On the road to discovery

Black travelers, perhaps now more than ever, are seeking to include cultural and historical experiences when they travel, in the U.S. and abroad. And Black travel professionals are hard at work making those opportunities available.

The salon room of Jnane Tamsna hotel in Marrakech,  Morocco’s only Black-owned hotel. (Photo by Peter Jurica/Courtesy of Jnane Tamsna)

The salon room of Jnane Tamsna hotel in Marrakech,  Morocco’s only Black-owned hotel. (Photo by Peter Jurica/Courtesy of Jnane Tamsna)

The salon room of Jnane Tamsna hotel in Marrakech,  Morocco’s only Black-owned hotel. (Photo by Peter Jurica/Courtesy of Jnane Tamsna)

Painfully obvious as it may seem,
sometimes the obvious needs to be said:
Black people travel. A lot.

Not just to the Caribbean, as is often assumed — much to the chagrin of Black travel industry professionals — but everywhere around the world. 

Misconceptions about where Black people travel and where they don’t, what they can afford and what they can’t, became clear after the publication of “The Black Traveler: Insights, Opportunities & Priorities,” an MMGY Global report on the economic impact of Black travel. The report found that Black travelers spent $20.2 billion on international leisure travel (and an additional $109.4 billion on domestic trips) in 2019, prior to the pandemic. Clearly, Black travel is a market that matters.

And speaking with Black industry professionals, what also became abundantly clear is that there’s a growing interest in, and demand for, cultural heritage experiences that highlight local Black history in international destinations.

“Sixty-one percent of Black travelers from the U.S. expressed interest in experiencing culture on their leisure trips,” said Ursula Petula Barzey, co-founder and board member of the nonprofit advocacy organization Black Travel Alliance, citing the MMGY study.

The interest and demand for cultural experiences abroad, travel advisors say, has grown following events of the last two years, from the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

These events, Black travel advisors say, have intensified the demand for more local Black history and cultural heritage tour offerings, ones that go beyond the civil rights movement. And those travelers will be happy to know that those opportunities already exist, some in places you might not expect.

Advertisement

Black Paris

Think Paris and you’ll picture the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, river cruises along the Seine. But the City of Light is also home to cultural heritage tours that highlight the presence of notable African Americans who found success and acceptance in what many call Black Paris.

Chief among Black Paris’ key figures were author James Baldwin, jazz legend Miles Davis and Josephine Baker, who left the U.S. for Paris an aspiring entertainer and went on to achieve worldwide fame. 

“I created the ‘Searching for Josephine’ pilgrimage out of personal interest, not really knowing what it would turn into,” said Tracey Friley, a travel advisor who specializes in luxury travel and who curates Josephine Baker tours throughout metropolitan France. “It started with a costume dinner party, and that met with so much success that eventually, I decided to take my guests all the way to her chateau in the Dordogne.”

Baker, an icon in African-American history, had her career ambitions curtailed in the 1920s by racism she faced in the U.S., prompting her decision to move to Paris.

“She is the epitome of the original Black American, female ex-pat,” Friley said. “She paved the way and in a lot of ways gave women permission to make that move.”

Advertisement
Guests on one of Tracey Friley’s “Searching for Josephine” tours in Paris. (Photo by Tracey Friley)

Guests on one of Tracey Friley’s “Searching for Josephine” tours in Paris. (Photo by Tracey Friley)

Guests on one of Tracey Friley’s “Searching for Josephine” tours in Paris. (Photo by Tracey Friley)

Black Amsterdam

Few may know much about the canal city’s Black history and how deeply embedded it is in Dutch culture until they board a saloon boat for a Black cultural heritage tour around Amsterdam. 

“There’s so much historical memory still visible — in the canal houses, on national monuments and museums and gable stones where you can still see the history of a Black presence,” said Jennifer Tosch, founder and operator of Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam. 

“Most don’t acknowledge it or know what it means or why it’s there.”

