Inclusion and Equity in Tourism: Actions to Prioritize Representation of Diverse Views and Voices
From tourism boards to industry associations, from travel marketing campaigns to market studies, an increasing number of conversations in the travel and tourism industry nowadays focus on and work to promote Justice, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (JDEI).
Beyond JDEI hashtags and “international day”- or “heritage month”-specific campaigns, though, our industry still has a long way to go in becoming a truly just, diverse, equitable and inclusive space, whether we are talking about engaging travelers of various backgrounds, or empowering professionals working in our industry.
If the experience of facing existential threats during the pandemic has taught us anything, and if we believe in our strengths and resilience to “build back better”, we should make sure that one of the key lessons from our collective pause-and-reflect exercise is that we should acknowledge travel and tourism hasn’t always been good for everyone, and that we need to make it better for everyone.
Thankfully, we can look to a number of inspiring examples of leadership, courage and creative solutions from around the world, helping increase representation of diverse perspectives and experiences in our industry.
What examples of actions and solutions for increasing representation in travel and tourism would you like to highlight for others in the industry?
Turning Our Love for Travel into a Positive Force for Equity and Justice
Everyone has those moments that - no matter how much time passes - stay in their mind and creep back up every now and then. One such moment that I have stuck in my head is a conversation I had with a colleague at a tourism conference in the US more than a decade ago.
I was still new to the field, just a few months into my newly found career path in (what is nowadays generally referred to as) sustainable tourism.
“Where are Asian people?”
I said, half ironically and half with genuine confusion. I knew for a fact that there were Asian communities in the host city. I also saw a lot of Asian faces in places and services for tourists. But at the conference, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me presenting, moderating, or even participating as delegates.
(To be clear - since I am Asian myself, the lack of representation of Asian people was what struck me the most. But of course it wasn’t just that. That particular conference - and unfortunately many others since then - simply lacked representation.)
Back then, I didn’t dare speak up. I remember feeling self-conscious, wondering if others saw me and thought I didn’t belong. I remember doubting my own feelings, asking if I was overreacting, making a non-issue into a contentious matter, or whether anyone else even cared.
Fast forward to 2022, I think our industry has come a long way. No, we haven’t magically solved racism. No, we haven’t dismantled the power structure at the core of why we have equity and representation problems to begin with. But what has changed is that we have more space for having uncomfortable conversations challenging the status quo.
Personally I’m much more confident in most situations with raising my voice about representation of various groups (racial or otherwise), partly because I know others will at the very least understand where I’m coming from - thanks in huge part to the prominence of JDEI topics in our industry in recent years.
I no longer need to fear being the only one in the room seeing the issue and thus risking being dismissed or even mocked if I were to speak up. That may be a low bar to clear, but it’s progress. Because being able to identify something as an issue is the first and necessary step towards actually addressing and rectifying it.
But why has it taken so long, and why is progress still slow?
One reason, I suspect, is because we love what we do. The transformative power of travel is, for many of us, why we got into this field. When we believe in the potential of our industry to do good for the world, it may be difficult to see it through a critical lens - even when something is (like I was seeing at that conference many years ago) obviously visible and obviously problematic.
So my “call to action” is to listen more. There are (as you can see in this very panel) a number of important initiatives, organizations, programs and individuals speaking up, challenging the status quo, and proactively creating solutions to make travel and tourism more inclusive and equitable.
We should learn from these, and use the knowledge to inform our actions. And, our love for travel should be what fuels such actions. Because making our industry more inclusive and equitable is like supercharging its transformative power, for the good of everyone involved.
Adventure Travel Leaders Promoting a Culture of Belonging through Dialogue and Intentional Actions
In the adventure and sustainable tourism industry, we talk a lot about travel being a force for good. As the largest global network of adventure travel industry leaders, ATTA’s mission breaks that down more specifically: to deliver experiences that protect natural and cultural capital while creating shared economic value. ATTA does this by convening and connecting professionals from nearly 100 countries representing diverse backgrounds and facets of the industry to share, collaborate, educate, and learn from each other how we can do our own work better and also move the needle as a collective.
As a global community in dialogue, we’ve come to understand that justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion concepts and efforts (what we also refer to as a culture of belonging) are perceived differently in different places because the communities and facets of identity that are underrepresented are influenced by the unique and complex historical and cultural dynamics of that place. We respect that everyone is at a different point in their journey and we invite our industry to continue the dialogue and grow from wherever they are.
