By// Maureen Jenkins
When BlackGirlTravel.com founder Fleacé Weaver organized the first “Bella Italia” tour of Italy in 2006, she imagined the trip would boost her female travelers’ self-esteem as they were serenaded with lyrical shouts of “Ciao, bella!” from smitten Italian men. Little did this L.A.-based entrepreneur know she also was creating a legion of ladies who fell in love with international travel.
Before leaving the States with her all-female international tours of up to 50 women, Weaver, a former model and founder of the Los Angeles lifestyles site BlackWeekly.com, dons her cultural ambassador cap. She stresses the importance of learning basic phrases in the local language; tells of the rarity of air conditioning and ice in drinks; the near impossibility of returning items to stores — and implores travelers to tip anyone, from tour guides to bus drivers, who offers a service.
“We think everywhere in the world is just like the U.S. I do not take for granted that everyone has an idea of what Europe is like,” says Weaver, who not only will lead the fifth annual “Bella Italia” tour in September, but also will take groups to the French Riviera, Spain, and the Middle East this year. She says 80 percent of the women who take her BlackGirlTravel tours have never before traveled outside the United States. But after the trips, they’re hooked.
Do you have a passport?
Today, barely a third of U.S. citizens hold passports — still, that’s an 8 percent jump since 2006, says the U.S. State Department. And now that Americans need them in order to get back into the country from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, the numbers continue to swell.
And while statistics don’t tell how many passport holders are African-American, many of us still are hesitant to travel outside the United States. Those of us who try to convince family and friends to join us on these overseas jaunts hear the excuses:
- “The dollar’s too weak and the trip costs too much.”
- “They don’t speak English ‘over there.’”
- “It might be dangerous.”
- “I don’t have anyone to go with me.”
The list goes on.
But while the perception may be that black folks aren’t grabbing their passports and jetting off to places abroad, the reality’s quite different, says Stacey Frantz, spokeswoman for American Airlines and its BlackAtlas.com site, billed as “a unique online community that offers travel insights from an African-American perspective.”
The site “has only confirmed for us what we knew to be true — African-Americans fly internationally a lot,” says Frantz, who says she gets calls from celebrities who volunteer to write about their own travels for BlackAtlas.com. “The thing that is unique about the site is that it celebrates black culture around the world. Education is so important in the African-American community, so international travel becomes an educational must-do.”
And for the well-heeled black folks Leonard E. Burnett Jr. and Andrea Hoffman write about in their new book, Black Is the New Green: Marketing to Affluent African Americans, “experiential” is the new buzzword when it comes to travel. When on the road, cultural experiences are as relevant as good old R&R.
“The fact that this consumer is highly educated and has a high propensity toward entrepreneurship, they’re always looking to expand their minds,” says Hoffman, CEO and founder of Diversity Affluence, a firm that helps brands, agencies and media market to affluent ethnic consumers. International travel “provides them with balance and knowledge while they’re having fun. They will go to remote places for a unique experience.
“Knowledge is power. They are collectors of watches, [they] want to know about fine wines. It’s very important they bring their kids a lot of the time, to expose them to a global world.”
The power of numbers
Whether it’s anecdotal or truly cultural, African-Americans often travel in groups. We do it when sailing away on cruises, holding court at Greek conventions, or kicking back at family reunions — and even some of these are crossing the border. Once families have been hosting reunions for years, “very often, they begin to look for something else,” says Dr. Ione D. Vargus, founder of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University. Some families have traveled to the Caribbean, “and there are very often connections there. And if there aren’t connections, it’s still a good idea. African-Americans would prefer places of color. If they do go abroad [for reunions], it would still be to a black-oriented place.” She says some whose relatives fled to Canada during slavery even reunite there.
That comfort factor, seeing fellow brown faces on the street when they travel abroad, often determines where black folks go. But the lack of such never stopped Elaine Lee, freelance travel media professional and Bay Area-based author of Go Girl! The Black Woman’s Book of Travel & Adventure from heading anywhere.
“If you learn a little of the language, dress modestly (unless you’re going to Paris), and learn a little about the cultural norms, you’ll be fine,” says Lee, who’s traveled to 51 countries and says she felt most welcome in Egypt and Thailand. “I find that some places in the world, where they aren’t used to seeing black people, they’re curious. But it’s not from an angry, diminishing perspective.”
The men who encounter the dozens of women on Weaver’s “Bella Italia” tour on the streets of Rome, Florence and Naples are anything but angry.
“I just decided there were places in the world that just loved black women,” says Weaver, whose grandfather came from the southern Italian city of Bari. “Not only accepted, but to the point [men] would be falling all over them. I chose Italy for that reason. I wanted to take them someplace they feel special. It wasn’t for them to date, but for them to get that attention.”
Free your mind
Spending time abroad can be mentally therapeutic for black Americans, says Lee. “We live in a ‘pigmentocracy’ in America. It’s so important for African-Americans to get outside the country and see what life is like without that burden,” says Lee, who saves money on overseas lodging by belonging to Intervac, an international home exchange service that’s placed her in family homes in France, Greece, Spain, Italy and New Zealand. “It’s such a freeing experience. When we learn to live without racism — even for a short time — it makes such a difference.”
And she says travel to Africa is among the most healing of all. “You go there and get part of your soul back,” Lee says. “It’s like a sacred duty. I think every African-American, if at all possible, should make an effort to get to their homeland. I was surprised to find out how African I am.
“Just to be part of a majority culture, we feel a sense of belonging, of strength. When I left Africa, my head was higher; my back was straighter. When you go to Egypt and see what black people created 5,000 years ago, you see how far we’ve come.” //
— Maureen Jenkins is a Chicago expat and Travel/Food writer who’s visited nearly 30 countries and territories. She blogs about “Black women living globally through international travel” at UrbanTravelGirl.com.