Travel and hospitality experts say pandemic-battered businesses are increasingly recognizing a longstanding blindspot that if addressed could help them rebound this summer: the BIPOC traveller.
Interest in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives has exploded over the past year or so among operators keen to repair relationships and expand their reach, says the head of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, which launched monthly webinars in January for those eager to better welcome visitors who are Black, Indigenous and other people of colour.
“People are starting to ask questions and people are starting to say: What can we do better? How can we be better on this?” says TIAO president Christopher Bloore.
“And I’m seeing that not just on an association level like us, but I’m seeing individual businesses put together their own DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) packages, or bring in experts or consultants to help them build their businesses to make their workplaces more inclusive.”
Oakville, Ont.-travel agent and consultant Shalene Dudley points to shifting travel patterns that emerged after pandemic measures closed airports. Unable to hop on a plane, more city dwellers hit the road to explore the charms of their rural surroundings, she says.
In some cases, that brought BIPOC travellers into relatively homogenous communities unaccustomed to catering to a diverse clientele, giving rise to misunderstandings, and racially charged conflicts, Dudley says.
She co-founded the group Let’s Get Uncomfortable to address equity issues in the travel and tourism industry, and co-founder Britney Hope pointed to multiple Ontario counties that have requested anti-Black and anti-racism training ahead of tourist season.
“There are destinations now that are, as a result of COVID, seeing way more Black, Indigenous, people of colour coming into their communities to enjoy their spaces, and they’re not prepared,” says Hope.
“They’re not prepared to be a safe space for these groups, they are not prepared to welcome them in a way that makes them feel welcome. It goes way beyond meeting cultural needs.”
Prince Edward County resident Judith Burfoot recalls a general flood of day trippers descending on her southern Ontario community after pandemic restrictions closed airports, overrunning an already popular provincial park and raising the ire of some locals alarmed by litter and sanitation issues.
If there were dust-ups between residents and visitors, it would be unfair to pin it solely on bigotry, she says.
Burfoot, who is Black and moved to the county 12 years ago from Toronto, doesn’t believe rural residents are any less tolerant than urban residents: “I’ve certainly had racist garbage happen to me in Toronto,” she says.
But experiencing racism in a small town with few other BIPOC residents is a different feeling than experiencing it in a city where “there’s hundreds of (people like) you,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to bring out the worst in people, she adds, noting she heard accounts of county residents of Asian descent being told they caused the virus and to “go back home.”
She founded the group All Welcome Here in 2019 to help BIPOC residents connect and network, and in June 2020 they held a Black Lives Matter demonstration after George Floyd’s murder. The largely white community displayed a strong willingness to address racism.
“Picton is a town of 4,000 people. And our OPP stopped counting after 1,000 people on Main Street. They just couldn’t count anymore,” says Burfoot.
“Our Main Street was full of people and again, our community is 95 per cent white and they are the people that came out.”
The head of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada says she’s seen a significant push towards diversifying the workforce, a key step to addressing labour equity and improving service.
“This is where the big shift is happening within the tourism industry,” says president Beth Potter.
“We’ve always welcomed all the visitors but now it’s a matter of making sure that the visitors see themselves within our workforce as well.”
Representation has long been an issue in the tourism sector, says the founder of Vancouver-based consulting group Black in Hospitality.
Tolu Aladejebi says she started her organization when she noticed relatively few Black people in hotel management, and the impact that seemed to have on some visitors.
“If I’m welcoming a Black traveller, they would specifically wait for me to check them in, or wait to even just say, ‘Hello,’” says Aladejebi, who has about 14 years of hospitality experience.
“A lot of organizers just need to recognize that representation really does matter, and really does go a long way.”
That includes making BIPOC staff feel safe and supported, especially if they report being subjected to racism themselves while on the job, she adds.
Recognizing that many outlets are also grappling with a labour shortage and soaring inflation, observers point to various ways operators can address diversity goals.
Aside from hiring and fairly compensating experts for advice, Hope urges honest personal reflection, actively practicing allyship and assessing whether local information shared with visitors acknowledges Indigenous neighbours and history.
Potter touts the benefits of featuring models from different ethnic backgrounds in marketing campaigns, while Aladejebi suggests choosing Black-owned businesses to source housekeeping products or promoting BIPOC wines, spirits and chefs to guests.
“Just aside from treating people how you want to be treated, you’re missing out on a huge chunk of the pie when you don’t create a safe and inclusive space for BIPOC travellers,” says Aladejebi.
—Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press