An outreach initiative known as Tourism RESET, co-directed by Stefanie Benjamin, assistant professor in Retail, Hospitality & Tourism, is setting out to change the tourism industry as we know it by amplifying marginalized voices and experiences to implement equitable change.
Founded in 2010 by Derek Alderman, professor and former department head in Department of Geography in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Arts & Sciences, Tourism RESET is “a multi-university and interdisciplinary research and outreach initiative that seeks to identify, study, and challenge patterns of social inequity in the tourism industry.” The initiative seeks to press the ‘reset’ button on the traditional tourism industry by enforcing the belief that tourism development can be tools for racial reconciliation and empowerment. Currently, the network of scholars and research fellows hail from 25 different universities.
“I’m excited that academic research is being disseminated beyond academic journals or paywalls,” explains Benjamin. “We need a culture change – one where our research doesn’t just sit in academic journals, but also works toward tangible and actionable goals.”
While the research conducted by the Tourism RESET team encompasses a vast number of struggles within the tourism industry, including human trafficking in hospitality, animal welfare in tourism, inclusion of people with disabilities, and the continuing power issues related to gender in economically developing and developed contexts, Benjamin’s research with Alana Dillette, co-director of Tourism RESET and assistant professor at San Diego State University, has focused primarily on the BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) Travel Movement (BTM).
According to Benjamin, “The goal of our work is to take a deeper look into the nexus of marginalized travelers, specifically BTM leaders and the representation of BIPOC experiences within a predominantly White-washed touristic landscape.”
The two researchers partnered in May 2020 with NOMADNESS Travel Tribe, a travel group created almost a decade ago by content creator and community leader, Evita Robinson, to create and disseminate the 2020 BIPOC Diversity Travel Report: Trends + Insights. In order to “tell a story with the numbers,” the team focused on NOMADNESS members who identified as Black and interviewed several Black travel influencers, bloggers, and community leaders, all of whom shared one thing: the message that Black travel is not a monolith. Benjamin and Dillette recently published an opinion piece about this work entitled “Black Travel is Not a Monolith” for AFAR magazine.
Through their research, Benjamin and Dillette prove that academics can partner and collaborate with industry leaders and that the two entities need one another to elicit and advocate for equity. The researchers’ work also creates an environment where tourism stakeholders understand that, in order to be truly inclusive, they must move beyond performative acts of solidarity —like the black square seen on numerous corporations’, businesses’, and influencers’ Instagram feeds last summer at the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement— toward a deeper sense of belonging in the tourism landscape.
Other groups, such as the recently-founded Black Travel Alliance, have also made calls for accountability and equity in tourism. Benjamin and Dillette are partnering with the BTA to create a ‘History of Black Travel’ in an effort to show that Black travel has taken place for centuries, both for exploration and for leisure, but most people are unfamiliar with early explorers and tourism pioneers. For the initial launch in Spring/Summer 2021, the History of Black Travel timeline will have 130+ entries from the Americas, focusing mostly on the United States. “This will be an ongoing project,” says Benjamin, “and when it is complete, will be the most comprehensive and robust recording of Black leisure travel through the centuries!”