Is Cruising Welcoming Enough for Black Travelers?

Not yet—but a group of Black travel advocates is hoping to help change that.

four people lift their drinks in a cheers on a cruise ship pool deck

A photo from Celebrity Cruises’ All-Inclusive Photo Project, which aims to address the lack of diversity in travel marketing imagery.

Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

It may be a bucket list trip for many, but Antarctica was never on Stephanie Jones’s travel list. In part, because it’s cold and in part, because it’s quite white. And not just the snowy landscape.

“I can’t tell you the number of family members and friends that said, ‘Antarctica? Why would anyone want to go there?’” says Jones with a laugh. “And honestly, it was the same question I had.”

In fact, she only began considering travel to Antarctica because of an invitation from Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten Expeditions. Jones, founder of Black Cultural Heritage Tours, which offers Black culture and history tours in U.S. destinations, is one of six Black travel professionals who joined Hurtigruten’s Black Travel Advisory Board (BTAB) in early 2022. The board was tasked with helping Hurtigruten diversify its typical clientele through marketing initiatives and community outreach. Through BTAB, the cruise line’s parent company Hurtigruten Group has started a conversation that they hope will lead to a change in the expedition cruise industry’s woeful record of attracting Black cruisers. It’s particularly challenging, says Board member and Black Travel Alliance president Martinique Lewis, because the evidence is anecdotal. Statistics are impossible to find.

Stephanie Jones on a Hurtigruten cruise in Antarctica in early 2022.

Stephanie Jones on a Hurtigruten cruise in Antarctica in early 2022.

Courtesy of Stephanie Jones

“When it comes to Black people cruising, there are no numbers per se,” says Lewis. “There’s nothing that indicates what [our] community is doing, where they’re going, and how much they spend when it comes to cruising. It is something that we look forward to providing for the industry.”

Equally challenging: Hurtigruten’s goals aren’t just to create a more welcoming and equitable space for Black cruisers but to also illuminate any unconscious bias that may exist in hiring practices or product design within the company and the cruising industry as a whole.

“While some parts of the travel industry have been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, the cruise industry is far behind, and the expedition cruise sector even more so,” says Hurtigruten Group’s head of public relations Anders Lindström.

Case in point: None of the BTAB members had ever experienced an expedition ship before, despite all being frequent travelers. Lindström says he has learned that is due in part to them not seeing themselves represented in the space. He invited them all to test it out, and although Jones agreed to the trip, she had concerns and hesitations leading into it.

“If you haven’t been exposed to or had access to certain experiences, or you haven’t seen yourself, or women who look like you, have these types of experiences, you’re just not sure,” she says.

When Lewis was approached to participate, she saw an opportunity to set a precedent for the entire industry.

“I understood how big of a task it was and how much of a difference it can make,” she says. “I understood the significance of what could happen when Black people see themselves reflected in cruising, and not only to the Caribbean, but to places like the South Pole, the North Pole, and the Galápagos.”

Two travel influencers sharing a drink on board the <i>Celebrity Apex</i>, part of Celebrity Cruises' All-Inclusive Photo Project.

Two travel influencers sharing a drink on board the Celebrity Apex, part of Celebrity Cruises’ All-Inclusive Photo Project.

Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Hurtigruten isn’t the only cruise line realizing it has missed the ball when it comes to Black travelers. In the years since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, there has been a stronger emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the cruise industry.

One of those efforts came from Celebrity Cruises, which in March 2022 launched the All-Inclusive Photo Project, a databank of images and videos that aims to address what Celebrity acknowledges is a “lack of diversity in travel marketing imagery.”

“As global brands, we have a powerful platform to act as a catalyst of positive change. We know we have more work to do and we hope we inspire others to join us on this important journey,” Celebrity Cruises’ chief marketing officer Michael Scheiner said in a statement about the image bank, which includes photos of models and athletes with disabilities, people of color, nonbinary and transgender models, and LGBTQ+ activists, among others.

River cruise line AmaWaterways also hopes to celebrate greater diversity among its passengers by “providing a warm and genuine welcome to all guests,” says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways. The river cruise company this year launched a new Soulful Epicurean Experience river cruise itinerary in France that highlights Black history and culture in Paris and Provence. The 2023 departure sold out almost immediately and AmaWaterways is preparing to announce two new dates for 2024.

Adds Karst, “We are very proud to . . . develop products within the luxury cruise space designed to meet the needs and interests of specific travelers, including people of color.”

Passengers attend a costume party during the 30th anniversary of the Festival at Sea cruises in July 2022.

Passengers attend a costume party onboard the 30th Festival at Sea cruise, which took place in July 2022.

Courtesy of Blue World Travel

It’s not entirely altruistic. When it comes to cruising, leaving Black travelers off the manifest is leaving money on the table. Black American travelers spent more than $109 billion on travel and travel-related expenses in 2019. What percentage of that is spent on cruising has yet to be measured but the BTAB is hoping to change that.

