Comment: Finding community in black travel

Cheraé Robinson discusses the businesses that are making tourism an opportunity for connection.

Cheraé Robinson is the founder and CEO of Tastemakers of Africa, a travel and experiences platform.

In 2011, I took the leap of moving to Mexico City. This was before it became the new cool-kid mecca of art and creativity – and when some considered it the ‘aren’t you afraid of being kidnapped’ version of the city. Nonetheless, I packed my bags and boarded a one-way flight from Atlanta. 

As close as Mexico City is to the US, something was notably absent – black people and black culture. By this point, I had a few countries under my belt and had always been able to find a little corner of hip-hop somewhere. But this was different. It was jarring and also incredibly isolating, so I found myself like many digital wanderers – on the internet trying to build community. 

Enter the Nomadness Travel Tribe, an upstart Facebook group filled with the kind of beautiful weirdos I’d always been seeking out but had not quite discovered in the real world. Best of all, they were black. I think I joined when the group was fewer than 25 people or so and I quickly found myself blacking up Mexico City with a constant stream of visitors. 

Now at more than 20,000 members, it’s birthed an entire genre of black travel companies that tap into the diverse interests and needs of the community. From Up in the Air Life focused on ball-till-you-fall luxury black travellers, to Bucket List Beasts helping black corporate adventurers achieve their extreme dreams, to my own company Tastemakers Africa uncovering the cool in African cities and building authentic connections in the process – we all found community and possibility in a space created for us. 

None of us worked in the travel industry – on the contrary, we wound up building organisations that confounded it altogether. I attended the New York Times Travel show for the first time in 2016 and distinctly remember how hard it was to answer the question ‘what are you?’ on the forms they gave out. All the acronyms and boxes the industry created to define itself and the players in it did not fit the community-led effort to simply be seen that I was more familiar with. 

Fast-forward to today, in the wake of a summer of reckoning in the US, the industry is finally taking notice of the $64bn sleeping giant that a small group of ridiculously committed people chose to rally 10 years ago. A quick Google search of ‘black travel’ yields millions of results from mainstream media coverage to the venture-backed platforms of some of the biggest players in black travel today.

While grounding our ability to travel, Covid-19 has actually magnified the power of these community-led efforts. NFX, the San Francisco-based venture firm steeped in how network effects predict the growth of businesses, recently identified another element in its Network Effects Bible – the tribal network effect. It shows the continued impact and opportunity of the black travel movement, which has always been centered on the efforts of individual leaders and organisers who create space for discovery for people that are often overlooked but crave adventure. 

I’m excited about what’s on the horizon. I spent a month in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, during the pandemic and discovered Black in Tulum, a group helping black people explore the Yucatan Peninsula. In the midst of Covid-19, it grew to nearly 10,000 people. There hasn’t been a black person you could bump into from Bed-Stuy to Oakland that didn’t have at least one homie who escaped to Mexico and entered that Facebook group. I know that these community-led efforts will continue to be ground zero for meeting the needs of this vast market. And I’m ready for them to get their due.

This article was first published in Courier issue 39, February/March 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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