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Black Marylanders find self-care in pandemic travel

From the coastlines of West Africa to popular U.S. destinations, Brian Oliver says travel has been a much-needed break from the stressors associated with being Black and living through the pandemic.

He has found a reprieve in the form of leaving his Baltimore home for jaunts to Georgia, New York and Florida. And when it was allowed, he was able to take two trips to Ghana.

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“[Black people] were not only dealing with something that was completely foreign to us [COVID-19}, we had to deal with one of many incidents that happened [racial unrest]. We had to deal with that, and the racial tension that skyrocketed during the campaign,” Oliver said. “[Travel] helped to decompress and escape. If you were to pay attention to the media, there was always something negative. To get out of the country was an escape.”

Ashlee Tuck, 37, who lives in Windsor Mill is founder and operator of the blog @willdrinkfortravel, which has 11.3K followers on Instagram. Before the pandemic, Tuck traveled a great dealÑmostly flying internationally. During the pandemic, Tuck took more road trips. She says travel is an Òoutlet for her.Ó Tuck will be embarking on a train trip to New York City next month from Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.
Ashlee Tuck, 37, who lives in Windsor Mill is founder and operator of the blog @willdrinkfortravel, which has 11.3K followers on Instagram. Before the pandemic, Tuck traveled a great dealÑmostly flying internationally. During the pandemic, Tuck took more road trips. She says travel is an Òoutlet for her.Ó Tuck will be embarking on a train trip to New York City next month from Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

For many Black Americans who have dealt with disproportionate infections and deaths due to COVID-19, combined with racial reckonings that have placed extra emotional labor on them, a change of scenery has become a necessity.

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For some, domestic travel is enough to do the trick. Others seek to travel abroad where they believe they receive better treatment than in their native United States.

“I’ve seen so many posts with [Black] people saying it’s impossible to find a therapist. A majority of us are not in a good head space. To escape temporarily is a good supplement,” said Oliver, who founded @Beyondbaltimore, an Instagram travel and lifestyle account with 10,000 followers.

With the different stressors and traumas Black people experienced during the pandemic, travel has been good for self-care, according to Dr. La Keita Carter, owner and CEO of the Institute for Healing, a mental health and wellness center based in Owings Mills.

“There were lots of Black Baltimoreans who said they needed to get on an island or to another country,” she said. “There were lots of weekend trips. It was very easy for Black Baltimoreans to get a quick self-care trip in.”

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Black therapists, who at the height of the pandemic accounted for half of the therapists at the center, were in high demand as lockdowns began, according to Carter.

“They were 100% full,” she explained. “Black women therapists were in top requests. Then Black therapists. After that was couple’s therapists.”

Carter, who traveled to Hawaii, Virginia Beach and Disney World during the past year, is not surprised to hear that a number of Black people turned to travel as a way to cope with stress during that time.

“It is completely healthy,” Carter said of travel for self-care. “We need to break up our routine. It is something to look forward to — new sights, smells, seasons. … Eating new cuisine, meeting new people from different cultures absolutely is part of self-care — if you enjoy doing it.”

Benet Wilson, senior editor at The Points Guy, a travel website, said that the travel and hospitality industry has put an added emphasis on attracting all travelers during the pandemic — particularly in early to mid-2020 when they “lost a lot of money” and they “needed to put butts in seats.”

This approach resulted in airlines offering “fare sales” and hotels presenting deep discounts, according to Wilson, who is Black and lives in Towson.

“I think the travel industry in general understands that Black people do travel and have money,” Wilson said. “It’s a $129 billion a year industry. That is a lot of money. They don’t want to leave that on the table.”

A tourist poses for a photo during a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tulum in Quintana Roo state, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, amid the new coronavirus pandemic. More U.S. tourists came to Quintana Roo during this pandemic-stricken holiday season than did a year earlier, when the world was just beginning to learn of COVID-19. They account for 9 out of 10 foreign tourists, said state Tourism Secretary Marisol Vanegas. (AP Photo/Emilio Espejel)
A tourist poses for a photo during a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tulum in Quintana Roo state, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, amid the new coronavirus pandemic. More U.S. tourists came to Quintana Roo during this pandemic-stricken holiday season than did a year earlier, when the world was just beginning to learn of COVID-19. They account for 9 out of 10 foreign tourists, said state Tourism Secretary Marisol Vanegas. (AP Photo/Emilio Espejel) (Emilio Espejel/AP)

Emerging trends for Black travelers during the pandemic include: solo travel among Black women; people seeking additional experiences at their destinations such as yachting and hiring private chefs and mixologists in swanky rented homes; and a focus on health retreats and bonding trips with friends.

