Consider the latest travel story you read. Was it about a place you were familiar with, or somewhere new? Did you notice the byline? Did anything about the descriptions stand out? Perhaps it was the tale of a coast-to-coast train trip across America where the characters were “Runyonesque,” or a tuk-tuk ride through “dusty, dirty” stretches of Mumbai. Do a quick Google search for “medina Marrakech hectic” and see how often it turns up. There’s a dominant language used in centuries’ worth of travel stories that’s so pervasive, most of us don’t question it.
Our perspectives are shaped by our backgrounds and cultures, how we self-identify by race, gender, socioeconomic advantages, and disadvantages (Hillbilly Elegy, anyone?). It’s how we form our gaze on the world—and historically, the travel writer’s gaze has been white and male. It goes way back to the so-called first travel writer, Greek geographer Pausanias (c. 440 B.C.E.), who wrote the earliest known iteration of a guidebook, Hellados Periegesis, or Description of Greece, says Atlas Obscura. Guidebooks are born of observations, conversations, interpretations—and a local’s take will nearly always be different than a visitor’s.
There’s room in travel media for countless narratives to shape an image of a destination or experience. And finally, the travel world is moving—in earnest—beyond just the white, Eurocentric view of things. See, not everyone thinks the medina in Marrakech is hectic, or noisy, or unsafe (descriptors that come up often). “I’m Indian American, and Muslim, and grew up in the Middle East, so these aren’t foreign countries to me,” says travel writer Sarah Khan. “[Though based on what you might read] you basically have this idea that you’re going to get harassed in a medina. But no, when someone like me goes there, it’s a completely different experience.”
“That’s the importance of perspective,” adds Paula Franklin, a public relations specialist who started Travel Is Better in Color with Khan this fall. “If you have long, blond hair and you’re walking through a medina, you’re going to get [called out]. If you’re not, you won’t as much.”
“We want to amplify those different perspectives,” says Khan.
Look beyond the pale
Think back to this summer, when the Black Lives Matter movement reached fever pitch and prompted a reckoning across multiple industries and organizations, including travel media. Editors at Bon Appetit and the Los Angeles Times have resigned. AFAR looked inward and quickly concluded we’re too white and plan to change that. Some change happened immediately, but there was also a lot of negative discourse and “whining,” says Franklin, and one-note stories that depicted Black travelers as a fringe group.
“It sounded like Black people don’t travel anywhere. We actually travel a lot. There’s this whole Black travel movement that existed outside of mainstream travel.” Black Americans spent an estimated $63 billion on travel in 2018, according to an oft-quoted study by Mandala Research. More recent numbers from a forthcoming study by Nomadness Travel Tribe—of 5,299 people from more than 70 countries—will confirm that the spending power of Black travelers is even greater and varied. “Black tourism is not a monolith,” said Nomadness founder Evita Robinson in a press conference in December. “We are not the same people. We do not have the same experiences.”
In an effort to be more proactive, Franklin and Khan, along with their cofounders and peers Naledi K. Khabo, Jeralyn Gerba, and Nestor Lara Baeza, decided to amplify those diverse experiences with a new website and newsletter. Travel Is Better in Color (TIBIC) surfaces writers and photographers they know, have worked with, or just admire from around the world, with an emphasis on longer-form stories in English-speaking media. It’s a joyful collection full of cultural nuance, passion, and yes, color.
One newsletter celebrated “epicurean explorations”—the ubiquitous Creole street food in Lima via Whetstone writer Nico Vera or a Korean dish “you only make for someone you love” by Eric Kim for Saveur—while simultaneously championing better representation in the food and drink industry (“One in a Thousand Winemakers Is Black” by Esquire’s Maria C. Hunt). There’s a week’s worth of reading in each newsletter and plenty of inspiring scrolling to be done on the site and Instagram feed. TIBIC serves as a catalogue of talent that calls casual readers—and travel editors—to attention.
“We don’t need to anoint the next great travel writer,” says Khan. “They’re already out there.” They’re telling stories about trying a 1,000-year-old sport (that involves a goat) in Uzbekistan; they’re taking a hard look at why Black travel to Africa is up—but safari travelers are still mostly white. You won’t catch a Black writer glorifying a school visit while on safari, says Franklin: “They’re going to be like, ‘Why am I here disrupting their day? Why are we in this village, in a game vehicle, staring at Black people?’
“I want to read about what it’s like for a Black person to go to Japan,” adds Franklin, “but I don’t want the article to be, ‘I’m Black, I’m going to Japan!’ Just by hiring these people you’ll get a different perspective.”
“When you’re sending a white writer to Japan, you don’t say, tell us what it’s like to be white in Japan. It’s the default point of view,” says Khan. “The idea is to get more points of view rounding that out.”
And please, everyone, stop using the word “exotic.”
Quips Khan: “One person’s exotic is another person’s daily commute.”
>>Next: Safaris Need to Become More Diverse—and Now Is the Time