How Race Shapes (& Reshapes) Solo Travel

Solo Woman TravelerPriyanka Junejawith wheatpaste street-art posters outside the Palermo SoHo in Buenos Aires
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This series is a set of firsthand anecdotes from a seasoned solo woman traveler who has traveled to 50 countries in the last decade. Priyanka Juneja is also finishing up her MBA and a Masters in International Studies from Wharton and is the founder of @hera.travel, a platform to empower women to travel fearlessly. 

As someone who identifies as both Indian and American, I’ve always been aware of the color of my skin. I’ve firsthand experienced the dichotomy between these two starkly different cultures my entire life. I’ve watched them collide headfirst, struggling to produce a cohesive hybrid identity that suited someone like me. While this post isn’t about my racial identity crisis (though I have plenty of stories to tell), the context of me being both Indian and American is important. As someone who was born with brown skin in a very conservative southern town, I’ve been acutely reminded that I am a POC my whole life. 

 It wasn’t just in that little American town. When I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, random people would ask, “¿Porque eres morena?” to discern where I was from and “why I am brown.” I had random people sing, “Dora, dora the explorer” at me as they passed by on bicycles one morning. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these experiences made me feel uncomfortable. I’m sure that some people were just genuinely interested in my ethnic background. Still, someone singing the lyrics of a children’s cartoon where the main character is my skin color feels like it was intended as some sort of jab. 

Why the Conversation on Race?

    It’s important for me to highlight that the anecdote I shared in the beginning of the post is my personal experience as an Indian-American. We as a society use the term BIPOC as an all encompassing term, but it is naive to think that everyone who falls under that category has the same experiences. For example, I cannot speak to the challenges that a Black, Latina, or East-Asian woman may face either in their own country or abroad. What I can do is underscore the need to have this dialogue about race—especially with what is happening not only in the United States but in the world around us. 

    These past 12 months have been wrought with seemingly insurmountable challenges and heartbreak. They’ve also shed light on the systemic racism that pervades throughout the fabric of society. From senseless violence against the Black community to a 150% increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, we can no longer stay silent and complacent on any matter related to race. 

Race as it Relates to the Travel Industry

While there’s nothing I enjoy more than exploring a new place, I’ve noticed that the cities I tend to revisit are ones in which I can blend in more. I honestly feel safer that way. 

It’s harder to travel to places where I stick out and where I attract a lot of unnecessary attention. As a solo traveler who is taught to always be on her guard, a lot of attention is the exact opposite of what I want. To me that boils down to where I feel the safest with a combination of skin color and language ability. 

I share this because it’s important to realize that race not only affects everyday life but also the way you travel. More precisely, it can affect your safety on a trip. There are countries where wearing a burqa or niqab in public areas is banned and countries where the darker your skin is the more you are mistrusted. I urge you to read Nicole Phillip’s account as a Black woman studying abroad in Italy as she details her experience that left a deep emotional scar.

The first step to change is always awareness, but that needs to be quickly followed up by action. It is no secret that there needs to be change at the travel-industry level, and there needs to be diversity of messaging and targeting. There is no one image that defines a traveler. By not acknowledging this, tourism boards and other major players are missing out on attracting an array of travelers. After all, who wants to travel somewhere where none of the travelers pictured in the promotional material look like them? It’s daunting and alienating at the same time.

While there’s nothing I enjoy more than exploring a new place, I’ve noticed that the cities I tend to revisit are ones in which I can blend in more. I honestly feel safer that way.

This is an issue I do not take lightly as the founder of Hera, a travel platform to help women travel fearlessly. My goal is to make every single woman in the Hera community— regardless of background—feel empowered, included, and heard. I know that I will make mistakes along the way, but I feel reassured that with a diverse and strong leadership team Hera can and will make a difference.

Pro Traveler Corner

This section is to provide you with tips for recognizing how race impacts travel and how to plan accordingly.

  1. Research current events before your trip
    For your own safety, it’s important to understand what is currently happening in the country you are visiting. Is there an uptick on anti-immigrant sentiment? 
  1. Acknowledge your own biases
    Regardless of who you are, you may have some racial bias. It’s a difficult and uncomfortable fact, but acknowledging your own biases is the first step towards making change. This can also go a long way as you interact with locals or fellow travelers.
  1. Support BIPOC travel businesses 
    The travel industry has a long way to go in terms of diversification. Be a part of that change and support BIPOC businesses. 
  1. Trust your instincts
    This bears repeating over and over again. If the situation does not feel right, remove yourself immediately. 

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