For as far as it has come, travel media needs to do better
Over the past few years, I have spoken out on the lack of diversity in travel media. In the process, my social media space has been further enriched with an array of travelers from all parts of the world, of various shades of brown, of all sizes, and in different stages of their lives. There are endless hashtags that showcase the work and travels of a more diverse people than what is still often displayed in media and I have found inspiration and empowerment in these communities.
I have continued to enjoy the opportunities to speak publicly on these issues, most recently with a beautiful group of travelers brought together by the On She Goes team, who see the need to give space to our community of color and a platform for the conversations that affect us so personally.
In the almost 10 years since I have been exclusively working as a travel blogger and freelance writer in the travel media space, I have seen more content creators of color find their voice, be celebrated in the space, and even gain access to opportunities that have been exclusively, for so long, white.
But then a top list comes out, one that is not targeting an exclusive niche but focusing on the professional community in general and my heart sinks and it serves as a reminder that for all the change that has happened, there is still so much work to do because
travel media is still very, very white
The lack of diversity in features of who dominates and best represents the space and the profession used to annoy me, but at this point it just makes me angry. It’s a weird kind of anger too, the kind you can’t express lest you be seen as non-supportive or, of course, making everything about race. It’s the kind of anger that stifles the conversation, because who can you talk to about it other than fellow travelers of color? It’s the kind of anger that is silent and in that silence you realize that you are allowing the very source of your rage remain unchallenged and unquestioned, and so nothing changes.
Campaigns, such as this one, are still being created without anyone involved even realizing that they have completely excluded an entire community that is equally active, engaged, and present in the space they are promoting. Of course, there are a lot of regrets and apologies later on but the fact that during the course of the production process there was not one single person at the table that would say, “Hey, we need to do better” before it’s too late is a huge problem.
Travel conversations, regardless of who is taking part, are still very, very elitist and privileged
When I first entered the travel blogging space the guidelines promoted by the most notable voices at the time were that to be considered a “legitimate” traveler you must forego your 9-5, live freely from burden of a relationship or family to hold you down, be adventurous and carefree even if that meant free loading (not their word, but mine) off of family and friends, and do whatever it took to break away from any demand that would stand in the way of you and your next trip. The space was filled of judgement of a wasted life if you didn’t take the vacation time at work, or if you didn’t save every penny for a trip to some place abroad.
Since then a lot of those voices have gotten older, and/or married, and/or burnt out, and/or pregnant, and/or broke and have changed. But there are new voices that have come in to replace them, and they are often just as disconnected from reality and as privileged as the generation before.
Don’t get me wrong. I encourage traveling. I look at the political climate of today and the state of our school system and I am more and more convinced of it. But I can also say, for a fact, that travel alone is not going to be the enlightening, educational, compassion-inducing force we all could use in our lives. I have met many, many professional travelers who are as disconnected from the realities of the world as the one guy who never left the farm or small town. I have met travelers who are as horrid as the guy who has never hung out with anybody who is different from him. I have met travelers who are as privileged and entitled as the guy who has never had to work a day in his life.
Travel is important. Those experiences of being vulnerable and foreign and lost and found can change you and influence how you see the world and how you relate to others. Everyone should have a passport, though you don’t always need to get on a plane to have an enriching travel experience. You should take those vacations days from work and yes, even if it’s just once, you should go to a different country where they don’t speak your language. But those things alone will not fulfill you or make you a better citizen of the world. That goal is achieved by how you live your every day life, regardless of where you are or where you go. Being a good, open-minded, accepting, and woke human being is constant work and we can’t assume travel alone will give us the tools we need to accomplish that.
It kills me when I sit next to a person, especially a person of color, who approaches the topic of travel with elitism and exclusivity. As someone who has experienced poverty, it makes me angry and I lose all respect for anyone who can’t see past their own privilege while still presuming to be working towards lifting others. Ignore those voices. They are the ones that try to humiliate you or make you feel bad for the choices you make for yourself and your family. Walk away, as they have nothing to offer but shame and unrealistic expectations.
The travel lifestyle image isn’t real life, especially when it lacks representation
The average household income in the U.S. is $56K, with 43% of Americans living in poverty – and this is an improvement, though not so much for poor people of color. “While the poverty rate fell for all races, it remains high among people of color. Some 24.1% of blacks and 21.4% of Hispanics were in poverty last year, while only 9.1% of non-Hispanic whites were.” (Source)
$56K may seem like a lot of money to some, but it all depends on the composition of the home as well as the location. I can tell you for a fact that this amount would be a struggle for my family of 5 while living in New York City, but we’ve been there as are many other people in this country.
The image of the travel lifestyle heavily promoted to date is not real life. I know more travel bloggers/influencers that are worried about their next paycheck than not, or who are lonely on the road, or aging and tired and still looking for that big break. Because in the end, this is work for a lot of us – granted one of the best jobs one could have, but it requires an investment of time, of personal money, and a sacrifice of some sort either of stability, or a family, or a partner, or a home.
When travel media fails to represent the average person in their stories and in their images, they fail to make the connection needed to motivate or inspire, and to make a profit or grow their brand.
I have said it many times before and I will say it again, representation matters and without it all we are getting is a lie, an unattainable fantasy, an incomplete story, a half image, and a loss of connection and opportunity.
At the end of the day, nobody cares about the number of countries, or stamps, or mileage you have collected and it’s irresponsible for travel media to celebrate those accomplishments as the only that matter to the consumer or worthy of accolades
I don’t have anything against anyone who country counts. I get it. I love seeing my passport engorged with extra pages that I have added on from the amounts of stamps I have collected. It makes me feel like I had accomplished so many dreams, so many goals. So, I understand. But I also know that this is a personal emotion, an accomplishment that I alone can appreciate knowing the circumstances of my life and how they led me here.
But the amount of countries I have visited or the stamps on my passport aren’t enough to motivate a black woman to feel safe in camping in a national park on her own, or an overweight woman in hiking a summit with a group of strangers, or a middle-aged woman in taking the time off work to feed her free spirit, or a family in saving their pennies for that special trip, or in convincing a young mother that she should fly with her baby on a plane.
My personal pride is not enough to promote travel to those who have to overcome other challenges whether emotional, psychological, financial, or physical.
The experiences that I love the most about travel have been the ones that have left me feeling humbled and small and where the protagonist isn’t me. I have loved the moments where my ignorance was bare and someone has come along to teach me, where my vulnerabilities have been exposed and the path to courage was laid before me, where my prejudice has been shattered and I walk away with a new perspective. All of these things are beautiful for me personally, but they speak to a greater potential for us all and a more significant reason why we should all consider a trip or two. How many times I pursue these experiences, and how far I have traveled for them doesn’t matter. What matters is whether they are enough to convince someone to want it for themselves.
If those in charge of travel media can’t figure where the true worth of all this lies and continue to celebrate the superfluous they will miss out on a growing, untapped market and leave many feeling unspoken to.
I am optimistic of the changes happening in the space. I think were I to hang my travel blogging hat today that I would be walking away from a space that is better than when I found it. But we have a long way to go, and there’s a lot of work to do. Ignorance is not an excuse anymore. Publishers, brands, agencies, marketers, and editors need to do better for it won’t be long before someone comes along and does it for them, making the things as they are, and the faces of the same, a thing of the past.