China has the highest number of outbound tourists, and other Asian countries also rank highly in this global statistic. Yet these tourists hardly ever see themselves and their perspectives represented properly in travel businesses and travel media.
Sarah Lee, director at Captivate Digital Media, says social consciousness has deepened some travel companies’ awareness of the need for diversity; however, a massive gap still exists because there aren’t enough people of color at executive levels in these companies.
“This likely stems from unconscious bias or worse,” she said. “Until that imbalance is addressed, the industry will only be able to move forward so far.”
And it doesn’t end with representation. Prejudice against Asian tourists has long been an experience Asian travelers have endured, but with the recent surge of anti-Asian racism, stories of violent altercations and discrimination abound.
However, many Asian professionals in the travel industry are striving to make a difference around the world. Here they share the issues they believe are still persistent; what they’ve striving for in their roles; and the path they think the industry needs to take to become more diverse and inclusive.
(Editor’s note: Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.)
Marjorie Perlas, founder of Scapade
Before we talk about bringing Asian voices in on a global scale, we need to give the Asian community back their own narrative. Asians have always been portrayed as supporting characters in their own stories, to contrast White faces that are splashed across the screens in travel media, whether it’s an ad from a tourism board featuring a White traveler or a T.V. show that follows a White man as he makes uncomfortable faces while explaining what the local food tastes like.
Placing Asians into an “other” role trickles into the rest of the industry. It assumes that a Western lens is always necessary. So-called “experts in the Asian market” profit off workshops without meaningful connection to the culture.
I was once hired for a role working with the Chinese inbound market. Even though I am not Chinese, it was implied that it was “the same thing” because I’m Asian.
Astrid Vinje, founder of The Wandering Daughter
The main conversation regarding diversity is usually whether Black and White travelers’ experiences are factored in. There are numerous experiences I have had while traveling that could relate to neither part.
My narrative is hardly ever depicted in the travel media world. Brands need to consider that Asians aren’t necessarily all based in Asia. An Asian American’s perspective of their hometown is different from a White American’s, and they need to be given a place to share that. Only then will Asians feel included in the branding and representation of a destination. It should make them think that it is a place where they are welcome and won’t be faced with an anti-Asian sentiment.
The power dynamic needs to shift so that it’s less about a foreigner “discovering” a new destination and more about a local sharing their country’s knowledge with the world.
Zinara Rathnayake, travel writer and co-creator of NatnZin
Many people associate Asia with its food and beaches and don’t stop to consider that people from places like Sri Lanka are capable of sharing their own stories. It’s twice the effort as you struggle as an Asian and as a minority in Asia itself.
Representation within the industry is quite horrifying. Listicles in significant publications are devoid of Asians or have tokenism, with a single person thrown in for effect. For example, this list about “best travel blogs” in Asia mainly includes White expats. None of Culture Trip’s “Most Inspiring Asian Travel Instagrammers You Need To Follow” [published in 2017], written by a non-Asian, are Asian.
The industry needs to do better research, reach out to a diverse set of local writers, and do justice to the content being produced beyond surface knowledge created just within a couple of days.
Marilou Moles, content creator at Twenty York Street
The need for Asian representation in the travel media industry cannot be emphasized enough. Representation shouldn’t merely be a box to check off, but there is, now more than ever, a need to have Asian decision-makers in the top ranks. That is the only way to have systemic and lasting change.
Aside from that, we need advocates and allies who can also fight against racial profiling while traveling, such as people pulling their eyes back or loudly calling out ‘Ni Hao’ as greetings in the industry.
Having someone who looks like us, comes from the same background and culture as us, who understands our travel needs and preferences can bring about solutions that have our best interest and well-being in mind right from the get-go.
Asian representation shouldn’t be seasonal or trendy — we shouldn’t have to wait for Asian Heritage Month or more violence to spark the #StopAsianHate movement continuously.
Adrienne Lee, director of global impact for Tourism Cares
More Asians are required at executive positions in the travel industry to develop intentional pipelines, representation and mentorship for Asian talent to break the “bamboo ceiling” and the “model minority myth.”
The repercussions and harm of the model minority myth have made many in the Asian community invisible. It’s not only important for Asian staff to have a seat at the table, but to feel welcomed and heard, which leads to a foundation of trust and belonging.
Having a diverse leadership not only sets the tone, vision and strategy of the organization, but also impacts the bottom line. There is a strong correlation between a more diverse leadership team and the financial performance of the company. Diverse leadership challenges assumptions, thinks holistically of the customers they serve and is truly authentic in its values.
Anu Karunatilaka, regional general manager of North and South Asia at PEAK DMC, of Intrepid Group
While there has been a lot of attention on the Chinese travel market, there is significant growth and opportunity all over Asia.
If global travel companies want to capture a slice of the growing Asian travel market, it is vital that they have people in roles that understand Asian values and expectations, and how to create travel experiences that Asians want.
Companies are also structurally set up to consider the West as the “source markets” and other places — including Asia — as “destinations.” This means most head offices are based in Western cultures. Therefore, it is natural for most key positions to be occupied by people who know the source markets (the West) and can bring in business. However, as the source markets are shifting to Asian locations, these companies will need to change these structures to grow.