Tosch, a Surinamese-American born in Brooklyn, N.Y.,  has Dutch roots that go back three generations; much of her family grew up in the Netherlands. Her interest in the Black history of the country stemmed from a growing awareness about the lack of visibility or even acknowledgement that there ever was a Black presence in the Netherlands.

Although slavery was technically illegal in the European territory of the Dutch Republic, the Dutch East India Co. and Dutch West India Co. were deeply involved in the slave trade during the 17th and 18th centuries. A gable stone above a door would often depict a Black child along with the homeowner’s family, a code that they possessed enough wealth to have a Black child slave. Hundreds of these gable stones still exist above doors in the city. 

“Many who see themselves represented in these monuments do not want to be remembered in this way,” Tosch said. “On the other hand, there’s the danger of erasure. What makes the tour special is that it is a beautiful experience. You’re on a beautiful boat, you’re walking through this historic city and you’re getting a different perspective on history. That’s what differentiates us.”

Advertisement
Jennifer Tosch, founder of Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam, points out gable stones that depict the country’s deep ties to slavery. (Photo by Jennifer Tosch)

Jennifer Tosch, founder of Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam, points out gable stones that depict the country’s deep ties to slavery. (Photo by Jennifer Tosch)

Jennifer Tosch, founder of Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam, points out gable stones that depict the country’s deep ties to slavery. (Photo by Jennifer Tosch)

Black Cartagena

Cartagena’s rows of vibrantly colorful colonial-era buildings and larger-than-life street murals aren’t hard to find in Colombia’s fifth-largest city. But with the right guide, you can see another side of the city on an intimate tour of Palenque, the first “free town” of the Americas, founded by escaped slaves.

“People want to see Palenque, hands down. There’s its Walled City. Mud baths. It’s like ancient Colombia,” said Jennifer Earley, owner and founder of Cultured Vacations, a travel agency that specializes in Black tours to Cartagena and Paris.

The “I Love Being Black” House is one of the signature art murals to see in Palenque. (Photo by Jenn Earley)

The “I Love Being Black” House is one of the signature art murals to see in Palenque. (Photo by Jenn Earley)

The “I Love Being Black” House is one of the signature art murals to see in Palenque. (Photo by Jenn Earley)

“Every week there’s something called ‘Black Wednesday’ where guides take you around the neighborhood. Everyone is hanging out, with their cars, talking,” Earley said. “It’s something that perhaps other travel agents may not know about, especially if they’re not a travel agent of color or agency of color.”

Earley said there has been a notable increase in demand for immersive and experiential products by Black travelers and other people of color. 

“There’s something to be said about seeing Cartagena through the eyes of other Black people and actually connecting with the Black people living there, versus Paris, where you’re seeing the stomping grounds of notable Black people.”

Advertisement
A dance and drum group performed for guests on a tour of Palenque in Cartagena, Colombia, the first “free town” of the Americas founded by Africans who had escaped slavery during colonial times. (Photo by Jenn Earley)

A dance and drum group performed for guests on a tour of Palenque in Cartagena, Colombia, the first “free town” of the Americas founded by Africans who had escaped slavery during colonial times. (Photo by Jenn Earley)

A dance and drum group performed for guests on a tour of Palenque in Cartagena, Colombia, the first “free town” of the Americas founded by Africans who had escaped slavery during colonial times. (Photo by Jenn Earley)

Black Marrakech

Meryanne Loum-Martin is the owner of the luxury boutique hotel Jnane Tamsna in Marrakech. She’s Morocco’s only Black woman hotelier and is running the only Black-owned hotel in that North African country. 

