On Challenging the Western Gaze in Travel Writing

BIPOC writers and editors are calling for accountability from an industry that disadvantages people of color.

by | October 8, 2020

This June, when companies across the media industry were reckoning with racism in their workplaces, travel media companies were conspicuously absent from the conversation. Condé Nast Traveller posted a black square with the caption “Black Lives Matter #blackouttuesday”; other outlets such as Departures, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Outside Magazine, and Fodor’s posted similarly hollow images and captions. Many of these publications limited their response to Instagram, failing to release statements or audits of their staffs or make commitments to antiracism.

In response, a group of Black travel professionals formed the Black Travel Alliance (BTA) in June 2020. On social media, they challenged travel companies to share diversity plans and the percentage of Black people on staff. Only a handful responded — AFAR, The Points Guy, The Matador Network, and Passion Passport provided the requested data; Condé Nast Traveler and Trip Savvy shared actionable steps, but no data. 

Industry veterans were disappointed, but not surprised. Racism has long been endemic to travel media: There is limited minority representation in the industry due to lack of access, gatekeeping by predominantly white editorial mastheads, passport privilege (significant visa-free or low-cost visa access to foreign countries), and other forms of systemic racism. Looking forward, the industry can become more inclusive by centering local voices and hire BIPOC at all levels of the field to move away from the standard white gaze in travel writing.

The $8 trillion global tourism industry, and the media that covers and promotes it, has a long history with colonialism. In the first century AD, the Greek geographer Pausanias who took detailed notes of his explorations around the Roman empire. Moving forward, royal messengers and colonizers made records of the places they visited to inform monarchies of their findings, spawning an entire publishing genre of first-person accounts by colonizers in 18th-century Europe. Today, most travel media is created with the intent of making locales feel accessible to foreign tourists with disposable income. White writers continue to be the industry’s de facto gatekeepers, minimizing visibility for marginalized or local writers. 

“Travel media attempts to communicate a story of the world told through a white, Western gaze,” says Bani Amor, who recently hosted a webinar on decolonizing travel writing. “Travel media was forged in the onset of colonization, where the structure of white supremacy placed the white experience as default and everyone else as the exotic other, appointing themselves as the world’s storytellers and branding colonizers as explorers.” 

The colonialist roots of travel writing, combined with the lack of diversity at travel media companies, means that a lot of travel writing today reinforces the stigma of Global South countries being “discovered” by the West. “Travel writing tends to label anything that deviates from white, Western norms as ‘exotic’ or ‘peculiar,’” travel host and journalist Oneika Raymond says. Amor says that editors have removed the word “white” from their writing, and they notice racial stereotypes, racist ideals, and a lack of research when reading travel articles written by white writers about the places they’re from — Ecuador, Guatemala, and NYC. “These people aren’t writing to or for, but over me,” they say. 

This mindset persists in the operating model by which modern travel media gets made: writers travel to other countries, take notes, return, and submit copy about places they may have only visited for a few days on a press trip or self-funded tourism. This colonialist ideology influences every sector of the industry: who gets to go on sponsored trips, gets paid to write what, and whose voices get excluded.

Very few publications offer travel reimbursements to cover the expense of reporting a story, so many travel writers rely on press trips hosted and paid for by country and city tourism boards, hotels, restaurants, and tour companies. If you’re not independently wealthy enough to travel on your own dime or well-connected enough with travel public relations agencies and tourism boards to be invited on press trips, it’s difficult to travel frequently enough to crystallize new story ideas to pitch and place. Assigning editors typically have a roster of writers from whom they accept pitches and give assignments, which also prevents BIPOC writers from succeeding in the industry. 

I’ve experienced this gatekeeping throughout my career as a travel journalist. In comparison to my white peers who write for similar publications, I’ve been invited on relatively few press trips. On these trips, white writers have said racist things to me, such as making hurtful comments about my English and skin color. 

I’m often the only BIPOC, which is extremely isolating. I’ve traveled with three Black writers, three Asian writers, and two Latinx writers, and each time, we expressed relief that we weren’t the only BIPOC there. When I’ve confronted PR reps about the lack of representation on press trips, they tell me that journalists aren’t invited based on ethnicity but based on outlets and assignments; they don’t acknowledge the privilege and access white writers have to these outlets, editors, and commissions. 

