Black travel is big business.
Despite being historically overlooked by the tourism industry, Black travelers accounted for $109.4 billion in U.S. domestic travel in 2019, according to a 2021 study by MMGY Global, a tourism marketing agency based in Missouri. That represented about 11.2% of the $972 billion domestic travel market in 2019, as tallied by the U.S. Travel Association.
Yet Buncombe County’s piece of that action is proportionally less than that of other destinations throughout the country. Of the roughly 4.1 million domestic overnight tourists who came to the county in 2019, only 7% identified as Black, with another 7% identifying as nonwhite, according to a report by Canada-based consultancy Longwoods International. The U.S. norms for those demographic categories are 9% and 10%, respectively.
Travel and tourism professionals in Asheville are looking to change that. Leaders at the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the marketing division of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, have named “engage and invite more diverse audiences” as one of their four strategic pillars. They are looking for new approaches for reaching Black travelers and tapping into Asheville’s rich Black history and Black entrepreneurs to put the city on the map as a diverse destination.
Explore Asheville spokesperson Kathi Peterson says that the BCTDA is spending a minimum of $1 million on Black-owned media in the current fiscal year, representing about 9% of the entity’s overall media budget. (The fiscal 2022-23 budget includes $1.5 million for marketing to diverse audiences, including Black, Latino and LGBTQ travelers.) She says advertising for Black audiences will take on some familiar forms, although Explore Asheville’s marketing analysts are keying in on ways to reach the population more directly.
Slavery, followed by repressive Jim Crow laws, segregation, institutional racism and continuing police brutality, has historically made travel for Black Americans fraught with danger and uncertainty. Members of the Black community have generally relied on one another to know which destinations are safe and which to avoid, says Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe, a New York-based online social community primarily for travelers of color.
“On one hand, you had the rise of the Black middle class. And on the other end, you had a country that was riddled with Jim Crow laws, pretty much prescribing discrimination to anyone who wasn’t white,” Robinson explained to a crowd of roughly 220 people during a Black Traveler Diversity Training workshop at Explore Asheville’s Tourism Summit May 18.
From 1936-66 Victor Hugo Green, a postal employee and travel writer, published The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guide for Black travelers that provided recommendations for businesses and hotels that would welcome them — as well as warnings about “sundown towns,” where people of color could face intimidation and violence after dark. In Western North Carolina, according to the UNC University Libraries, those areas included Canton in Haywood County, as well as Madison and Mitchell counties.
A focus on safety and community guidance remains within the Black community. According to MMGY Global’s study of Black travelers, 71% of U.S. and Canadian respondents felt safety was extremely or very influential to their tourism decisions.
“What’s important to me when I’m visiting places, especially in new places, is traveling to places that I know are safe,” says Ajax Ravenel, co-founder of the Noir Collective, a boutique and art gallery for more than 25 different Black entrepreneurs located in a historically Black Asheville neighborhood known as The Block. “If I’m traveling somewhere, it’s usually by the recommendation of someone else.”
Reaching Black travelers
Because Black travelers rely heavily on their own networks for travel recommendations, Robinson explained May 18, tourism destinations should harness that sense of community trust and support. For Asheville, that could mean looking within the community for local Black “influencers” and other travelers of color to share their experiences to become trusted sources for new visitors.
Robinson, who connects with over 25,000 travelers of color in the Nomadness community, will be part of that effort. Explore Asheville has also worked with several Asheville-based community leaders and professionals to produce promotional films highlighting Ashevillle’s Black history, which have featured photographer Andrea Clark, entrepreneur Matthew Bacoate and civil rights leader Orlene Simmons, among others.
Explore Asheville will also direct a portion of its marketing budget on advertising that will appear in podcasts, including “The Michelle Obama Podcast” and “Jemele Hill Is Unbothered.” Marla Tambellini, Explore Asheville’s vice president of marketing, said during a Feb. 23 BCTDA board meeting that podcasts are increasingly becoming an ideal media channel to reach Black travelers in particular.
“In the last decade, there’s been an eightfold increase in podcast listening among Black audiences. Black Americans are also 10% more likely to be frequent podcast listeners versus the total podcast listening audience,” she said. “Importantly, 41% of podcast listeners trust ads that they hear during a podcast more, which makes this an ideal opportunity.”
Representation in advertising also plays a key role. According to MMGY Global’s study, 54% of Black American respondents said they were more likely to visit a destination if they saw Black representation in travel advertising.
The Nomadness conducted an audit of Explore Asheville’s advertising, social channels and the website in February to determine where deficiencies in diversity may exist. Results are expected by late June, with a presentation of recommendations and findings to follow by late July.
“These are not one-off exercises,” says Peterson. “Explore Asheville views this as a journey and part of our efforts to engage and invite more diverse audiences.”
Investing in community
Another component of driving Black visitors to Asheville is highlighting the city’s Black history and Black-owned businesses. In 2018, the BCTDA awarded a $100,000 Tourism Product Development Fund grant to fund the preservation of historical archives at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center and develop exhibitions that honor the history of Stephens-Lee High School alumni.
Another project in the works is the African American Heritage Trail, a collection of 19 sites that will present stories from Asheville’s historic Black communities. Physical trail markers will be installed and maintained within the city, and an online trail guide will be available at Explore Asheville’s website.
Explore Asheville also has working relationships with Black Wall Street, Hood Huggers and the Noir Collective, Peterson says, helping these organizations connect with media and obtain coverage. The BCTDA also provided a $5,000 grant from its Festivals and Cultural Events Support Fund to help fund the inaugural GrindFest, a free, four-day festival that celebrates Black entrepreneurship.
Ravenel of the Noir Collective says that, while she’s seen an increase in tourists visiting the collective to support Black-owned businesses over the past year, issues with visibility remain.
“A lot of our walk-in traffic, if it’s not the people who already are coming to us as locals, are tourists. When we see Black individuals coming into our space, it’s a lot of, ‘We had no idea you were here. This is amazing,’” says Ravenel. “The things that [tourists] are looking for are already there. They just need the right support.”
J Hackett, co-founder of Black Wall Street, an Asheville organization supporting over 100 Black-owned businesses, echoes that sentiment. He says the tourism industry has a lot of work to do after decades of undeserving Black travelers and destinations.
“No organization, no entity, no institution, is doing a perfect job,” Hackett says. “There could be more exposure, more attention and more collaboration. But if we acknowledge that systems have historically not included a certain group of people because of the color of their skin, then we cannot imagine that after five years or even 10 years of new awareness that we will replace or somehow erase or even overshadow the hundreds of years that they’ve been ignored.”