Patricia Yarbrough, who also sits on the board, doesn’t need statistics to tell her what her 43 years in the industry has already shown her: Black people cruise and when cruise lines gear their offering toward them, they turn up.

Through her California-based travel company Blue World Travel, Yarbrough has been offering cruises that focus on Black travelers first. On board her full-ship charter Festival at Sea cruises, passengers will find the traditional African American card game of bid whist (instead of bridge), African head wrap demonstrations, and deejays who focus on music by Black artists.

She started Festival at Sea in 1992 because she felt like larger ocean ship cruises often failed to offer Black travelers a vacation experience worth investing in when it came to entertainment and inclusion. “It wasn’t anything political, it was just getting your dollars’ worth for your vacation,” says Yarbrough.

Her first cruise booked 250 people as a partial ship charter, but within five years she was selling out entire ships. Last August, her 2023 sailing sold out a full charter of the 3,000-passenger Celebrity Equinox in 10 hours. Her newest initiative, Friends of Festival at Sea, launched in 1999, brings that same Black-focused cultural offering to a luxury cruise setting. Those ships have taken Black cruisers to Italy, Brazil, and Southeast Asia, most often with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and never without their own deejay, dance instructor, and dominoes—three of many things that make the group of predominantly Black travelers feel more at home on the ships.

I understood the significance of what could happen when Black people see themselves reflected in cruising, and not only to the Caribbean, but to places like the South Pole, the North Pole, and the Galápagos.
Martinique Lewis

Most of Yarbrough’s cruises focus on the Caribbean, a region where her clientele see themselves reflected not just on the ship but in the people they see and interact with in the ports of call. That isn’t the case with Hurtigruten’s traditional offerings, which tend to focus on Norway and other north European destinations. But the hope is that a concerted effort on behalf of the BTAB and Hurtigruten Group will result in an environment that welcomes those who may never have considered going beyond something that feels more familiar.

The rush of recognition for Hurtigruten’s efforts may help spur that much-needed change. In December 2022, the group received Global Traveler Magazine’s 2022 Outstanding Diversity & Inclusion Travel Award. BTAB also received two gold Magellan awards from industry newspaper Travel Weekly in the Accessibility/Inclusivity and DEI Marketing Initiative categories.

Lindström admits the praise feels premature given the board’s work has only just begun but sees it as a testament to how hungry the industry is for demonstrable change.

And it seems some guests on board cruise ships are ready for it, too. On Hurtigruten’s February 2022 Antarctic sailing, when the line hosted the BTAB onboard, important conversations took place that showed the value of having greater diversity on cruise ships, notes Jones.

Stephanie Jones and her daughter prepare to head out on a Hurtigruten Antarctica cruise.

Stephanie Jones and her daughter prepare to head out on a Hurtigruten Antarctica cruise.

Courtesy of Stephanie Jones

“There was a really deep conversation about racism, between an older white man from a southern state and my daughter,” Jones recalls. The man asked if he could touch her daughter’s hair, an act many Black people find very offensive. “[My daughter] saw it as a teachable moment and . . . it led to a really deep conversation on racism in America. It was a healthy conversation.”

It was also the type of intercultural exchange that could lead to lasting changes in the way people view the world that can stay with them long after they’ve cruised.

For now, the Advisory Board is focused on the year ahead. They recently renewed their mandate for 2023, establishing three subcommittees—research and marketing; diversity hiring and supplier development; and customer engagement and strategic partnerships—which will be charged with helping to generate meaningful changes.

While this first year has been focused on introducing the board to the Hurtigruten product, 2023 will offer a chance for the board to be more active within the cruise line’s organization.

“They will be able to provide recommendations and goals across a number of facets of our operation, from marketing, tone of voice and language to hiring and on board experience,” says Lindström.

And this summer the BTAB, which also includes Kareem George (founder of Culture Traveler), Naledi Khabo (CEO of the Africa Tourism Association), and Rue Mapp (founder of Outdoor Afro), will be on board the newly relaunched Svalbard Express route in Norway. Following the journey, the board members will visit Hurtigruten’s head office in Oslo for meetings with CEOs and senior management.

Jones will be there. In fact, post-Antarctic cruise, she has taken to preaching the “gospel” of expedition cruising to her friends.

“A lot of Black folks were asking questions,” she says. “Now that they’ve seen me and my daughter embrace the experience and just walk away with a phenomenal memory, they’re open to having the same type of experience,” she adds, noting that the trip made her more curious about what else she might be missing. “I will say it was the most transformative experience I’ve had while traveling.”

Heather Greenwood Davis tells stories from places around the world primarily as a contributing writer, keynote speaker, and on-air personality for recognizable brands including National Geographic, The Globe and Mail, Good Morning America, and CTV.
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