Meryanne Loum-Martin, owner of Jnane Tamsna in Marrakech, the only Black-owned hotel in Morocco. (Photo by Jean Cazals/Courtesy of Jnane Tamsna)

Meryanne Loum-Martin, owner of Jnane Tamsna in Marrakech, the only Black-owned hotel in Morocco. (Photo by Jean Cazals/Courtesy of Jnane Tamsna)

Meryanne Loum-Martin, owner of Jnane Tamsna in Marrakech, the only Black-owned hotel in Morocco. (Photo by Jean Cazals/Courtesy of Jnane Tamsna)

Set in the Palmeraie district of the country’s fourth-largest city, Jnane Tamsna is more than just an impeccably crafted 24-room desert oasis spread across eight acres — it’s an international retreat for people of all backgrounds to experience one another’s cultures, a place where differences thrive.

Loum-Martin curates walking conversations on the property and the surrounding community, exploring the interior design and architecture of the hotel and private homes and gardens in Marrakech. She shares stories of her personal history along the way.

“It is my duty to create spaces where people can connect,” she said. She hosts dinner parties for guests, as well. “I was not brought up in an atmosphere where people were defined by the color of their skin.”

Advertisement

Personal Black Paris

The critical acclaim Loum-Martin received in response to her walking conversations on interior design and Moroccan architecture led to a new venture. She is now planning to introduce cultural tours in Paris based on her international connections and experiences as well as her own personal history.

Born in Ivory Coast, Loum-Martin grew up with an international perspective. Her father, a Senegalese diplomat, and her mother, a West Indian lawyer, moved frequently. Loum-Martin lived in several cities, including Moscow and London, before the family finally settled in the French capital. 

Her experience living there informs the Parisian tours she’s developing. 

“I’m integrating an insider view of the cosmopolitan Black family in France through history, culture, art, food and self-development. I can put together something for travel advisors that no one else can,” Loum-Martin said. “It has been part of my life forever to move like this, to go from one circle to another and to feel comfortable in all circles.”

Advertisement

Everyone’s welcome

The demand for Black history and cultural heritage tours in international destinations isn’t generated only by Black travelers. In Amsterdam, the clientele of Jennifer Tosch’s Black Heritage Tours has evolved. 

“In the first few years, it was mostly Dutch white people; Black Dutch people were a bit skeptical and a little apprehensive about what my narrative would be,” she said. “I am here to not just highlight slavery as a context but also the Black experience: What does it mean to be a person of color living in a predominantly white space?” 

Similarly, in Paris, although many of Tracey Friley’s “Searching for Josephine” clients are Black women, she said the trips welcome everyone. 

“There are non-Black people who are interested in history, no matter what color the person is,” she said. 

Advertisement

A different U.S. perspective

Stephanie Jones, a U.S.-based cultural heritage tour operator and the CEO and founder of the Cultural Heritage Economic Alliance, wants to change the way people experience Black history in America. 

Jones is launching a multiday Black cultural heritage tours program across the U.S. that will focus on telling a broader narrative of the Black American experience and culture that touches on the civil rights movement but goes beyond.

“Traditionally, the travel industry has only focused on the civil rights movement and the civil rights trail,” Jones said. “But there’s over 400 years of our history in this country and so many untold stories.”

Some of her first tours will launch in Tennessee, Alabama and other parts of the southeastern U.S. “Our Gulla Geechee cultural itinerary will amplify the Gulla culture through the people, the food,” Jones said. “This tour starts in Charleston, S.C. We even include a visit to Mother Emanuel Church, where the 2017 massacre [of Black parishioners] happened.”

And Jones won’t only be working with her own team:  She’s partnering with Black businesses, entrepreneurs and tour operators who largely worked outside the broader travel industry, offering them training to prepare them for potentially large partnerships.

“All of our partners are small, mom-and-pop businesses that really have only done business locally. This is creating an opportunity for them to do business globally,” she said. “Part of what we’re doing is providing tourism readiness training so that our partners are prepared to do business at the international level.”

Advertisement

The global Black experience

Perhaps more important than acknowledging and celebrating Black history is acknowledging and interpreting how the Black experience goes beyond international borders; that is, how the Black experience is a shared experience. 

It isn’t just about knowing what Black people have been through; it’s about pushing the narrative to include not only the past but where Black history is currently being made.

Advertisement
Advertisement