Leon Burnette, an independent tour manager and civil rights historian, received a call from a global travel director in late 2020, asking him to recommend Black guides for a tour that was being developed along the United States Civil Rights Trail, which runs from Kansas to Washington, D.C. But there was a problem. Mr. Burnette had never met any.
The group tour industry is overwhelmingly white — one study from the career site Zippia estimates fewer than 8 percent of guides working with organized tours are Black or African American — and the lack of representation can be seen in marketing materials, leadership boards and training staff. The greater travel industry reflected on its history of racism and inclusion after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. It announced new support for Black-owned businesses and diversity and inclusion initiatives and called for attention to other narratives. A number of group tour operators also made a promise to promote equity by funding minority tour guides through training programs and funding. They started planting seeds to do so. These seeds are still growing more than a year later.
Black, Mr. Burnette spent more than 40-years in the Deep South. He is also the founder of a youth organization, the Media Arts Institute of Alabama. He’s spent decades helping tourists understand America’s Black history. He has spent a lot of time training Americans to tell the stories about Black America.
“I don’t think a lot of tour companies were really comfortable with having Black people represent their brands,” Mr. Burnette said. “They didn’t want to offend people. It’s changing now.”
Richard Launder, Director of the Travel Corporation, called 2020 to seek guides. His brand includes established, decades-old group-tour businesses like Trafalgar Travel and Contiki Tours. Mr. Launder & Mr. Burnette have teamed up with a few additional organizations to increase the number of Black and Indigenous tour guides in the industry. The result is Pathways Project, which offers mentorship and courses for qualified guides.
One of the biggest hurdles aspiring tour guides face, said Mr. Burnette, is the cost of entry to the industry — training programs come with price tags of $5,000 or more, with no guarantee of employment at the end. “We have to change the whole paradigm of how companies find, recruit, train, place and mentor people in this industry,” he said.
Their first program for directors, which had 20 participants, was held in different locations throughout the American South in December. Other training programs will be launched in March and August.
“The Black Lives Matter movement was a huge wake-up call for us,” Mr. Launder said. “Black people should tell Black history. Indigenous people should tell Indigenous history. We can control this, and the fact that we’ve already run our first training program is proof we can make it happen.”
Pathways is a group effort — initial investment came from the TreadRight Foundation, the Travel Corporation’s nonprofit arm, and funds are managed through the nonprofit Tourism Cares. The curriculum is provided by TripSchool in New York City, which offers online and in-person training for tour guides and tour operators.
“It’s been an open secret that if you look around at conventions, hiring conferences, or even internally at staff and independent contractors of companies, you don’t see much diversity,” said Mitch Bach, TripSchool’s chief executive. “There are a lot of diversity initiatives out there, but this is something that has never existed in group travel until now.”
Other group tour operators are also making progress. Intrepid Travel launched last year a new marketing policy. It includes a series a inclusivity pledges. Outdoor Afro and Outdoor Afro encourage the Black community connect to nature.
Hurtigruten Expeditions, an adventure cruising outfitter, has established a six-person Black traveler advisory panel. Each member receives a $5,000 consulting fee and a matching donation to a charity that supports Black travelers. The group went together to Antarctica in February to hold sessions on investing in and marketing Black travelers.
These may not be the best…