosts can’t see personal information about prospective guests.
Visit Philadelphia has commissioned a marketing campaign aimed at African-Americans. Louisville Tourism has announced a Black Tourism Advisory Board and is reviewing its promotional materials.
If history is a guide, they’re casting their nets wider for the most practical of reasons, just as they did in the last economic downturn, said Laura Mandala, CEO of Mandala Research. “Companies became interested in diversity during the Great Recession when they could no longer count on the business from their core markets,” she said.
But some destinations still have history — and, increasingly, current events — to overcome, said Heather Hodges, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor in South Carolina.
As part of her job, Hodges visits other landmarks and historic sites. On a tour of a southern plantation, on which she was the only Black guest, every time the guide began to talk about the lives of the Black people enslaved there, three white men in the group made a point of walking away.
“Imagine if you were visiting as an African-American family for the first time, you have children with you and you have to deal with something like that,” she said. “There is always going to be concern among African-American tourists relating to issues that for white visitors or international visitors are not a consideration.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.