I was around seven or eight years old, sitting in my plane seat as a giddy, unaccompanied minor. My brother and I were on an eight-hour flight to Kingston, Jamaica. I didn’t cry when we waved goodbye to our mum at the departure gate and walked off with the airline staff.
All I could think about was six weeks of sea and sun with my grandma. This was the beginning of my love for travel – something I didn’t realise until speaking to Ella Paradis, founder and editor of a new magazine, the Black Explorer. Like many second- and third-generation kids in the UK who travel across the globe to see family, she had had a similar experience to mine.
With 80% of the UK’s journalists having attended private school and only 0.2% of journalists being Black, it’s easy to see how travel journalism isn’t always a reflection of people like me. Although Black people very much do travel, the world of tourism widely excludes us and fails to cater for us. We’re barely seen in adverts, in the top spots in travel journalism, or presenting travel documentaries.
It’s something Ella is on a mission to change.
Launching a travel magazine as the world stands still is a brave move but it’s also what makes the first issue of this quarterly magazine, subtitle “We Go Too”, so exciting. We may not be able to travel but we can live vicariously through its stories.
I wanted the magazine to shine a light on all the ways Black people explore
But the Black Explorer isn’t your average travel guide. Written by black writers and travellers, it’s a celebration and educational resource showing how and why we travel, told by us for us. How we navigate the world comes with its own nuances, from dealing with anti-Blackness abroad to the need for Black joy.
From the story of how psychedelics opened pathways to adventure for Alexandra Keeling to pioneering travellers, such as the Black Arctic explorers of the 1800s, the magazine seeks to redefine how we think about travel.
The Black travel movement is well established in the US. Publications including National Geographic, Outside magazine, CNN Travel and Skift have documented its growth. Black travellers’ members’ clubs like Buoyant and lifestyle platforms like Black & Abroad cater for a US black travel market said by one study to be worth $63bn a year .
Here in the UK it’s only just starting to take flight. Along with outdoor groups such as Black Girls Hike, and black-owned music festivals like British-run AfroNation, the Black British travel movement is finally getting its time in the sun.
Niellah Arboine: Why did you start the Black Explorer?
Ella Paradis: I just didn’t see myself represented in the travel industry. I’ve been travelling since I was 10. My parents just put me on a plane. You know: “This is your destination, here’s your ticket, see you in two months, go to this family member.” It just felt natural because I was thrown into it from a young age.
NA: Same! Every year, my mum would send me to Jamaica, with my brother, and we got to fly alone. And I remember on the plane just eating all the gelatine sweets I wasn’t normally allowed.
I would also love for us western and western-raised travellers to step off our high horse and travel with more humility
EP: It was just natural. Then a couple of years ago, I started working in travel. I was a travel consultant, planning and organising high-end travel journeys for my clients and regularly attended trade events. By complete accident, I attended an event where there were Black travel bloggers. Two of the travel creators I met there were Caroline Sandé from TravelEatSlay and Eulanda and Omo from HeyDipYourToes.
I was like, “Oh my God, this world exists! There are other people like me.” I got to know the Black travel movement. I heard all these amazing stories but I didn’t see them in the magazines I was reading. I love magazines, and I love travel, so I thought maybe I should start my own. I was meant to launch in March and then Covid hit, and I lost my job. So I shelved the idea. But then I just deleted everything that I had previously worked on for the magazine and started anew.
NA: There’s already a big Black travel movement in the US but Europe isn’t being documented in the same way yet. What are the differences between the two?
EP: I was raised in Belgium, as a Black European, but I wasn’t seeing our stories. The statistics we have about Black travel are not just outdated, they only centre on America. It feels like genealogy travel is very big in America. Because of the repercussions of the slave trade, the vast majority of Black Americans are unable to retrace their ancestry back far enough to know where they are actually from. Taking a DNA test allows them to narrow down the possibilities to a certain region in Africa and gives them a sense of ownership and homeland to return to and reconnect with their ancestry. Whereas in Europe a lot of us are second-generation – it’s normal to travel back to our parents’ country.
NA: There seems to be a misconception that travelling is just for white people, but as you said, we are second and third generation: someone in our family had to travel.
