The coronavirus pandemic had a traumatic effect on all aspects of our lives, but outside of the medical industry, the travel and tourism industry was one of the hardest hit. According to TradingPlatforms.com, U.S. airlines handled 60 percent fewer passengers in 2020, and total revenue was almost cut in half. Destinations shut down, countries were closing their borders, and travel restrictions and protocols were changing by the weeks. And as the saying goes, “When America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia.”
Travel's Changing Landscape
Thomas Dorsey is the founder and publisher of SoulOfAmerica.com, one of the first travel sites for African Americans. His site lists Black businesses, heritage sites and destinations where Black travelers feel welcomed. “It was hard to see so many sites listed on our pages that have had to close as a result of COVID. And I really felt sad for so many Black entrepreneurs who were just opening up in 2020. Many of them have put their life savings into their businesses. And we’re not sure which business will survive yet, but I think we’ll have a better idea by July,” says Dorsey.
One of those entrepreneurs is Debra Hines Brown, president and luxury travel designer of SmartBird World Travel. “After spending seven or eight years as a home-based travel agency here in Atlanta, by 2018, I had decided to invest in a build-out for a retail store to take my agency to the next level,” boasts Brown. “When it was completed, I received my certificate of occupancy on January 20, 2020. My big grand opening was February 6, 2020. And the pandemic hit five weeks later. So I almost had to close before I started,” she laments. “But thankfully I was able to use grants from Invest Atlanta and other PPP and SBA loans to keep me afloat up until now.”
Claudia Young-Hill is another Atlanta-based luxury travel advisor who had to readjust during the COVID. “The pandemic shut us down to where we had almost no sales in 2020. And a lot of people left the industry,” shares Young-Hill. “I had to curtail a lot of my business. In fact, I was let go from being the business development officer for Barbados Tourism because of the pandemic.
But I stayed with American Express as an independent agent and still maintained a lot of my clients,” she adds. The majority of Brown’s and Young-Hill’s clients are African Americans who have the dollars to spend on luxury travel with unique experiences that only travel advisors can get for them. It’s usually a lucrative market, but not while trips were being canceled throughout 2020. So they had to provide alternate experiences.
“A lot of my clients are still not ready to fly unless they have their own private jet. So that limits where they’re going,” admits Young-Hill. “So I started a luxury road trip collection where you drive to a destination. For example, clients from New York would drive to Martha’s Vineyard or to the Great Lakes. And clients in the South are really big on driving to the mountains or to beaches. So the drive trips have helped to fill in for some of those lost sales,” she says, relieved.
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Young-Hill adds, “The biggest thing we were faced with is the uncertainty, like border closings. For instance, I was going to book the Rocky Mountaineer, which is a luxury train ride through the Canadian Rockies. But Canada and the United States had closed their borders to each other, so I had to cancel those client trips until 2022. That was a huge disappointment,” she groans.
I believe travel advisors were the hardest hit segment of the travel industry because we only get paid after our clients do the trip,” says Brown. “We booked all this travel in 2019 and expected to be paid in 2020, but all the trips were canceled.”
If Not By Plane, Then By Car
Kitty Pope is publications editor of African Diaspora Tourism. The Atlanta-based world traveler had to cancel a conference she was helping to plan in Nigeria scheduled for last year. But she and her family decided to keep their 2020 Thanksgiving trip to a beach house on the outer banks of North Carolina. “We weren’t able to get our money back for renting the house, so we went ahead and did the trip. But we made sure that everyone who attended had tested negative for COVID-19 before they came,” notes Pope. She adds, “And on my Delta flight, the plane didn’t have anyone sitting in the middle seats, which was great.”
Dr. Cathy Gomes, who lives just outside of Baltimore in Randallstown, Maryland, has been traveling the world since retiring as a high school principal. She had to cancel several trips in 2020 and 2021. “I canceled a trip to Tennessee for a wedding,” she says. “And I had planned and coordinated our first family and friends Christmas cruise, which was scheduled to set sail for the Caribbean from Baltimore in December of 2020. We had booked 20 cabins. But after that first stay-at-home mandate, we canceled and got a full refund and rescheduled it for 2022.”
Gomes adds, “I was also supposed to visit Dubai in August of this year, but I’m still not comfortable with international travel yet.” So she decided to take advantage of destinations closer to home. “I decided to do drive trips. So for New Year’s Eve 2020, a friend and I booked a suite at the Marriott Hotel on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and rang in the new year looking out at the fireworks over the skyline from our hotel room. The hotel wasn’t even 40 percent occupied, but we had a great time,” she exclaims. “And this past March, I did a Girlfriend Getaway drive trip for my birthday to Old Town Alexandria, Virginia and to the National Harbor just outside of Washington, D.C.,” she adds.
Becoming a Tourist in Your City
Pope did the same. “I got to know my city of Atlanta more,” she confides. “In fact, I went with my daughter and her husband and new baby to an Asian New Year festival at a park that I had never been to before. It was great and felt like we were actually in Asia,” she declares.
But with so many Americans staying in the country, international destinations popular with African American travelers didn’t fare well, like islands in the Caribbean. “Some countries like Barbados made travelers quarantine for five days when they arrived, and for many people, that’s most of their trip,” admits Young-Hill. “So a lot of travelers decided not to take a chance in those countries.”
