This year has shown the world racism – and a lack of understanding of the concept – remain rife. Gary Noakes reports on the implication for travel
Just days after a WTM Virtual seminar on the subject, two public events occurred, highlighting that racism (and ignorance) remain rife, across all industries.
Firstly, Football Association chairman Greg Clarke resigned after remarks completely at odds with the FA’s own inclusion policy. Then, more positively, Lewis Hamilton became Formula 1 champion and pledged to fight towards a “much bigger win” for equality, citing “an awakening this year” within his sport and adding: “People are starting to be held accountable.”
Even five years ago, Clarke may have kept his job and Hamilton his silence, but things have changed, especially following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May. The impact, to a locked-down world, was huge, as WTM’s Racism in Tourism webinar pointed out. “When have black lives mattered other than when everybody was sitting in their house due to a global pandemic and forced to actually say, ‘OK, we do have a race issue’, because we had to actually see it,” said Martinique Lewis, president of the US-based Black Travel Alliance. “That sent the world into an equality movement that we have never seen before.”
Lewis said she had spoken at WTM on diversity and inclusion for the past two years. “Nobody ever showed up other than my colleagues.” However, this year’s virtual session attracted “great feedback and engagement”, according to WTM, and travel is asking itself questions it has never before addressed. “These conversations are super uncomfortable, nobody really wants to look at the problem, but now we’re forced to,” added Lewis.
If you doubt the urgency, consider how fast the LGBT+ movement changed attitudes among the social media generation. Last time around, the Civil Rights movement faced opposition at the highest levels; this time, opposition is not an option if you want to stay in power – or business.
The issue is all-encompassing, from how travel is marketed to employing ethnically diverse staff members, and how destinations portray their heritage.
Marketing was a key topic during the WTM seminar, with tourist boards and operators both attracting criticism.
Keith Henry, president and chief executive of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, said the industry “is moving in the right direction, but a lot of unconscious bias remains. The biggest obstacle is “key industry people”, including marketers. Henry, himself a Native American, represents 1,700 businesses. “We don’t just drum and sing. But people want to believe that and they’re the images they want to use.”
Travel marketing is firmly guilty here, with images from most destinations centring on “able-bodied, thin, blonde-haired white people,” according to Lewis.
As well as being discriminatory, this non-inclusive mindset means the industry is missing out on huge opportunities.
Fazal Bahardeen, chief executive of halal travel consultancy CrescentRating, said the Muslim travel market would be worth $300 billion globally by 2026 and that just a few images of people wearing headscarves would give a more inclusive feel to marketing.
“Muslims don’t go to London to read the Koran in their hotel. We don’t go to the beach and pray. We go there for exactly what others do,” he said. “We’re not special. Just include us in your marketing.”
The Black Travel Alliance echoes this. “You don’t have to be like ‘hey, black girl, we want you in our destination’; keep your messaging the same, but change the photo,” said Lewis.
She said multicultural travellers were 70% more likely to buy from brands in which they saw themselves reflected. “They make burkinis for Muslim women, yet they are never seen swimming in marketing material.”
The conclusion is much of marketing is aimed at people who already spend money with the destination or operator, not new clients.
Then there is the long-standing issue of the progression of ethnic minorities in travel companies – and their recruitment to begin with.
Another of the WTM speakers, Uwern Jong, founder of Out There magazine, advised: “Understand there is a problem, because I still find in 2020 people don’t see there is a problem. Recognise your privilege and then take action.”
Jong’s advice is “be an ally”. “Proactive is the key word here, it’s the difference between non-racism and anti-racism. You want to be anti-racist, so you need to be proactive. It has to be part of your every day, it’s not a campaign.”
Jong said the response from the WTM discussion was “overwhelmingly positive”. Post-Covid, he said, these issues would be more important to consumers and part of sustainability in general. “People are looking for brands that are caretaking for the world. Caretaking also involves the social sense,” he said.
The social aspect is a regular part of the remit of sustainability and responsible tourism, but the racial part of this has not been as prominent.
Harold Goodwin, Responsible Tourism Partnership director, regrets not getting involved in the conversation earlier. “I’m planning to hold a round table discussion about what we do next before Christmas,” he says. “The problem is there’s too few of us to take action on all the issues at once.”
However, Goodwin has conducted several YouTube interviews with key exponents. “What’s interesting is all the interviews I’ve done were mostly with people abroad. It’s time we [in the UK] did something.”
There is also more to be done in some destinations, but as Jong explains, some have wanted to forget their past.
“While we’re happy talking about slavery as we walk through ancient Rome, Egypt or Israel, we’re scared to discuss that in the Caribbean, perhaps because it’s so raw, or maybe because of guilt,” he said after the panel discussion. “I believe travellers now have the appetite for discussing it.”
Part of the problem, he feels, is social media, which “sidelines horrible histories for positive, beautiful imagery and depictions of destinations”.
“In the same way you might talk about the history of whaling, or community, or food in destination, we must do more to discuss social history, even if it is harrowing. “There are two sides to every story. It’s not responsible travel to just go to a destination for its beauty and not understand its social history – however turbulent.”
With the UK travel industry accountable for sending clients all over the world, and employing hundreds of thousands – it’s high time these “concepts” became norms.