Most travel journalists of color have had similar experiences on press trips. “Colleagues on a press trip have spoken to me in Ebonics although I’d only ever spoken to them in Standard English. I’ve been mistaken for someone I don’t resemble, but we’re both Black and female,” Raymond says. A white brand rep continuously compared her skin color to former Fodor’s associate editor Megan Butler’s on a trip. “She’d compare her arm to mine and ask if anyone thought she’d get as black as me,” Butler says. Veteran travel journalist Brian Major has also endured racist behavior on press trips. “I traveled with a white editor who asked me if I liked ‘to sleep a lot,’” he said. He’s also been the only person asked to show ID at least twice on press trips on which he was the only Black journalist.

I reached out to 40 press trip organizers in June 2020, many of whom have hosted me on trips, to inquire about the apparent lack of BIPOC attendees. Impact Travel Alliance (ITA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to socially and environmentally sustainable travel, told me that thirty-five percent of their press trip attendees have been BIPOC, while only nine percent have been Black, and committed to increasing BIPOC press trip participation by at least 10% by 2021. No other group responded. 

The dominance of white writers and editors in travel media negatively impacts even BIPOC who hold staff positions. As the BTA found, very few publications have minority representation on their mastheads, which can lead to a toxic work environment.

Butler resigned in June 2020 from her role as associate editor at Fodor’s, where she was the only BIPOC on the editorial staff. “I was expected to remain a junior employee,” she says. “I tried to work harder to get the same promotions my colleagues received. I took on more projects; credit for them was given to other employees. I’d pitch an idea; it’d be assigned to another writer.” Butler states she was also consistently bullied by Fodor’s editorial director. “He refused to speak to me for months at a time. He’d show up to a meeting I’d scheduled with someone else, sit very close to me and not talk, to intimidate me.” When she alerted HR, they didn’t take action. 

On June 1, 2020 after protests began across the country for George Floyd, Butler was asked to craft a Black Lives Matter statement by the company. She refused and quit, posting about her experience on Instagram. “In workplaces where HR is unlikely to listen, abuses and discrimination get worse,” Butler says. “I quit loudly because I shouldn’t have to work in a world where my career is dependent on being lucky enough to find a job with a benevolent ally willing to do me the favor of letting me move up the ladder.”

Travel writer Kris Fordham, who has worked as staff editor with Condé Nast Traveler and is a freelance travel writer for CNN Travel, AFAR, and others, notes that the publications use BIPOC writers as a mouthpiece to uphold colonialist narratives. “I did it for the longest time, and I’m so tired,” she says. “The mainstream travel media has never cared about our stories.” When she pitches stories explicitly related to her experience as a BIPOC travel writer, the pitch often gets rejected; even when these stories are accepted, the angle is changed to downplay or erase her identity, even in a first-person feature. 

Writer Yung Nam Cheah notes that the industry is white-dominated even in Hong Kong, where she lives. “I often see preference given to non-POC writers who’ve only lived in Hong Kong for a short time,” she says. She became aware in 2019 that a white writer was earning double her rate at the same publication.

Though, thanks to BTA, several major travel brands have released data about diversity within the travel media industry, meaningful change will require steps beyond transparency. White travel editors, writers, and publicists need to join the work that their BIPOC colleagues have been doing to make the industry more inclusive. We share opportunities, contacts, and leads; we suggest other BIPOCs for trips and make personal introductions to editors and publicists; we call out racist actions to alleviate our peers from some of the emotional labor of explaining why racist actions are harmful.

To decolonize travel writing, publications must center local voices to limit the white gaze on non-white destinations. Editors should make an effort to find local talent rather than continuing to encourage parachute journalism. This would create more writing gigs for BIPOC writers and in turn, perhaps, fewer writing opportunities for white writers to cover subjects outside of their own culture. Creating equity for BIPOC writers is the only way to dismantle the colonial undertones of travel media.

The travel industry has stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lull is an opportune time for industry leaders to get rid of systems that enable racism by creating equitable opportunities for minority writers. Brian Major would like to see travel media hire more Black writers, including in high-level roles. He suggests that publications should liaise with the National Association of Black Journalists, an organization dedicated to increasing the amount of Black journalists in newsrooms.

Writers also need to acknowledge the histories of the destinations they cover including colonization, slavery, and war — these factors forever impact the way we travel. The white gaze should not be the default position of travel journalism, and prose that makes white folks uncomfortable must not be edited away. The only way to make travel writing reflect the world we live in is to hire BIPOC at all levels of the industry.

Subscribe to Study Hall for Opportunity, knowledge, and community

$532.50 is the average payment via the Study Hall marketplace, where freelance opportunities from top publications are posted. Members also get access to a media digest newsletter, community networking spaces, paywalled content about the media industry from a worker's perspective, and a database of 1000 commissioning editor contacts at publications around the world. Click here to learn more.