Here are a few examples of intentional actions members of our community are taking to increase representation and make a difference through their specific realms of work:
- wmnsWORK (Global): Recognizing the small percentage of women in executive leadership or ownership positions despite making up the majority of the global industry, founder Iris Serbanescu developed this business accelerator to help change the system and increase representation. Launched this year, the 12-week incubator program is designed specifically for women and non-binary travel entrepreneurs to learn from experts, create community, and build the support they need to succeed when they need it most - in the early stages of building their enterprise.
- Collective Impulse (Colombia): As witnesses to a lack of social and economic opportunities resulting from armed conflict, poverty, race, and injustice, community-based adventure tour operator Impulse Travel spunoff this non-profit with the belief that opportunities are the beginning of social transformation. The organization uses their national and global tourism industry connections to help identify, mentor, connect, and fund the development of social leaders into tourism entrepreneurs, community initiatives into social enterprises, and creative storytellers to help amplify messages of peace-building and cross-cultural understanding in post-war Colombia.
- Discover Aboriginal Experiences (Australia): Every product in this suite of 185 experiences promoted by Tourism Australia is led by an Aboriginal guide, with the intention to bring Australia’s places, nature, and culture to life through the original owners of its stories. Many of the tour companies are also Aboriginal-owned. The national Indigenous Tourism Champions program (a partnership with Tourism Australia and Indigenous Business Australia) is working to increase this representation by helping Indigenous businesses become market and export-ready through mentoring and business coaching. Additionally, Tourism Australia is working on a strategic Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) focusing on relationships, respect, and opportunities to assist industry stakeholders in developing and promoting Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples tourism experiences.
- Intrepid's Ethical Marketing Policy (Global): With the goal to build a more inclusive travel industry, Intrepid Travel hired a diverse group of consultants and worked for 18 months developing its first-ever ethical marketing policy. The result is a comprehensive plan with tangible, measurable steps in five categories: diversity, equity, and inclusion; openness and transparency; rejecting neocolonialism; sense of belonging; and ethical digital marketing. The transparency of this plan adds to a valuable set of resources available for tourism industry professionals and organizations like the Travel Industry Association DEI Pledge, Wanderful’s Anti-Oppression Toolkit for Travel & Culture Creators, Rooted’s Resource Hub, the Unpacking Media Bias Newsletter, and the Black Tourism Talent Directory.
- Global Family Travel's Seattle Community Adventures (United States): Recognizing that travel experiences can be used to amplify diverse and underrepresented voices, educate, and even help heal social injustices, this international tour operator worked with local partners to develop a new series of local community-centered itineraries. Participants of The Power of Community Gardens Tour with the Black Farmers Collective, for example, learn about the power of community gardens and creative solutions to systematic land and food injustices, making connections that deepen understanding and inspire action to get more involved.
Promoting Respect and Dignity Through Commitment to Diversity
Be yourself. Love who you want – diversity and freedom are not just words in Berlin. Berlin is one of the most open and tolerant cities in the world – the queer scene is flourishing in the German capital, ever since the city has become a centre for homosexual life and same-sex love over the course of the 20th century. The city’s destination marketing and management organization, visitBerlin, has been promoting the wide range of queer activities for tourists and visitors coming to Berlin since the millennium.
Back in 2010, the interest of gay and lesbian travel expanded, visitBerlin and a few of its partner hotels started the world’s first -and so far still only- hotel collection dedicated to LGBTQIA+-guests. The pink pillow Berlin Collection officially launched in 2013 with hotels ranging from luxury accommodation to modest, from chain hotels to privately owned and managed. Today, about 50 hotels participate in the collection.
Each hotel signs a charter, committing to treating all guests and employees with tolerance and respect, offering specific LGBTQIA+- travel tips, participating in educating themselves and their staff on queer topics and supporting a social LGBTQIA+-project in Berlin. The pink pillow hotels cooperate with travel agents, journalists and influencers and actively promote the hotel collection. They get invited as a best-practice example for LGBTQIA+ initiatives regularly. With the 10th birthday of the collection around the corner, visitBerlin and the hotels have committed to “dust off”- meaning, to evaluate the brand and take the collection to the next level.
Philip Ibrahim, General Manager at The Student Hotel (TSH) Berlin, has been with pink pillow from the start and though his place of work changed over the years, he always made pink pillow a priority.
Making Travel More Inclusive Through Meaningful Human Connections
Everyone has a story. Bringing more diverse voices into the travel industry requires looking and listening for those voices in places we may not have considered before.
In my 15 years of leading small group tours in Central and South America, and as a long-time traveler myself, I have been privileged to hear some incredible stories and build treasured relationships with people I likely would not have met otherwise.
