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Organizational Change
New Standards, Certification Program Aim to Embed DEI Into Tourism

Travel Unity — a nonprofit focused on increasing diversity in travel through individual and community empowerment — has established a set of standards for DEI in travel and tourism, as well as the industry’s first holistic DEI certification program.

When George Floyd’s murder by police was captured on video amidst the global pandemic, it set off a wave of protests that amplified racial discrimination and violence in the United States and around the world. Something about this moment in time finally captured the world’s attention and pushed the Black Lives Matter movement into the spotlight. Millions of people responded by posting black squares on their social media accounts; and dozens of brands pledged to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a cornerstone of their companies’ priorities moving forward.

The travel industry, which has long been dominated by a white narrative, was no different.

“It’s no secret that the tourism industry has a lot of work to do when it comes to building a more diverse and inclusive industry — you don’t have to look much further for evidence than the countless all-white, all-male panels at almost every travel conference,” said Kelley Louise, founder and executive director of Impact Travel Alliance. “Representation in leadership teams, marketing campaigns and the rest of the industry isn’t reflective of travelers’ identities — and that’s a big problem.”

At Travel Unity, the message of diversity — all aspects of diversity — has always been the driving force behind its mission. Founded in 2016, the nonprofit organization focuses on increasing diversity in travel through individual and community empowerment. Taking a holistic approach, the organization sees opportunities to make travel more welcoming for people of all backgrounds and abilities — which includes racial and ethnic diversity; as well as diversity in ability and accessibility, language, gender identity and expression, age, religion and spiritual affiliations, socio-economic status, citizenship and land of origin, and partnership status.

When companies working in all sectors of the travel industry actively broaden their DEI efforts internally, they then pave the way for attracting a more diverse array of travelers — which has economic and societal benefits. As the travel and tourism industry attempts to claw its way back from the devastating impact of COVID-19, Travel Unity executive director Roni Weiss notes that this holistic and circular nature of DEI will be vital.

“There is an interplay between the people who work in your company and the visitorship,” he said. “Whether its tapping into new visitors or tapping into their perspectives, having a diversity of opinions and voices within a company allows you to then figure out how you can navigate bringing more visitors in from different backgrounds.”

Inclusive tourism isn’t just good for business; it’s essential for a more sustainable future for the industry. Weiss notes that some organizations excel in specific areas of diversity, yet still fall short in others. For example, some travel companies focus efforts on making products and services affordable, but still have work to do in reaching travelers spanning a wide range of ages. Or, companies that have done a good job of integrating racial and ethnic diversity internally may still be inaccessible to those with mobility restrictions. The theory of intersectionality, a term coined by scholar Kimberlé Williams in 1989 to explain how different aspects of a person’s identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege, is a key consideration both within DEI-specific efforts and in the wider context of resiliency within the tourism ecosystem.

“It’s important that we don’t silo DEI work as one thing that needs to be improved within the industry — diversity and inclusion are tethered to building a more sustainable industry where all travel has the potential to support local communities and protect our environment,” Louise said.

To assist travel companies and organizations benchmark their commitments to all aspects of their DEI efforts, Travel Unity established the DEI standards for travel and tourism — which were updated in August and are free and available for anyone to access. These standards were developed with feedback from more than 100 people and serve as the anchor for Travel Unity’s certification program, Certified by Travel Unity — an external validation mechanism launching in 2021.

The standards enhance DEI efforts in three primary categories: management and workforce, visitorship, and community impact.

“All of these things are a virtuous cycle that, when you do one thing well and are thoughtful about it, it positively impacts another component,” Weiss said.

For four years, Travel Unity has been in dialogue with organizations committed to DEI efforts; but the pandemic amplified and accelerated the need to publish industry standards and launch a certification program underpinning the organization’s work. Given its work in this area already, Travel Unity was in a natural position to assume leadership and provide DEI guidance in a holistic manner.

“To us, even if there was no pandemic and there were no massive protests, these would still be useful mechanisms. I think within the world of pandemic and social protests — for some people who might not have initially looked at this, the urgency becomes clearer,” Weiss said.

He noted that a commitment to DEI is one of the opportunities for the tourism industry to build back better during this particularly challenging time: “With the pandemic and people scrambling to find solutions, our view is that DEI is one of those solutions.”

On October 1, the organization closed the application window for its pilot cohort to work through the certification program. This carefully selected global cohort of destinations, tour operators, accommodations and other travel-related companies have already shown a commitment to the standards by ensuring leadership is completely on board with ongoing work toward systemic change. The Travel Unity team will provide support and facilitation as these organizations work through the standards. This collaborative process is intended to help Travel Unity learn what resources and support the tourism industry and organizations working in it need to achieve the DEI standards.

“Ultimately, it’s their responsibility to do the work,” Weiss said. “We’re going to guide them and help them with what they need, but they’re the only ones that can do the work that they need to do.”

The paid certification program, which will open to the industry early next year, validates this work.

And there is a lot of work to do: “Tourism has a long way to go,” Louise asserted. “But the first step is just acknowledging where we are right now, because that helps us to see where we can go. Travel Unity’s DEI standards offer us an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable and showcase our commitment to diversity and inclusion in a clear and transparent way.”