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Traveling the African Diaspora

Manny Otiko | 5/26/2010, 5 p.m.

To many African Americans in the past, vacation usually means visiting relatives "down South." But now more Black people are venturing beyond the borders of the United States to Europe, Latin America and Africa--places which have deep connections to the African American experience.
But these are tough times for all travelers. Brian Peters, author of "The No Debt World Travel" blog, has visited more than 20 countries and said the recession has drastically reshaped the travel industry, with many Americans choosing to vacation within the United States.
"I think with the economic downturn, many are trying to keep more money in their pockets, which means they are taking day trips within driving distance, or staying in the USA to visit the old, reliable standbys," Peters said, "places like New York City, Orlando/Disney/Universal and Las Vegas."
For African Americans, the South, including places such as Atlanta, Ga., South Carolina and North Carolina, still tend to be popular destinations and there are a number of organizations that have packaged tours that highlight an Afro-Centric experience.
Gullah Tours hosts trips to historic sites in Charleston, S.C. including the Underground Railroad, Catfish Row, (the inspiration for George Gershwin's opera, "Porgy and Bess,") the Old Slave Mart and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, the oldest A.M.E. Church in the South. (Gullah was the language spoken by the first Africans who landed in Charleston, and is still spoken today by some Black residents of South Carolina and Georgia.)
Many Africans Americans are attracted to big cities, like New York, which were central to the African American experience. "I had two friends come to New York City and see a few shows and visit Harlem and the Apollo Theater," Peters said.
These lean economic times also mean that travel companies have cut their prices, and there are plenty of bargains available. Peters said airlines and hotels have slashed prices in an effort to lure travelers. However, they are making up these costs in hidden fees.
"The biggest example is the airlines charging for checked luggage and Spirit Airlines charging for carry-ons, come Aug. 1," Peters said. "But even hotels are charging for things that people don't use, like bellhops and mini bars." Peters advises travelers to closely scrutinize their bills and challenge unusual fees.
Betty Price, owner of the Inglewood-based Kola Nut Travel, said that the economic downturn has affected personal leisure travel, while it has not stopped the need for government and business travel. Kola Nut Travel provides it's client a full-service package including travel, lodging, insurance and rail information. Price added that customers can also call the agency for assistance, if they encounter problems during their trip. Kola Nut Travel agents also speak Spanish and Portuguese, in addition to English.
Price, who has been operating Kola Nut Travel for 28 years, first became interested in international travel when she worked on a committee that helped organize a trip to Surinam for Charles Drew Medical Center. An international traveler who has visited 18 countries, Price said the popularity of African destinations is largely driven by the media and word of mouth.
"The most popular countries where people enjoy to travel are Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, Senegal, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Cameroon," said Los Angeles resident Marcel Bwanga, an artist and CEO of www.africatelevision.tv. "People enjoy traveling to these destinations because they are free of violence and peaceful to be around. They also have a lot of entertainment for their visitors like beautiful safaris."
Egypt is also popular because of it's pyramids and ancient culture, and West African countries, such as Ghana and Senegal, are becoming more popular because of their link to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
"The West Coast of Africa is always popular because that is where most people of African descent in the Americas came from," Peters said. "Ghana is a huge destination because of the slave castles. 'The Door of No Return,' the last bit of Africa that African slaves saw before they got on ships for the New World, is a popular attraction. It can be very emotional and moves some to tears."
Peters also said that South Africa has also become a popular place for African American travelers, because of it's political history and the fame of Nelson Mandela. Several African American celebrities, such as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, have homes there. And Los Angeles resident Judge Mablean Ephraim also owns a bed and breakfast in South Africa.
"The great weather and even better prices and exchange rate are big pluses for visiting Cape Town, Johannesburg, and other parts of the country (South Africa)," Peters said.
Los Angeles resident and motivational speaker Barbara Young travels frequently to Africa for business and pleasure. She was part of a delegation, including Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA), that visited President Barack Obama's grandmother in Kenya. Young says that Mombasa and the cities on the Kenyan coast are interesting vacation destinations.
"This (Kenya) is a great place to have fun, relax, and it is very reasonable in price," Young said. "The Serena Hotel is the one where I normally reside, or the Intercontinental in Kenya, or the Windsor Country Resort Club in Nairobi. Another great hotel in Nairobi is the Norfolk. The Meridian Hotel in Senegal is one of the most magnificent in the world and located on the Indian Ocean. I found some very interesting resorts in Tanzania (over on the coast.) The price each night was $80; meals included."
