Opinion: Vacation Destinations Are More Diverse Than Ever. So Why Isn’t the Travel Industry?

It’s coming up to two years in May since the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement started. The movement led many companies in the western world, including those in the travel industry, to see how diverse and inclusive they were for all races. Two years on, how much improvement have we seen? In particular for myself, I’ve been curious to see whether we have seen more travel stories told from an Asian perspective in the travel media. Asians, in general, have the world’s largest ethnic group, yet when it comes to travel media, Asians are vividly missing.

A report produced by PwC in partnership with TTG Media back in July 2019 looked at how far travel had come and what was required to make diversity and inclusion a reality. The findings suggest a significant gap still exists between the company’s intentions and what they are actually achieving. The stats don’t give me a definitive answer on Asians in the sector as I spoke to the editor of TTG Media, Sophie Griffiths, to clarify the conclusion. However, it is conclusive enough to suggest a lack of diversity overall, especially in leadership roles. 

The Daily Express wrote two articles with my opinion on travel in 2021. Besides this, getting an editor or an executive to hear my thoughts on an idea has proved difficult. And I work as a broadcaster on a dedicated travel station, which still gives me no favors.   

I interviewed American Travel Host and former Editor of Time Out Magazine, Ernest White II, for my podcast in June 2020; he gave me an insight into why that may be the case. “Historically, at least in the United States, travel as an industry in its early days was prohibitively expensive for a lot of people. While you always had people of all different backgrounds traveling, it’s always been white-dominated. Part of that has to do with the fact that upper classes that were mostly white were traveling in the west and then having access to editors who could relate to the experiences.” 

“You’re looking at something that’s been kind of skewed towards one particular group of people for much of its existence. Even now, when you look at travel influencers, it’s more diverse than it’s ever been and at the same time still heavily skewed towards kind of that blonde, blue-eyed kind of paragon.” 

Is that not a call for destinations or publications to consider the work of people of color, especially Asians? From my experience living in the U.K., there’s little to nothing in terms of positive news in the media about Asians. As often, it’s linked to negative news, which has left a wrong impression. Despite that, from what I have seen from my travels, the U.K. is leading the way in creating a better image for Asians. This means it’s worse in other nations, especially European and North American countries. 

Take, for example, my recent trip to New York. It was a great trip overall, but there was a moment of stereotypical and racist behavior from an individual towards me, which occurred when I went out for a drink with a friend. I won’t go into detail about what happened, but I thought about why this happened and what perception average middle-class white Americans have of Asians. 

Romey Louangvilay, a travel professional who is Asian American and lives in New York, has had numerous similar incidents like mine. He told me he believes all Asians fall under a stereotype in America, which has led to Asians in the U.S. (particularly northeast and southeast Asians) being a target as of March 2021. It’s not clear why, but according to research, Asian Americans have often been stereotyped as being unpretentious, tolerant, or well-to-do—all qualities that would make them more attractive targets. This led to the campaign, Stop Asian Hate. 

Romey, who is someone I’ve interviewed in the past about how diverse the travel industry is, said, “This is why representation matters. That’s why I get so happy when all shades of Asian are portrayed in a positive light.” If any industry can show a diverse picture positively and lead other organizations to do the same, it can be the travel industry. 

British Travel Journalist, Ash Bhardwaj, who is of Indian heritage, wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph in June 2020 on why we are all missing out when we only see the world through a white lens. I questioned Ash on why it was vital for him to write this article on my podcast. “If you’re brown, and if you’re traveling places, you will have a different experience. You will have different thoughts, different opinions, and you may be treated differently. That’s not always a bad thing; that’s a good thing.” 

“You need diverse thoughts in organizations in writing to be able to make sense of all of that. Diversity is vital to succeeding, understanding, and interpreting the world. There’s no point in me writing about the experience of women in London because I just don’t have that insight.” 

“The whole diversity and inclusion thing is not about ticking boxes. It was about 10 or 15 years ago. The great thing about diversity and inclusion now is you can sell it as a winning narrative. This is the benefit you get now from having these new insights on these stories. All of a sudden, you have stuff that resonates and is relevant to you. If organizations want to survive, they’re going to have to diversify.”

Ash’s final point about a story resonating and being relevant to you is something Travel Writer, Dr. Nabila Ismail, whose work has been featured in Forbes and the BBC, talked to me about when I interviewed her last year. New York-based, she didn’t talk about her ethnicity when she started her travel blog but realized it was an important narrative to tell. “I never really included that in my identity, starting my blog or anything. I really felt like I left the South Asian part out for such a long time, and it’s only recently I’ve realized I need to be using that. It does make a difference whether I realized it or not.”

“People would ask how I would travel alone as a Pakistani, a brown girl, or a Muslim. There are not that many people who are openly talking about it or identifying as a South Asian traveler.”  

“Bringing in the South Asian aspect has been important because there’s no real organizations or anyone even talking about it. Even in brands and companies, the diversity and representation on the south Asian part are missing.” 

