The Luxury Travel Industry Has a Race Problem — Here's How to Fix It

A man in a yellow shirt and orange shorts walks up stairs to a rooftop terrace while on vacation

Last summer the travel industry entered "The Twilight Zone." 

Seemingly in a flash, the social media accounts of luxury travel brands turned diverse, after years of being racially homogenous. Industry events diversified speaker line-ups, shaking up the status quo. Articles highlighting "top travel influencers to follow" suddenly featured people of color, who had for years been left out.

"Up until June 2020, I was the girl nobody wanted to talk to — and now I'm the girl that everybody wants to talk to," says Martinique Lewis, a travel diversity consultant and the president of the newly founded Black Travel Alliance. (I am a member of the group.)

But for all the positive changes toward Black representation, the question remains whether this newfound solidarity will last. As the world-shaking aftereffects of George Floyd's killing last May still reverberate, the travel industry is looking beneath the surface at its longstanding issues with race.

Representation is a key concern, many insiders say. Travel advertising of all kinds rarely shows Black travelers enjoying the same upscale experiences as white people, whether it's a cruise on the Amalfi Coast or a blissful moment in a beach lounger at a resort in Mexico. Imagery can even uphold longstanding colonial tropes, such as white guests being served by Black staff in predominantly Black countries in Africa or the Caribbean.

"How can an industry that celebrates culture and diversity abroad ignore the need for it in their own marketing?" asks Margie Jordan, a luxury travel agency owner and educator based in Jacksonville, Florida. "You can't travel to a culturally rich destination raving about the experience and come home color-blind."

Yet a scroll through the Instagram feeds of five-star hotels or popular travel accounts reveals a continued lack of diversity, even after the spring and summer of 2020. Some influencers say that's not simply an oversight.

"Sometimes if a luxury brand does want to collaborate with me, they don't want me to represent their brand on social media because it will 'mess up' the aesthetics," says Tomiko Harvey, a content creator and co-director of travel media conference TBEX North America.

Despite the industry's on-going reckoning on race, many overlook how this lack of representation can perpetuate stereotypes other travelers have of Black people in upscale places. "Without representation, it seems like this just doesn't happen in real life," says Brian McIntosh, an electrical engineer, photographer, and influencer based in Toronto. "So any time we think 'luxury travel,' we think of everyone other than Black people."

Numerous Black jetsetters have shared on social media groups accounts of unpleasant incidents after "turning left" toward a first- or business-class airplane seat, drawing scrutiny from passengers and even flight attendants, or from the staff or guests of hotels. "In the Caribbean, I've been asked to arrange for a taxi, to bring more towels to a hotel room, and to provide directions to the spa," recalls Jordan. 

So how can the luxury travel industry change for the better? 

One key is awareness, which has been growing industry-wide since last year. The Black Travel Alliance launched the #PullUpforTravel Campaign in June, calling for transparency from travel companies with regard to Black employment and marketing representation. Brands such as Marriott, tourism boards representing Austin and New Orleans, and media outlets went beyond posting black squares to publicly divulging Black employment numbers, marketing statistics, and plans-of-action for a more inclusive future. On the corporate end, travel companies such as HomeExchange and TripAdvisor are introducing or bolstering racial bias training for employees, tapping diversity and inclusion consultants to identify blind spots, and rethinking recruitment to attract a more diverse pool of applicants. 

Only time will tell if the work being done will stick. It's my hope that it won't take another headline tragedy to demonstrate that Black travelers — and the Black professionals in this trade — truly matter.

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