Viewpoint #2: Three Years Later, DEI in Travel Reeks of False Promises

Viewpoint by Tourism Lens is a rapid take on key, often thorny, issues in sustainable travel and tourism. The aim is to encourage debate and positive change. Access is limited to Tourism Lens subscribers. To receive future editions, subscribe for free with your email.

Since my recent stories about a Black female executive in hospitality, or the exodus of Black women from America to settle abroad, pitches from US public relations firms on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in travel have been flooding my inbox.

“I’ve got plenty of DEI stories to send your way! ” On the first of these that I received, I mustered up enough energy to respond the following.

“I don’t focus on DEI stories — I’m inclusive of global perspectives in travel. That should be the norm.”

For the record, my February story of Black women leaving America (which went viral) in Bloomberg Businessweek was completely unrelated to Black History month in the US. It was just… an important story that needed to be told. It also fit the theme of our magazine that week: people making changes at mid-life. In this case, professional Black women who are overlooked in America time and again — overlooked for promotions, overlooked for lucrative projects, overlooked in the healthcare system.

Ditto on my recent stories about Black entrepreneurs, which also intersected with travel and tourism — it wasn’t about Black History Month. In essence, they are the kind of stories I’ve been writing for the better part of my 10+ year career as a travel journalist and they show my passion for this diverse and multicultural world in which I was raised, across continents.

Stories of people of color and other groups in the travel industry who are often forgotten deserve to be mainstreamed into all aspects of coverage. They should get to share their stories and perspectives first-hand in the hundreds of travel articles that are published every day across trade and consumer outlets in the Global North.

But more importantly they should also be the leaders we seek and celebrate. Not just because it’s trendy to do so now, or because the industry has quotas to fill. 

So why are the DEI tropes and faux pas continuing, three years following the US travel industry’s alleged “DEI” and sustainability reckoning?

Because travel’s diversity at the leadership level hasn’t changed in any significant way, not even at the gender level, much less racially. Because US federal and state bodies, including most DMOs, still award funding for DEI or sustainable tourism projects to primarily white-owned and led travel organizations even though there are diverse, professional groups able to do the work who have the knowledge and experience.

DEI and sustainability isn’t just about race, it’s about economic equity. Every decision that is made at the leadership level has a trickle-down effect to either enable or deprive of prosperity. We know this.

Take the simple example I mentioned last year, about an editor at a major publication who told me she had too many Indigenous tourism stories from Canada at that moment. She missed the importance of who was telling those stories that she’d already accepted for publication. (I did communicate this to her respectfully and she gracefully acknowledged the issue).

There can never be too many stories of Indigenous tourism businesses after centuries of none, particularly when there’s been a single voice telling those stories for the most part and there are multiple Indigenous tribes with their own languages and cultures. There can be stories of Black women and the businesses they’re launching abroad because they matter, not only when they fit in a once-a-year slot called Black History Month.

With media colleagues at UNWTO Executive Council meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco (November 2022). A fun, multi-continental bunch.

While we’re at it, here are additional tips I’m happy to repeat, based on what I’ve witnessed and what colleagues have shared with me the past few months:

  • Don’t invite BIPOC talent to your tourism events to speak because you need Black and brown faces in your seats. Make it clear to them you are interested because they bring significant expertise in a topic from which your audience would benefit, and mention pay up front just as you would with a white speaker or keynote. (DEI also does not mean telling a BIPOC journalist that you reached out to them because you want to “to diversify” your event. Yes, this actually happened to a colleague).
  • Don’t tap into the ideas of a BIPOC tourism professional (entrepreneurs,  business owners) under the guise of “networking” or “catching up” only to replicate these thoughts as your own and sell them. This industry has a real problem with fraudulent behavior. If you’re approaching someone with a potential paid project opportunity: Bring a contract to the table; there’s no such thing as “brainstorming” or “picking the brains” of a colleague who’s spent double the time in this system working harder to get to where they are.
  • Don’t approach BIPOC professionals in travel with the assumption that you are giving them “a hand up” (when in fact, they bring you a huge benefit). Unfortunately the travel industry still reeks of saviorism. I had an editor once who felt he had to point out all the things he did for BIPOC employees — look, I hired them, I tried! But the employees were set up for failure from day one, because they weren’t highly qualified or they weren’t given the support system needed once they were hired.
  • Showing you care about supporting BIPOC business owners and communities and their future access to tourism resources in this fragile universe means showing and sharing the money. Equity is about money, pure and simple, and this travel industry likes to pretend it doesn’t know that. (The rare few, such as Intrepid Travel, walk the talk and give projects to BIPOC entrepreneurs and companies to help advance the tour company’s global work).

Lastly, if you’re a US or Global North travel company (of any kind) that isn’t giving BIPOC industry players a real seat at the table, at the executive level, you cannot claim to be pro-sustainability nor pro-climate justice. If you’re a primarily white-led DMO, organization or company and you’re not directly co-partnering (50-50) with an established BIPOC-owned company or organization to implement your big-dollar DEI or other sustainable tourism projects or guides — or you’re not giving a project to a BIPOC organization or individual even though they are qualified: You’re not pro-sustainability and pro-equity and are conscious-travel-washing and DEI-washing.

Some of us know the difference. I’ll be here to call it out, while prioritizing the stories of those who are walking the talk.


Lebawit is an award-winning, independent travel journalist, author and speaker specializing in global tourism. Her reported stories on sustainability, equity, destination management, hospitality, responsible marketing, and climate action have appeared in consumer and trade publications, including Bloomberg, Skift, and Conde Nast Traveler. Read more about Lily here.

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