‘We Out Here’: Inside the New Black Travel Movement
In the wee hours of Christmas morning, a flight deal was shared in an exclusive Facebook group for urban travelers. An unbelievable fare glitch priced round trip flights on Etihad Airways from select U.S. cities to Abu Dhabi as low as $187, nonstop, taxes and fees included. Whoa.
This is the kind of thing Nomadness Travel Tribe, a stealth crew of 9,000 predominately African American globetrotters, ages 25 to 40, lives for. At last count, the tight-knit travel clique has collectively visited all but a dozen countries on the map, hosting meet-ups in cities around the world, from New York to Dubai. They even have matching tattoos. And they booked hundreds of tickets within hours.
“We’re here,” says Evita Robinson, 30, the creator of Nomadness Travel Tribe. “We may be the only black people in India, but we in here. We may be the only black people in Tokyo getting all the looks, but we’re still in here.”
Thanks to a new crop of emerging online communities, international travel is becoming more real than ever for social media savvy African Americans, a demographic The New York Times noted last year is largely untapped by the trillion-dollar travel industry. Members of Nomadness Travel Tribe booked over 400 flights to the Middle East, Asia and Africa for leisure travel in 2015 over the past two months alone, and that doesn’t even include family, friends, and the folks on Black Twitter, tagging along with them.
A quick glance at the Instagram feed of Travel Noire, another emerging community for unconventional travelers of color, confirms black travelers are, indeed, out here. And the reason they’re flocking to niche communities is because of “representation,” says Zim Ugochukwu, 26, the creator of Travel Noire, a digital publishing platform with over 100 contributors. “When you see somebody who looks like you doing something you never thought you could do, then that thing becomes possible.”
These days, to be featured by Travel Noire on Instagram is like a badge of honor for many black millennial travelers. “People will spend their entire vacation trying to get on the Travel Noire Instagram,” says Zim, who is humbled by the community’s growth on the photo-sharing platform to nearly 60,000 followers in little over a year. (Full disclosure: I've been a member of Nomadness the last eight months and several of my photos have been featured on Travel Noire.)
Nomadness boasts similar bragging rights. A running joke inside the tribe is that the group is like that club with a hundred people waiting outside to get in. You don’t want to wait on line, but all of your friends are inside telling you how poppin’ it is. Except, Nomadness currently has 3,000 pending membership requests. And the wait is about 3 months long, as the tribe’s “high council” reviews prospective members.
Unlike Travel Noire, which caters to newbie, largely millennial, travelers who may have never ventured outside of the country, Nomadness members must have at least one passport stamp to join the tribe. “There are some people who even make my passport—which has 40 pages added to it—look like child’s play,” says Evita, a three-times expat and former backpacker. “We have members who have been to over 100 countries.” And they all travel affordably, busting the myth that travel is only for the elite.
“The tribe is really made of people who put travel as a priority in their entire lifestyle,” says Evita. People who barter with their employers for more PTO and telecommuting options instead of salary increases, so they can work remotely from the beaches of Jamaica. People who have, at one point or another, thought: “You know what? I don’t want to be a slave to a 9-to-5 schedule. I want to create my life so that I have more freedom to be able to travel the world, and work and live wherever I want,” she says.
For the Travel Noire set, it’s about stepping outside of your comfort zone, and realizing what’s possible. “Instead of going to Miami or Las Vegas, you take that same money, catch a flight deal, and you’re off in Johannesburg for the same price,” says Zim, who teaches newbies how to travel hack through Travel Noire’s fellowship program, which is currently accepting applications for the first class of 2015. “By the time they’re finished, they know exactly how to spot glitch fares—they know everything I know, pretty much,” she says. Travel Noire fellows earned about a half million travel miles in 2014.
“It blows my mind sometimes how fast we move,” says Evita. Her travel clique has been known to arrive at an airport, bags packed, passport-in-hand, within hours of spotting a deal. After a few tribe members missed out on a November fare glitch, pricing round trip flights from D.C. to Nairobi below $400, the tribe launched phone trees on WhatsApp to distribute deal alerts. There are currently seven trees with 100 members each, and one strict rule: no random chatter—no “thank you,” no “yasss”—just deals.
Within five minutes of the Christmas Etihad fare glitch, Diamond Tokuda, who runs two Nomadness trees, booked a flight from Chicago to Abu Dhabi for $208. An hour later, he scored a second flight to Johannesburg for $380. “I honestly wasn’t thinking about specifics,” says Diamond, who is Japanese (Nomadness Travel Tribe welcomes all travelers who live an urban lifestyle). “I just booked the deal.” And so did the tribe. By the end of the day, the names of over 200 members, who booked flights, was neatly organized in a shared Facebook document, and sorted by departure dates, so the tribe could break off into smaller groups to coordinate travel plans and meet ups in Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Manila, and New Delhi (all fare glitch cities) through November 2015.
But it’s not all travel hacking and flight deals. These online communities are establishing familial bonds between strangers. “We’re going to Arkansas to visit the Japanese internment camp where my family was in World War II,” says Diamond, 30. “I’ve been looking for someone to go with forever, but tribe people were just like, ‘Let’s go.’” And that’s the beauty of finding your “people” in niche spaces. “You don’t have to wait for your friends,” says Evita. “You can roll with us.”
Essentially, what Evita and Zim have created with Nomadness Travel Tribe and Travel Noire, respectively, is not only shifting perceptions on black travel —it’s changing lives. “There are a ton of testimonials,” says Zim, who recalled an 18-year-old girl, who didn’t have a passport before following Travel Noire, but decided to take a year off before college to live in Ecuador because the community inspired her. “I’ve cried over a lot of them.”
And there’s more to come in 2015. Brands like Lo & Sons and Delsey are already tapping Travel Noire to connect with black travelers. “A lot of brands didn’t think that people of color traveled beyond the Caribbean islands, Miami, Atlanta and Las Vegas. As such, they didn’t spend money advertising,” says Zim. “This is almost a $50 billion market annually spent on travel in the U.S. alone. For people not to build that into their strategies is a huge missed opportunity.”
Evita, who recently announced a partnership between Nomadness Travel Tribe and the creator of the wildly popular YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl,” Issa Rae, hopes to capture the same attention, when she launches a one day, paid, #NMDN travel conference in fall 2015.
This all sounds ambitious, but it reflects the attitude of the travel community these two black millennial women represent, which is, as Evita puts it: “I’m going to make whatever moves it takes, no matter how scary, or how big, and shape my life the way I want it.”