But Sharon LaCruise took the chance. The Brooklyn-based filmmaker and world traveler normally travels to San Francisco four times a year for the Independent Television Service board meetings. But those trips were changed to Zoom meetings. However, she wasn’t about to cancel her annual trip to her native country of Jamaica. “I went this past January,” says LaCruise. “It was supposed to be a month-long business and leisure trip where I was going to do research for my next documentary. But COVID had shut down the archives and the university campus in Kingston. So I shortened my trip to two weeks, and it was just vacation time,” she says.
LaCruise explains what it was like traveling to that island. “You had to take a COVID test 10 days before you arrived and bring your documentation to show before you got on the plane and show again when you landed,” she explains. “And they had military members at the airport giving us hand sanitizer.”
She continues, “I stayed at the Moon Palace in Ocho Rios, which is a five-star hotel, and when I arrived, I had to wipe my feet on a special mat, and they checked my temperature and gave me more hand sanitizer. The hotel was only about a third occupied, and we wore masks everywhere except outside by the pool or on the beach.”
Because LaCruise was at an all-inclusive resort, she was allowed a lot of freedom to move around on the property and go off site to buy souvenirs or go to the market. But for travelers staying in private residences, the Jamaican government demanded that they quarantine for ten days, and an app was uploaded to their cell phones to track their movements.
LaCruise says she got out of Jamaica just in time before the U.S. changed its policy requiring travelers to test negative for COVID 48 to 72 hours before returning to the country.
Brown traveled to the Caribbean as well. “Puerto Rico was my number one selling destination, followed by Aruba and Mexico,” she says. “I traveled to Mexico and Jamaica for destination training, so I can be up to date on properties for my clients and to build relationships with my suppliers,” she explains.
Brown continues, “The good thing about some of the Black-owned properties in Jamaica is that most of them are boutique-sized, so they were able to maintain their level of service and quality. Sandy Haven Resort and Cliff Hotel & Spa in Negril are two very nice Black-owned properties. In fact, a client has booked all 33 rooms at the Cliff House for a week in July of 2022.”
She adds, “I also went to Croatia in September 2020. And while touring Dubrovnik, I felt like I was the only Black person in town. I didn’t even see the African travelers who are usually there. I flew in through Paris, and I was shocked at how empty Charles de Gaulle Airport was.”
Travel Rebound on the Horizon
Paris had definitely taken a tourism hit, according to Monique Wells, co-founder of Entree to Black Paris Tours. “Ninety percent of the travelers who take our walking tours are African American, and our bookings dropped to zero,” Wells laments. “However, we collaborated with my non-profit, the Wells International Foundation, to create a Virtual Black Paris Experience that people can buy and download. We also created a French version of our most popular tour, ‘Black History in and around the Luxembourg Garden.’ It’s being promoted by the Paris Tourist Office on their YouTube page. So we’re now building a French-speaking clientele,” Wells boasts.
She adds, “The most recent announcement indicates that U.S. travelers will be able to come to France as of June 9, provided they can show documentation that they have been fully vaccinated with a vaccine approved by the European Medicines Agency. As far as we know, quarantine will not be necessary.”
“I think there will be a big surge this summer in domestic travel because it’s still a bit dicey about going overseas,” says Chris McGinnis, former travel editor of SFGate.com. But among the vaccinated crowd, I think Mexico will be a good place to go because they’re inexpensive and they’re doing a good job of being COVID-observant. At all the big resorts, they have testing facilities, and their tourism areas like the Yucatan Peninsula and Puerto Vallarta have done a better job than the U.S. in taking COVID precautions,” he adds.
“Mexico is one of my favorite places to go, and I’d like to go back there in 2022,” says Pope. “In fact, I’ve decided I want to move there. There are a lot of Black expats there near the Cancun area and I feel safe there because I can walk around alone, and the police aren’t shooting Black people there,” she confesses.
“I’m expecting a big travel surge in July to destinations with beaches,” says Dorsey. “And I think we’ll reach herd immunity by this summer. I’m traveling to Las Vegas in July and to Kaua’i at the end of December,” he says.
“I’m excited about planning a Girlfriend Getaway trip to Vegas in October,” says Gomes. “And I want to go back to Sydney, Australia in 2022, but this time with a friend who is from there to experience it like a local.”
“I can’t wait to travel again,” shares LaCruise. “I’m definitely going back to Jamaica in 2022. And for my 60th birthday that year, I’d like to travel for a month and visit Bali, Australia and New Zealand.”
“I recently invested in creating group itineraries,” says Brown. “And I’m really excited because in August, one of my first groups will travel on a luxury, small-ship cruise for nine nights from Israel to Egypt to Cyprus to Greece, and then spend eight nights in Greece before flying back to the States. And that trip is pretty much sold out.” She adds, “I just did a presentation to an African American group about an exhibition cruise to Antarctica. And the cruise is $11,000 per person, and no one batted an eye.”
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Still in This Together
All of the interviewees have been vaccinated and don’t have a problem with masks or vaccination mandates. Dorsey concludes, “Until the virus is completely crushed, we have to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper and get vaccinated and continue to wear masks, so we don’t have to have another shut-down.”
LaCruise agrees, “I think airports, hotels and destinations need to demand that travelers be vaccinated before they arrive. I don’t see how we can go to destinations with hundreds of people without that. We need to be able to get on with our lives.”
In part two of our series, we’ll look at how the pandemic has affected the second busiest airport in the world, convention and visitors bureaus in predominantly Black cities, Black meeting planners and Black hoteliers.