EP: Travel as we know it literally comes from imperialism and colonisation. You don’t just travel to go and discover lands; you travel because you have to travel. You’re looking for something better, and you have to work. It connects so many aspects of our lives. I travelled when I first moved to Belgium. Then every holiday to visit family when my parents didn’t want me around. I lived mostly in the Flemish/Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. I consider Ghent to be my home town, though we lived in different cities and Leuven is where I went to university before moving to London. Then when I went to university, I started couchsurfing. Now I’m more of a comfy traveller.
The best thing you can do is travel with an open heart and allow people to touch you with their stories
NA: When I was reading in the magazine about “Bear Girl” – Alexandra Keeling – and she talked about the Black woman in her family travelling, it reminded me of my grandma. She travelled all over the world, but her reasons were to see religious sites.
EP: This is something I wanted to do with the magazine: to shine a light on all the ways Black people explore.
NA: Yes, I love that. I don’t find mainstream travel journalism does that. It often focus on holidays, gap years and short getaways rather than all the other reasons people travel. How do we change the landscape?
EP: These publications need to realise there’s not just one way of travelling.
NA: At gal-dem we have a travel column. I started it because for us, you have to think about different things. Am I going to get racially attacked if I go here? How bad is anti-Blackness in this part of the world? All these questions are really just about safety. We published a piece about travelling to Catalonia and dealing with racism in a foreign language.
EP: That reminds me of my experience in India. I’m still traumatised. I bought all of the magazines and guidebooks and they all warn you that as a woman, you have to be careful. I thought, “OK, yeah, I think I can do that.” But then you arrive in India and you realise that for a dark-skinned Black woman, there are attacks and just looks. How can I be walking in India and have a random guy come up to me and pull my hair and ask me, “Is this Indian hair? Did you take a hair from our people?” So there’s a level of preparation that the guidebooks don’t offer. I don’t know if I would see it as a job to warn people about those dangers; it’s more a courtesy for other Black girls and women like me.
NA: On the flip side, it’s really nice when I’ve gone to Cuba or Jamaica and everybody looks like me and you can just sigh a big breath. It feels so nice to be the majority. I don’t get that many times in my life and you don’t realise how much you’re holding that in.
EP: This is why for me, it’s important to tell stories of joy and fun – being carefree. Especially since the pandemic.
NA: The Black Explorer does that really well: I really enjoyed Amara Amaryah’s essay on solo travelling to Jamaica, and your interview with wildlife TV presenter Patrick Aryee. What do you think about travel this year?
EP: I was meant to be in Mauritius this year but I’ve enjoyed discovering more of England. Until this year the only place I’d been to was the Lake District. Cuckmere Haven [in East Sussex] became my go-to beach this summer. The Devon coastline is breathtaking, and hiking in Exmoor national park felt like stepping back in time and being in the type of green and lush English landscapes you see in fantasy movies. I’ve even come to enjoy swimming in the cold English sea, finding myself skinny-dipping at 6am in the rain at Totland Bay on the Isle of Wight. We bought a futon that could fit in the back of our estate car with the back seats down and would just drive off and sleep outside, often overlooking the sea.
The next issue is all about how we’ve had to redefine what travel means to us. It’s like we’ve been forced inward, both physically into ourselves, but also into our environment.
NA: Who are your favourite black travel bloggers and writers?
EP: Martinique Lewis is phenomenal. She has created this new version of the Green Book, but it’s about connecting the African diaspora in every country in the world. Pelumi, AKA Black Kintsugi, has travelled solo to almost every country in Europe and road-tripped solo around West Africa. On the way she’s always been open about both the good and the bad on her journeys. She allows herself to be vulnerable with her audience and with her struggles. Everyone within the Black travel community is supportive – we’re all rooting for one another.
NA: And what are your hopes for the future of travel?
EP: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d like to see more diversity across the board, and for the industry to stop looking at non-white travellers as an afterthought. I would also love for us western and western-raised travellers to step off our high horse and travel with more humility. There’s a tendency to think we are more advanced, richer, superior, and that affects how we move through the world. The best thing you can do is travel with an open heart and allow people to touch you with their stories. Be humble and stay humble!
• Niellah Arboine is lifestyle editor at gal-dem