Jeanette, my Costa Rican “mama tica”, taught me so much about what’s important in life. More than 25 years ago, she moved to the United States as a single parent knowing no English and few other people and spent 13 years working first in restaurants and a primary school, and then went on to build a house cleaning business. Jeanette ultimately earned enough money for her sons in Costa Rica to get the education they needed to pursue their careers. After returning home, she earned additional income by hosting and cooking for people on my tours and others and several years ago joined one of my trips to visit the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica for the first time. In many ways, our life paths and personal beliefs could not be more different, and yet, we are sisters.
I met Harold on a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia, when he led me on a tour of his neighborhood. I knew Harold was an ex-gang member who now leads walking tours to create a better future for his family and community. When I asked if he would be willing to share his own story, Harold shared his harrowing biography of murder, loss, revenge and prison. When we said goodbye, Harold gave me a huge hug and shed a few tears. So did I.
Prioritizing meaningful human connection is the key to expanding inclusion. How? Here are a few tips:
- Make ample time and safe space to facilitate introductions, conversations and reflections. There is no upside to a conversation at breakneck speed with an indigenous Mapuche community’s interpreter of dreams or a young woman organic coffee farmer.
- Seek out voices beyond trip leaders and primary guides. Get to know the bus driver, the local restaurant owner, and the woman who makes the jewelry that your tour participants would love to buy. Introduce and welcome them into the conversation.
- Invite a local friend to a group dinner or to participate in a group outing. Encourage them to be a traveler in their own community.
- Reach beyond your own network to identify those who have lived the stories but are not often asked to share them. They often have the most to contribute.
When we make room for diverse voices, we will hear things that challenge the dominant narrative and make some of us feel uncomfortable. Yet, there is no single story. Listening to, learning about and sharing different lived experiences – isn’t that the point?
Inclusion isn’t choosing what’s convenient; it’s about making inclusivity mainstream
When I started Planet Abled in 2016 and went to the best of hotels, I was told, persons with disabilities do not travel, why are you bothered about accessibility for them? There are two things wrong with this statement.
For one, they misunderstand accessibility. The way most establishments understand accessibility remains limited to a ramp, and if they are more aware, a wheelchair accessible toilet. Secondly, “people with disabilities don’t travel” is an incorrect - or incomplete - statement It’s not that they don’t want to travel. Rather, if the hotels are not accessible to guests with disabilities, they don’t receive those guests.
Ironically, all of the 4 stars and above hotels had at least one disabled friendly room, built for star rating compliance. To add to it, there is a general societal perception that disabled people live on charity and do not have the money to travel. But the data says, people with disabilities spend 30% more than an average non-disabled traveller.
The reason for this awareness gap is lack of representation. The travel and hospitality industry did not and still does not see enough travellers with disabilities. And disabled people are underrepresented in leadership positions, and across the industry workforce in general. Many people notice only the wheelchair users, because that’s the most visible disability, even though this group is less than 10% of the total number of persons with disabilities globally.
So how to solve this problem? Planet Abled has invested its own time, money and efforts into developing destinations. Auditing the places for travellers with all types of disabilities, creating inclusive experiences, training and sensitising the workforce and promoting inclusive group trips where the disabled and non disabled travel together.
Even when destinations had limitations, we’ve always made sure that travellers with disabilities visited those places in various capacities - as solo travellers, couples, families, friends, orco-travellers meeting for the first time.
Because representation matters. It’s about claiming your space and your right to travel and enjoy it just like anyone else. To have that freedom of choice to travel wherever, whenever and with whomsoever without prejudice. It's a simple woodpecker theory. Keep going to the place till they adapt themselves to your needs.
Training and sensitization indeed helps. But a financial investment into becoming accessible and inclusive happens only when businesses see a high value return on investment. Over the years, more and more hotels, attractions and tourism boards have started seeing the potential of the inclusive tourism market. But we still have a long way to go, as most are still choosing convenience over mainstreaming inclusion. I won’t say it's just their fault though. It’s also true that many disability-focused organizations are also choosing one type of disability over others based on their expertise, which leads torepresentation being incomplete.
Planet Abled is helping hotel chains, tourism boards and destination marketing organizations to build an inclusive approach to accessibility. Training, auditing, consulting and certifying their products and services to be ready to welcome complete diversity of guests. And if implemented in the design stage, this can indeed bring in high value returns.
And accessibility and inclusion are actually not just about people with disabilities. Making destinations more inclusive also enhances the overall travel experience for all, including non-disabled travellers.
