Decolonization, Diversity, and EDI for Your Travel Business: Where do you start?
How many times have you seen travel product images of say, a group of white/Western tourists enjoying a safari experience—and yet rarely if ever showing brown travelers doing the same? Or perhaps you’ve read sales copy that describes a destination as ‘open and friendly’—when it may not feel quite so inclusive to a certain group. And looking inwards, does your own company try to create a workplace that’s reflective of both its client base and community?
These are just some of the issues at play when businesses think about decolonizing their approach to travel. It also feeds into the overarching values of EDI. Also known as DEI, equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is an attempt to rebalance the structures currently in place that don’t always offer an equal playing field. As a term, EDI has been gaining more traction because it places equity—equal access—as the platform upon which diversity (of employees and approach) and inclusion (where those employees feel involved and empowered) can then be achieved.
Why is it important to redress the imbalance?
If travel is about movement, people, and communities, it’s important that these different perspectives are taken into account when creating products and itineraries that center those same people and places. How do you want people to view your company, whether potential travel clients or companies you might collaborate with?
“EDI starts at the top,” says Albert N. Kimbu PhD, Reader and Head of Department of Tourism and Transport at the University of Surrey. “If senior management don’t have a vision, it won’t happen. And you have to consider what you want EDI to look like in your company—from the staff you employ to product development and service delivery.”
This sentiment—of working out what you want to achieve—is emphasized by Sophia Hyder Hock, Chief Diversity Officer at Destinations International. “Define what diversity, equity, and inclusion means for you and your company. Ask yourself why these concepts matter for you,” she says. “Understanding your ‘why’ will create a solid foundation to implement these important practices in an authentic way.”
It’s about perception too. All of us operate in a ‘bubble’– so you might feel the money and customer base is X, but be unaware of Y. As an example, Black travelers in the US spent $109.6 billion on travel in pre-pandemic 2019. Similarly, research carried out by the University of Surrey and Women in Travel CIC showed BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) travelers in the UK travel more frequently than white travelers.
So, what does decolonizing or EDI-ing a business ‘look like’?
If your ‘why’ stems from wanting to create a company and staff that reflects society and the wider world, you have to actively seek it out—but also understand how much more important these factors are to people looking to enter (any) industry. It’s also important to note the intersection at play. A gay employee may face certain barriers, but if they are also Black or disabled or a woman, those barriers can feel higher.
An increasing number of prospective employees want to work in companies that know the importance of EDI—but without it being tokenistic. No one wants to be a ‘diversity hire’. The ‘You need to see it to be it,” rings loud and clear. Talent pools exist, but you have to tap into them: and if there are hurdles, they need to be removed.
This is something that Sumeetra Ramakrishnan, Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Surrey’s Department of Tourism and Transport, is clear about. “Diversity and inclusion should be integral to recruitment, retention, and talent management practices,” she says. “Training should aim to understand unconscious bias, challenge organizational cultures, and look beyond traditional talent pools to creating inclusive progression opportunities.”
Expecting different results, but not changing how your biases or existing structures shape the current set-up, won’t last long. Anyone can change one aspect or recruit one extra person—but to sustain it, these practices need to be fully integrated, all the way to the top—diversity doesn’t stop at mid-management. That’s why deciding why you want to do this is so important—knowing what you want to gain is what will maintain momentum and ambition.
How do you ‘EDI’ your product?
Feeding into EDI is the idea of decolonization, but what does that mean? For centuries, our idea of travel and exploration has been shaped by mostly Western, white, male explorers—in its earliest days, often with scant regard for Indigenous communities who suffered land grabs and subjugation of languages. This means the perspective from which the world has been presented to us for centuries was through what’s called a single lens. Today, even a dual lens isn’t enough: You need a 360-degree perspective.
Taking a closer look at the travel experiences you sell is one way to challenge existing narratives—which is where diversity of staff and ideas comes in. How might that tour come across to, for example, a Brown or gay traveler? Is the experience a fair representation of the community? Are you sticking to the same-old, same-old that every tour operator uses, or can you seek out businesses and products run by people from sometimes-marginalized communities? Does the tour leave a positive impact? Does the DMC use both local and non-local guides? Are staff paid fairly or are advantages being taken, especially if from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities? What is the gender split?
And travelers want travel experiences that don’t feel uncomfortable—so put yourself in their shoes. A much-cited example is a township or favela tour where tourists are bussed in and out, with zero or minimal meaningful engagement with locals and the only benefactor is the tour company.
“How can your company cultivate experiences that truly cultivate a sense of welcoming, belonging, and connection?” says Hyder Hock. “Seek feedback from your current audience on these concepts to improve upon your practices. Asking the questions may feel vulnerable—because it is—but the feedback will be well worth the ask.”
Much of this change comes down to being brave and bold. Travel companies and brands need to question what’s already out there, look at travel with a critical eye, and ask if they don’t know. If you rarely consider your race, gender, or sexuality when you travel (or in everyday life), that’s exactly why diversity can add to that 360-degree view.
“Those in positions of authority should not be afraid to engage with those with knowledge,” says Kimbu. “They need to speak to those who are directly affected by certain decisions, and who have lived experience on a daily basis to co-create those tools to make the travel sector more inclusive, more diverse, and more equitable.”
It’s this conscious desire for change that will make these actions, such as decolonizing a business and making it more equitable, a sustainable proposition. If it’s to tick boxes or for ‘optics’, that’s going to be harder to sustain as the organization evolves. But weave it into the company culture, starting from the top, and it’s far easier to fix any loose threads along the way.
- Wanderful’s Anti-Oppression Toolkit for Travel and Culture Creators
- Black Travel Alliance Website
- The Telegraph’s article on How to reverse the ‘colonial gaze’ when you travel
- Women in Travel CIC’s report on Engaging New Travel Audiences: Understanding the UK BAME Travellers’ Decision-making Process