Black Travel and Tourism: Where we go; what we own

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Sit in any subway car in New York City and it is not difficult to fantasize about a tropical vacation, starring yourself, as you take in The Bahamas’ advertising blitz: glossy pictures depicting bright sun, white sand and blue-green sea. Pass by any magazine store, and it is impossible to miss the proliferation of travel and destination magazines. Sign on to the Internet and you’re inundated with ads from travel sites promising the lowest fares. And, finally, look around the office on any Friday afternoon and someone is bound to be carrying an overnight bag as they leave.

If it seems like more Black people are getting up and getting away that is because we are. According to the NAACP’s 2004 Lodging Industry Report Card, the African-American travel market is the fastest-growing segment of the industry, up 16 percent over the past two years compared to only 1 percent growth in the general market. Quoting travel industry research, the report says African-Americans spend more than $35 billion out of the total of $544 billion that is spent each year on leisure and business travel.

“As our income has grown, so has the number of world travelers in our community, so more and more we are going overseas,” says Nick Chiles, editor in chief of Odyssey Couleur, a high-end travel magazine for Blacks.

Where Do Blacks Go?
The majority of Blacks still tend to visit relatives and friends when they go away on holiday. “In the United States, we tend to go to the places where there are Black people and where we have a lot of roots, like Georgia and the Carolinas,” says Chiles.

Nadine Ranger, founder of the online agency Nikki’s Celestial Travel, concurs. “We are used to just heading back to wherever we are from originally, whether the Caribbean, Africa or down South.”

Even outside of that comfort zone, Blacks “tend to go to places that are fairly familiar, or at least where we know there will be other people who look like us,” says Chiles. “A big factor for us in traveling is our comfort when we get there. So I think that when [we] go outside the United States, there is a lot of fear and apprehension about a lot of these destinations. We hear things about places in Europe and places in Asia where we may not be welcome or we think we may not be welcome,” he says.

There are other factors that influence Black travel. “Culture is much more important to African-Americans than other groups,” says Chiles. Many Blacks want their trip to be more than fun and relaxation. Visitors to Africa, for example, tend to gravitate toward West Africa—Ghana, the Ivory Coast—where the slave trade was concentrated. Some agencies cater solely to these clients to ensure that their trip is as informative as it is pleasurable. The National Black Tourism Network, for example, specializes in tours of the African diaspora. Its packages include visits to sites that have historical value and meaning to Blacks.

Travel Clubs
Today, many Blacks are members of travel clubs, a growing trend where people of the same ethnicity or interests travel together to a given destination. Says Chiles, “Research shows that African-Americans, perhaps more than any other group, like to travel with other African-Americans.”

Ranger adds, “Black people tend to travel in groups if they are going outside of their box.”

Travel clubs have become especially popular among Black church groups and older Blacks. Not only do they provide a safety net for those who are more comfortable in a group, but it means someone else will take care of all of the complicated arrangements, such as where to go and what to do when you get there, and provide tour guides.

Internet Impact
The Internet also has helped make the world more accessible to Blacks. “Before, places you went to and places where you stayed were very much controlled by travel agents. But now you don’t have to take anybody’s word for anything,” says Chiles. “You can investigate every little detail of the places you are going to down to the insides of the hotel rooms. You can chart out every single minute of your itinerary while you are there. You can buy all your tickets. It has just given us this enormous freedom and control over our travel planning.”

While the Internet has been great for travelers, “travel agencies have suffered tremendously,” says Chiles. “In recent years, the airlines have tried to take away their commissions. I think that is a profession that will have to change radically if it is going to survive. Everybody in the tourist industry is trying to figure out how to maximize the Internet, knowing that it is only going to grow.”

While she agrees that the Internet dealt a terrible blow to travel agencies, Ranger is optimistic about the future. “All you can do is position yourself to change with the trend,” she says. She points to her own business as part of the newer trend of home-based businesses, explaining that the World Wide Web has eliminated the need for a storefront, which, in turn, eliminates some of the costs of running a tra-vel business. Your Web site becomes your storefront, she says. “Don’t look at the Internet in a negative way, as if it is taking business away, but ask, ‘How can I use this to get business?’ ” she advises.

Niche Agencies
Niche agencies, which specialize in a particular type or theme of travel, or in specific destinations, are another growing trend in Black travel. Nikki’s Celestial Travel, for example, specializes in cruises. “With the change in trends in the travel market, it is more profitable to develop a niche and develop a specific market.… We are customized in terms of providing clients with specialized services,” Ranger says. She notes that business is steadily increasing as more Blacks stop perceiving cruises as an affluent white pastime, adding that Blacks have made the Caribbean their most popular cruise destination.

Property Ownership
Obviously, Blacks are traveling more frequently and more extensively and the business world has noticed. In its 2004 Lodging Industry Report Card, the NAACP noted that “property ownership continues to be a problem for the African-American community, and many companies are hard at work developing strategies to increase the number of minority-owned properties.”

Blacks are taking steps to pool their resources and become a bigger force on the business side of the travel industry. The National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (Nabhood), for example, aims to “increase the number of African-Americans developing, managing, operating and owning hotel properties thereby creating jobs and wealth in the African-American community,” the group’s mission statement says. Its Web site lists resources for potential investors and keeps visitors abreast of hotel chains that are seeking franchises within the Black community.

While Black representation remains woefully inadequate on the property ownership side, there are important success stories. Consider, for example, Don Barden, owner of the Majestic Star and Fitzgerald’s casinos and the country’s first African-American to wholly own a national casino company. Robert Johnson, founder of BET, has long considered establishing DC Air as the first major regional airline owned and operated by an African-American. This deal was put on hold after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, which put a damper on air travel. “We are definitely growing in terms of what we own and what we are investing in,” Chiles says.

In the meantime, Black spending in the travel industry continues to increase. “Although it is still a small proportion, there are definitely increasing numbers of us going to other destinations. It is a wide open market because it is new to many of us,” Ranger says.