We need to talk about race and tourism

As global protests continue following the killing of unarmed black man George Floyd in the US, Justin Francis, founder and CEO of Responsible Travel, reflects on race and our responsibilities in tourism.

Like the rest of us, I’m angry.

As campaigners, we know activism comes in many forms. Protest is important. Words matter. But I want our industry to do more.

To achieve deep and lasting change, we need to listen, acknowledge, learn and act. These are behaviours we need to practice daily - and be held to account on.

Let’s lead by example, and press others to do likewise.

Tourism’s been devastated by Covid-19. But we have an opportunity to build back better.

Dennis Schaal, co founder of skift, this week wrote how the very foundation of travel is discovery: engaging with people from different cultures, races, ethnic groups, genders, and viewpoints, and breaking down barriers.

Theoretically, our industry should be leading the way on inclusivity. But, as he rightly notes, it consistently falls short on diversity and inclusion, be it gender or race-based – and we ignore this seminal moment for racial justice at our peril.

Journalist Alex Temblador, writing for TravelPulse, it powerfully: ‘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.’

She lays bare examples of the pervasiveness of racism in our industry, and presents some excellent suggestions as to how we might improve.

As Alex rightly notes, we have to first recognise and acknowledge racism - and accept that we all have biases and blind spots. With that in mind, and with my own blind spots, I'd like us at Responsible Travel to build on her points and advice – as hopefully many others are, and will.

Below are just some of my initial thoughts. I apologise for any clumsy use of language or terminology. This needs to be an ongoing and open conversation.

Race and climate justice: At Responsible Travel, our campaign work straddles both tourism and environmental issues. We can’t move forward without acknowledging the inextricable link between race and environment . Just as Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted BAME groups, so too do the worst impacts of environmental injustice and climate heating. We cannot achieve sustainability without equality. We need to do more to understand and address this in our own work for climate justice, and do what we can to highlight the crucial environmental and climate research and action being led by non-white experts.

Change starts with us. Working for industry-wide change means reflecting inward too. Whether it’s our recruitment policies, marketing content, campaigning and engagement or other areas of work at Responsible Travel, we’ll take proactive steps to identify and recognise where we fall short, and challenge ourselves to do better. Additionally, while Covid-19 interrupted our planned company-wide inclusion and diversity training, completing this remains an important priority for us.

Changing attitudes. There are practical steps we can take across the industry to encourage change, including fairer representation on panels, and in consultancy and commissioned work. But we have to be better at recognising, and calling out, conscious and unconscious discrimination in all its guises, including attitudes and comments. It should go without saying that our companies and industry must be anti-racist, not just non-racist. All of us in travel and tourism can do this, at work and at home.

Opening up travel. As Alex Temblador notes, income inequality prevents many people of colour from having the same opportunities to travel as white people do. COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate this. We have to play our part in levelling up incomes so that black and minority ethnic individuals, and those in developing countries, have more opportunities for vacations. As well as an insistence on greater local economic benefits from tourism, our Trip for a Trip initiative is a small way we try to address inequalities of opportunity in travel experiences. I’m sure we can go much further too.

More money in local hands, and fair support. Some of the nations most dependent on tourism are also the poorest, and where the majority of residents are BAME. They include many of our own members: lots of them small and micro, family-run businesses, together with local staff. A central tenet of responsible tourism is local economic benefit: more money into local hands, rather than it leaking elsewhere. We've been fighting for this for 20 years and each of our vacations is screened for it. But can we do more? If we’re to level up opportunities for BAME people in developing countries, responsible tourism will have to play a large part in it. In addition, I recently wrote that recovery from Covid-19 will not be equal. As an industry we rely on many of the poorest nations to deliver our vacations. Rebuilding can only happen together, and those most needing support must receive it from governments and industry.

We must find ways to address and stop conscious or unconscious racist behaviour towards travelers of colour. Part of this is proactively seeking to better understand the entire experience of travel for people of colour, from start to finish: from marketing brochures, through booking and travel to arrivals and departures. There’s still too little research around tourism and race – something we’re looking into – but as Alex Temblador points out in her article, there are myriad accounts of racial attacks, biases and harassment toward travelers of colour.

Overtourism can have a hugely adverse impact on local communities, so it’s vital all local residents, including BAME communities, are consulted. How often are people of colour consulted about the development of tourism, and how they experience tourists and tourism, in the places they call home? We shouldn’t presume their hopes, experiences or needs are the same as other groups.

We welcome feedback and engagement. If you’ve thoughts or questions on the issues raised here, email jenny@responsibletravel.com
Written by Justin Francis