Because the 1.3 billion persons with disabilities and 260 million (and growing) older persons, who have a consolidated disposable income of over 1.3 trillion USD annually, are not separate groups of people. They are all travelers and they don’t need separate travel companies just for disabled travellers. They need the tourism industry to become inclusive, so they can benefit from travel, just like other travellers do.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that anyone can become part of a minority anytime. We’ve worked with a couple of properties that have become accessible for us, and later that investment turned more personal as their owners became disabled. So you see, it’s not us vs them. We all are us and it is important that everyone of us with our diverse sets of access needs is included and represented when we are building a tourism industry which is sustainable.
Creating Conditions in Tourism Destinations for Diversity to Flourish
In the non-human world, systems tend to diversify. Life has been evolving for millions of years, and knows that diversity is the only way to survive and thrive. Without diversity systems collapse. However, in our human systems - especially in the western world with centralized powers, hierarchies and monoculture - a profound lack of diversity appears to be the norm. For how long can it be sustained?
What if we redesign the tourism system to increase the representation of its diversity?
In Cuidadores de Destinos, we are constantly reimagining the possible futures for tourism, through our workshops with hundreds of residents in tourism destinations. How can we allow diversity and increase its representation in the tourism system? Here are some ideas gathered through our work.
- Remove barriers: Like in our gardens, with fertilizers to kill everything but our precious lawn, humans place barriers in systems to block diversity. We work on recognizing the biases that impede diversity, and on removing them - understanding patriarchy and fighting it; removing the barrier of gender, nationality and culture; making experiences accessible beyond “English speakers only”; and removing the barriers of age.
- Value connections: It is well known for system thinkers that the margins of systems are often the most valuable, diverse and productive places. The most interesting events happen at the edges. The tourism system could start to strengthen its relationship with democracy, Indigenous communities, the non-human world, with designers, artists, philosophers, environmental activists, among many others. I love the work Milena Nikolova does at Behavior Smart working at the intersection of Tourism and Behavioural Economics. I also admire Susanne Becken and Johanna Loehr researching at the intersection of System Thinking, Leverage points and Tourism.
- Build the conditions for diversity: If you want to increase the diversity of your garden, you need to prepare the soil and the conditions of different areas of the garden according to the different needs of your various plants, so they can thrive in their own ways. In the same way, you can’t expect to increase representation in travel and tourism by bringing Indigenous peoples once in a while to your events. You need to prepare the soil to allow diversity to flourish. This is what Turismo Declara and all its volunteers have done so well by creating a respectful and thoughtful community where diversity is honored.
These are just some of the ideas I’d like to share and keep exploring with you. Maybe, they could help you start seeing the tourism system bloom and thrive in all its diversity.
Decolonising Tourism through Social Equity, Intersectional Solidarity and Reparations
In this era of #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movements, we are being asked to think about participation, oppression, empowerment and equity. Few places in the global community have escaped the after-effects of colonialism and imperialism and we all have a role to play in addressing justice issues. This is especially true of tourism, which has historically played a role in such oppressions, including through the looting of cultural heritage to fill imperial museums, the creation of human zoos and the development of tourism circuits such as African safaris.
Social equity here refers to the recognition and equitable treatment of all groups that would benefit from or be impacted by existing or emerging tourism business; the inclusion of such groups in development plans and policies that would affect them; and the achievement of a more just distribution of benefits and burdens from tourism.
In securing greater equity, it is important to understand intersectionality, a concept developed by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (2016), that explains that some individuals face multiple and intersecting forms of structural discrimination. This points to the need to identify these oppressions and work to counteract or mitigate them through policy and management of tourism impacts, development and decision-making. Such structural discriminatory practices might be based, for instance, on race, ethnicity, national origins, class, caste, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability and age.
There are many initiatives that we might learn from, connect with and follow to improve our practices. It is very important that as the leadership in tourism and travel strives to play its part, it does this from a position of learning, reflection and deep engagement. These initiatives might be a source of some insight:
- Migrantours offers intercultural urban routes since 2009. Their Manifesto communicates a commitment to “equality, solidarity, dialogue, memory, discovery, change, diversity, inclusiveness, future…”.
- The Black Travel Movement is a response to historical segregations and racisms that inhibited Black travellers from enjoying the benefits of leisure mobilities. The movement centres on “giving travelers of color the advice, inspiration, and sense of community we need to explore the world”.
- Equality in Tourism is a non-profit organisation working on amplifying the voice of women in tourism, as workers, entrepreneurs, hosts and travellers.
I am of the view that reparations are due for the injustices of imperialism and its lingering effects. The tourism sector must play its part, for indeed it has had an active role in imperial ideologies of superiority and “manifest destinies”. The leadership in the tourism industry should get on the front foot with meaningful consultations and resulting practices that sees it playing a proactive and creative role in addressing these harmful legacies and co-developing positive futures built on social equity.