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Travel, Race, and the Road Ahead – A Letter from Jeff Greenwald

Dear Fellow Travelers,

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century Moroccan traveler. During his lifetime he covered nearly 73,000 miles—far surpassing Marco Polo’s 7,500. “Travel leaves you speechless,” he wrote, “then turns you into a storyteller.”

Let me first acknowledge that all of us in the global travel universe—an industry that, only months ago, supported about one in 11 of the world’s citizens, from Alaska to Zimbabwe—are already facing a sense of loss, and disorientation, from the impacts of COVID-19. We are seeing our livelihoods threatened, or terminated. And we miss our explorations of this beautiful planet, and its myriad cultures. We miss sharing our stories.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves on a different kind of journey: one that may also be transformative. One of the best things about travel is that it gives us a fresh perspective on our own country—its strengths, and its challenges. We’re seeing that now—but the view is from within, not without. Through Black Lives Matter, we are focusing on a side of America that, whether viewed from home or abroad, has long been a national disgrace. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, America is not a “free” country—and will not be so until we address our legacy of slavery, mass incarceration, and glaring inequality in our social justice structures.

Part of Ethical Traveler’s credo is the conviction that we do not travel with blinders on. Travelers must be aware of our destination countries’ records—starting with social justice—and understand where our travel dollars are going. As Americans, it’s time we turn that view upon ourselves.

This has been happening elsewhere, of course. Many countries have already issued travel advisories about the United States, citing harassment, America’s high rate of firearm possession, and inequalities in our socio-economic status. Today, though, we are witnessing nothing less than a global movement. People all over the world are marching in solidarity with the countless black Americans who have been marginalized, abused, and killed by a system in which we are all complicit.

For all of us during this critical juncture in our history, educating ourselves is part of the journey. Not surprisingly, we find that racism is also deeply embedded in the worlds of travel and travel journalism. If you wish to learn more about these issues, I’d like to suggest listening to a few specific guests we have hosted on two of the Ethical Traveler podcasts.

The first is a discussion about “decolonizing travel” with Faith Adiele, founder of VONA (Voices of Our Nation’s Arts) Travel: the nation’s first workshop for travel writers of color. Her work includes Meeting Faith, her memoir about becoming Thailand’s first Black Buddhist nun; the PBS documentary My Journey Home; and Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology.

The second is a dialogue with Mary Ann Thomas and Christina Brobby, two adventurers of color who offer stories about their experiences as travelers and travel writers through the lens of gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Though these podcasts were recorded about two years ago, they are worth listening to today. “The real voyage of discovery,” as Proust famously said, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” And it is with new eyes that we must navigate, from this point forward.

Thank you for reading this. May you be safe, may you be well, and may we share stories soon.


Jeff Greenwald, executive director
Ethical Traveler

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