Top destinations include: Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Portugal, Spain, Paris and Greece, according to Wilson.

“Because almost all of them have some sort of Black expat communities,” Wilson said, explaining that social media groups have also helped to build networks for Black travelers so that once they arrive in a foreign destination, they have an instant community of other Black Americans. “By the time you go to Tulum, you know people.”

Black travelers are an attractive market for domestic tourism bureaus and destination properties. Visit Baltimore spent close to a million dollars on an advertising campaign in 2020 featuring Black creatives from Baltimore.

Visit Philadelphia has curated experiences ranging from Juneteenth tours to the $60 million Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, which teaches about civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. All are designed to lure Black travelers, who made up 10% of the Philadelphia region’s 30 million annual visitors in 2020. Those numbers further bolstered the organization’s paid media campaign, which resulted in 9,200 referrals from visitphilly.com to minority-owned businesses in Philadelphia during the month of June 2021. The organization has also worked with musician and noted Philadelphia native DJ Questlove for the Love + Grit podcast, which highlights a number of topics — including hot spots in Philadelphia.

Sonjie DeCaires, founder and CEO of Sonjé Productions, a full-service events, promotions and marketing company, poses outside Black Swan restaurant in Harbor East. DeCaires, of Station North, travels frequently for work. August 30, 2021 p1
Sonjie DeCaires, founder and CEO of Sonjé Productions, a full-service events, promotions and marketing company, poses outside Black Swan restaurant in Harbor East. DeCaires, of Station North, travels frequently for work. August 30, 2021 p1 (Amy Davis)

The Gathering Spot, a new membership-only social networking club in Washington, D.C. where guests enjoy concierge services, elite networking, and a full-service restaurant and bar featuring American and Black diaspora cuisine, reports that 20% of its members are Baltimoreans. The concept also has locations in Atlanta, and coming in early 2022, in Los Angeles.

At the Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Va., the Black culinary world gathered in August for The Family Reunion, an inaugural event headlined by James Beard Award winning chef Kwame Onwuachi and Food & Wine for a four-day celebration that also attracted Black star power such as chef and television personality Carla Hall, award-winning chef Nina Compton, actor Kendrick Sampson and comedian Dave Chappelle.

And Martha’s Vineyard, a longtime popular summer destination for the country’s Black elite including former President Barack Obama, who hosted a birthday party there over the summer, appeared to have bounced back to pre-COVID levels with ferry traffic to the destination up significantly this year from 2020, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.

Sonjie DeCaires, 43, a resident of Station North who is CEO of Sonje Productions, has traveled frequently during the pandemic to destinations such as Chicago, Deep Creek, Outer Banks, Jacksonville, Miami, Melborne, Fla., Middleburg, Va., New York and Martha’s Vineyard.

“It was an escape for me to help with my mental wellness,” she said. “A lot of people started self-medicating and doing other things to cope. I used travel to really put me in a better space in terms of my mental wellness.”

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DeCaires, like many of the travelers interviewed for this story, said she took the pandemic as an opportunity to travel within the U.S., although she typically travels internationally. (Paris is a particular favorite.)

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As a result, she was able to enjoy a number of events and locations geared to Black travelers such as The Family Reunion and Martha’s Vineyard.

“I just became more in love with what is local until it became safe to fly overseas. I didn’t want to go overseas and be locked down,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Ashlee Tuck, 37, traveled a great deal — mostly flying internationally. During the pandemic, Tuck focused more on road trips, which she felt were safer. Tuck said she took extra precautions because she was living with a senior citizen family member who was in remission from cancer.

“I felt that if I traveled and brought something home to her, I would be devastated,” she explained.

Tuck, who lives in Windsor Mill, is founder and operator of the blog @willdrinkfortravel, which has more than 11,000 followers on Instagram, took trips to Cape Code, Martha’s Vineyard, Hilton Head, South Carolina, Miami, New York City and Cancun.

“To maintain my sanity, I thought a road trip would be the next best thing,” she said. “I went to places I always wanted to go but never went. I found the love of travel again.”

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