Travel Agents: Educate Yourself on the Experiences of Travelers of Color

Image: Group of friends traveling together. (photo via iStock / Getty Images Plus / santypan)
Image: Group of friends traveling together. (photo via iStock / Getty Images Plus / santypan)

Like most people, most travel agents are open to working with travel clients of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, too often travel agents lack the knowledge or even the interest in educating themselves on the experiences of travelers of color-and that's a big problem.

From the Negro Motorist Green Book, a hotel and restaurant guide for African Americans traveling in the Jim Crow era, to viral stories of ranting passengers on airlines or trains and their racist comments, travelers of color often have vastly different travel experiences than their white counterparts. If travel agents are not aware of this or blatantly ignore it, they too are at a disadvantage of doing their job well.

According to Data USA, travel agents in 2016 were overwhelmingly white (and still are). In fact, 79.6 percent of travel agents identified as Caucasian, while 7.93 percent are Asian and six percent are black. With percentages like these, it's no wonder that travelers of color have created their own online travel communities, bypassing travel agents because they're not providing them with service that is fully aware of their needs.

So what are travelers of colors' needs?

Whether it's outright racism or subtle statements, travelers of color sometimes have different experiences than other travelers, and these experiences can affect the way they travel and who they work with in the travel industry.

For instance, a survey by Mandala Research found that 15 percent of African Americans have concerns about racial profiling in an airport or a destination, and that plays a role in their travel decisions. What's more, the Digital Muslim Travel Report found that 63 percent of Muslim travelers, because of their cultural needs, would rather arrange their own itineraries than use a travel agent. Plus, there are plenty of first-hand accounts by travelers of Middle Eastern descent who are consistently racially profiled by travel vendors and security officials in airports.

Travel agent Melinda M. of the AGENTatHOME Community has witnessed how travelers of colors' needs vary from others and how racism often plays a role in where these travelers go and who they work with on their vacation planning.

"So, one thing that I find is that most people of color prefer to be around a people or culture they are familiar with or a history they can relate to over just a vacation," she said. "A lot of the time people of color worry about racism, so I try to make sure they will go places where they will have fun and not have to experience it."

Melinda M. has created a travel niche that serves travelers of color, especially in the African American and Latino communities, and she did that because she saw that other travel agents weren't meeting the needs of these two communities. As a bilingual Afro-Latina woman, she felt able and well prepared by her own experiences to fulfill their needs.

I recently asked a large group of agents in the AGENTatHOME Community: "How do you best serve travelers of color? How could you serve them better if you've yet to try to connect with them?"

Many agents were uncomfortable with the question, stating things like, "My agency doesn't base service on a particular 'color,' we service everyone." Others, in some form or another, said they "don't see color"-a well-meaning response meant to indicate they're not racist, but inadvertently meaning they don't recognize that systems of racism exist and that they don't "see" that the experiences of people of color are different.

Some agents turned it around on me, claiming I was biased and my question inappropriate. Travel agent Wanda T. noted, "I think the number of agents who found this question inappropriate was alarming." So did I.

There were some travel agents, most of whom were people of color themselves, that spoke up and shared their own travel experiences and how it relates to their travel agent business.

Alfred W. wrote, "I get looks all the time when I travel. I'm a 6' 6" 270 lbs. black male and when I enter a room/resort lobby/airplane/restaurant, I see it on some of the faces. You should see the looks of shock I get when I sit down in first-class seating."

He added, "I've seen some people working for travel vendors treat people negatively by what they seem and it's shameful."

To those travel agents who said they don't "see" their client's skin color or ethnicity, Wanda T. pointed out, "Don't be ignorant of differences and don't get caught up in them, but be educated and informed about them! Know that differences are a good thing and as a business owner, you need to understand those differences."

After the answers that I received from the travel agent forum, I wanted to speak with someone in the travel agent industry who is conscious in their business strategy when it comes to working with travelers of color.

I spoke with Javier Valdez, CEO of Travel With Myght, a host agency for agents whose mission "is to create a network of committed travel visionaries giving way to socially responsible organizations, professionals and travelers to positively impact lives and communities around the world."

When asked what drawbacks or obstacles that travelers of colors face today, Valdez replied:

"The challenge with today's political and social atmosphere is that there is a lot of open hostility towards populations that are different (e.g., POC or religious groups). My hope is that travel can be a medium to create more understanding, empathy and embracing of different people, cultures and ways of life."

Valdez pointed out that travel agents can be a pillar of support for their clients of color and that agencies are, in fact, rewarded when they're more diverse.

"Our agency is represented and led by people of diverse backgrounds, cultures and experiences. This was not by accident. According to a 2015 report on the travel industry's employment, 70 percent of travel agents are Caucasian, which leaves a lot to be desired from communities that are not so well represented."

"We wanted to change this by providing the tools, resources and network to reach a wider audience that may have felt their needs were not being met in an authentic way," he said.

So how can travel agents better assist travelers of color? For Valdez, it starts by agents educating themselves on destinations.

"When we send travelers to any part of the world, we do our best to understand the destination country's history, culture and customs, and educate our traveler on what they may encounter and how they can navigate a country that may not be used to seeing people who look like them," he said.

"A recent example is when one of our travelers, a Latino-American man, traveled to China for the first time. Prior to his departure, we counseled him on what he might expect-understanding that China's population is fairly homogeneous and people may openly express their curiosity, including pointing, taking photos or touching. We frame this as not an expression of hostility or racism, but of genuine curiosity and what is culturally appropriate," he explained.

Travel agent Trenia L., who specializes in Mexico travel, shared similar feedback, pointing out that just under half of her clients have been or are women of color.

She said, "I do serve [my clients of color] somewhat differently because traveling Mexico away from the touristy spots, large cities and resorts, does raise the chances that someone may approach my clients of color in a way that could make them uncomfortable."

"Color is not a hushed topic in Mexico. It's not uncommon for skin tone to be discussed openly and some terms of endearment are words used for skin color. For instance, I'm 'la guera,' or 'white girl,' to my best friends. A black woman, for instance, could be called 'la negra,' literally 'the black girl,' and an 'Asian appearing' person would be 'el chino,' regardless of his or her nationality," she explained.

Trenia L. shares these cultural insights in her Facebook group and has noted that feedback from her clients on these cultural intricacies has been very positive.

There is more that travel agents can do, according to Valdez.

He said, "Build strategic partnerships within existing communities that cater to travelers of diverse backgrounds. These communities exist, and travelers seek them out. For example, as mentioned earlier, Myght includes travel consultants who themselves are diverse but also cater to niche markets, such as the LGBTQ travelers or women of color."

He added, "Reach out to diverse experts and be genuine in expressing your desire to learn more about how you cater to the needs of a more diverse base. Ask for their advice on how you can build authentic relationships with travelers of color."

Valdez points out that it can be as simple as travel agents reading blogs by travelers of color.

"Some of the most invaluable advice I've received have come from experts like Kiona of the travel blog How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch who offers different travel perspectives," Valdez said.

Until the travel agent industry diversifies, it is up to those who already have a place within it to best serve travelers of color and to do that it takes self-education and effort.

As travel agent Janis B. said: "Everyone will have a different experience when it comes to race, etc. in different destinations, so I don't think as agents we can prevent that if it should happen to occur. It is our job to educate and advise though."

Yes, it is.

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Alex Temblador

Alex Temblador

Alex Temblador is an award-winning travel writer and the award-winning author of Secrets of the Casa Rosada, Half...

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