Author, Travel Writer & Journalist, Tharik Hussain, a British Muslim, who has had bylines for the BBC, Guardian and National Geographic Traveller, to name a few, weighed in on the argument. 

“Simply put, the travel industry is one of the most visible and popular ways that the world is represented to us, and if the representation of the world is done solely through a set of narrow lenses (at least in the English speaking world), i.e. white, middle-class, middle-aged men for example, then we are actually seeing the world as represented through a very narrow prism, and over time that can become arguably quite damaging.”

“For this reason, it is important all people engage with the space so that there is a diversity of perspectives telling us what the world is like.” 

So how much progress has been made since organizations promised to include more diverse voices since the BLM movement started. Wazha Dube, a travel consultant of black origin, living as an ex-pat in New York, doesn’t think we have. “I think there are a number of factors why we’ve not seen any real progress in changing diversity within the industry. Much of it was false gestures, coronavirus, but it’s also a matter of the difficulty in finding people of color to take the jobs.” 

“We also have to take into account that companies were just trying to survive, and hiring based on diversity wasn’t at the objective when they looked at their dwindling bank accounts.” That’s a fair point from Wazha, but why make the pledge and should that not have been the time to start fresh? 

Julie, (who wanted to stay anonymous) is of white origin and works for a well-known travel firm, reiterated what Wazha pointed out. “We just don’t get the application from people from a diverse background, especially on your question on whether enough Asians are applying. When a vacancy is available, we put the ad out to everyone and hand on heart; we just don’t get enough Asians applying from what I can see. The ones that do, don’t meet the criteria.” 

Julie may have a point in terms of numbers not being available. From personal experience, most Asian parents would encourage their kids to study and obtain an accountancy, medicine, finance, or business degree. Not necessarily tell them to look for a career in travel.

However, maybe Asians and other diverse individuals have tried to apply in the past and have been knocked back. There is only so much rejection someone can take before they give up. Although Ash Bhardwaj, who has found success, told me the rejections haven’t put him off. “I’ve been writing developmental ideas for T.V. for 14 years, and nothing has gone through yet. If you do anything for 14 years and get nothing back, you probably tell someone to quit. Sometimes I don’t think they care.” 

Tharik Hussain believes, “What the industry insider told you might well be true for them, but as someone who was once looking in from the outside (and still often feels that way), I know how intimidating it is to look towards a space and not see anyone like yourself there. That alone can prevent some people from even considering entering that space.”

“This sounds like a vicious cycle because, at times, it is: the industry does not encourage/recruit enough people from south Asian backgrounds, and so south Asians don’t believe they belong in this space – the imposter syndrome ad infinitum if you will.”

Can things change whilst we have the hierarchy the way it is? Suhail, who is Asian and works in PR for a travel firm, (who also wanted to stay anonymous), commented by saying, “Social consciousness has deepened some travel companies grasp of the need for diversity; however, there will always be a gap until there are more diverse executives at the top. Hence why there will be no recognition for people of color who are in the industry now.” 

He also made another great point that sometimes doesn’t get mentioned. “I think it’s appalling Asian people feel the need to be anglicized to fit in. Remember the guy in Dragons Den, James Caan? His actual name is Nazim Khan. He anglicized his name to James Caan to fit in and do better in business.” Suhail’s point hit me on the chin, as I am guilty of this myself. I’ve done the same with my name as I felt it was required to fit into western society when I was growing up in the 90s. 

My final point is something Suhail said about getting recognition for people of color in the industry. Various travel media institutions who have nominated individuals here in the U.K. and America recently suggest that no matter how great an impact your work has, for someone of color to get recognized will be hard to come by. I’m sure all the nominated individuals for these awards deserved it for their excellent work. However, for there to be little to no recognition in terms of nominations for top honors for anyone of color, let alone someone of Asian origin, is a great disappointment for the industry. As far as I can see, and the institutes that I reached out to for comment and no one doing so, I see it as a total whitewash.

Where does that leave us today? Well, perhaps with still a lot of work to be done. As a society, it has felt that we’ve been heading backwards over the last five years regarding diversity and inclusion. Possibly longer. Even TTG Media, who conducted the study with PwC to see the state of diversity and inclusion within the travel sector, lacked a diverse team themselves. The same could be said about many other companies I looked at, especially at the executive level for all of them.  

There were also interesting matters raised about potentially insufficient personnel, and perhaps more needs to be done to encourage the new generation to consider the sector. But, that will come back down to people from diverse backgrounds seeing someone they can resonate with within the media. The problem could continue.  

Are we not tired of hearing the same narrative from the same types of people about destinations over and over again? Should there not be more Asians on our television screens and radio talking about their experiences as a traveler? Now is when it really matters that action is taken, and talking about bringing diversity and inclusion isn’t enough. Only time will tell what the picture will look like in the next few years. 

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