Price said that travelers need to think long and hard before they take the plunge to travel overseas, and that is why it is important to use an established travel agency. "I don't recommend the one-week trip," Price said, because at least two days will be spent in the air.
The least expensive destination in Africa is Senegal, according to Price, who added that air fare alone can range from $1,200-2,000. There are more comprehensive travel packages for East African safaris which cost up to $5,000, pointed out the veteran travel specialist.
Price has noticed that African American travelers have specific needs, when they are booking a trip. According to Price, the typical traveler to East Africa is more interested in seeing the animals in the wild, but Black travelers are interested in "culture, shopping, food and religious services."
Jamaica is still a popular vacation spot for single ladies, Price said. However Latin America also has many vacation spots that draw African Americans. She recommends Cartagena, Columbia, which is 65 percent Black, and Puerto Rico, as good places to visit. Brazil is another popular South American destination, especially the Rio Carnival which Peters describes as "the happiest place on Earth."
"Brazil is always a great getaway," Peters said. "The links Brazil has to Africa can especially be seen in places like Salvador, which is the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture."
If you're thinking of traveling outside the U.S., a great resource for African American travelers is the web site Black Atlas, which features stories, travel competitions and information on air fares and lodging.
In a story on the Black Atlas web site, travel guide Julia Browne discusses Paris' 200-year history with Africans and African Americans. Many African American writers and artists, such as Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes, fled American segregation for Paris in the early 20th century. Paris was also one of the first cities to embrace jazz music. Baker once said, "I have two loves, my country and Paris."
Browne, an English native who emigrated to Canada, operates Walking The Spirit Tours (http://www.walkingthespirit.com), which takes visitors to Parisian sites connected to the Black experience. The tour includes stops at cafes and bistros that were frequented by noted African American writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
Browne became interested in the Black American experience in France while she was studying folklore and Black literature at the Sorbonne. Browne found many African American artists were attracted to France, after hearing rumors about the egalitarian French society. Henry Ossawa Tanner is another example of a Black American ex-patriate drawn to France. An African American artist who was the victim of discrimination in America, he was able win art competitions in France and have his work displayed at the Louvre.
Browne said that many African Americans are still attracted to France because of the more open atmosphere. "The feeling that you are being judged and watched drops away," Browne said.
In addition, African American culture is still very popular among young French people, especially hip hop and President Barack Obama. Browne said the older people still remember Josephine Baker and the influences of other Black American artists who settled in Paris.
France is not the only place in the world where African Americans are held in high esteem, added Peters. He recounts a story about being surrounded by a group of people in Macau, but for a good reason. "You'd be surprised how few African Americans travel abroad, so when other cultures see us, we are embraced," Peters said "For instance I was in Macau and got mobbed by Asian tourists who seemed like they never met a Black person before. The fact that there are not many African Americans traveling makes you almost a celebrity," Peters said. "Brazil is always welcoming to African Americans. And the whole continent of Africa, from Egypt and Morocco in the north to Senegal and Ethiopia and Namibia down to South Africa, embraces us with open arms."
Motivational speaker Young agrees. "I love Africa and the way they treat African Americans. My experiences have been more than pleasurable. In fact, it's like going home."
While many countries, like France, are open to African Americans, they are not without their own racial tensions. Browne has noticed that French people of North and West African descent still face systematic discrimination in the workplace. "A lot of the Black people are highly educated, but you don't see them in high-level jobs," Browne said.
While Europe is still a popular destination for African Americans, Price warns that Americans need to understand that the falling dollar has made things a lot more expensive. "A two-star hotel (in Europe) is $350 and a coke is $4.80," said the travel-business veteran. Browne agrees noting that the failing dollar has sapped American spending power in Europe. "When the dollar was king it was great," Browne said. "When the Euro came in, it turned the tables and the dollar was devalued."
Peters said the falling price of the dollar means that many American travelers have been forced to get creative when it comes to travel costs. A new trend is families pooling their resources to rent a home, instead of paying for a hotel.
"This is really effective, if you're a family or a large group traveling together," Peters said. "As opposed to six people being crammed into a hotel room, you can rent a three-bedroom apartment that could be cheaper per night than the hotel." The real estate crisis has also left many homeowners looking for alternative ways to pay their mortgages, so many of them are open to renting their homes to travelers.
Peters said another new trend he has noticed is travelers choosing pristine destinations. "Places like Antarctica are popular with people who don't want to go where everyone else has," Peters said.
But Peters added that the tighter economic climate means some travelers have returned to tried and true experiences such as the packaged trip and cruises.
"Cruises have become big because they provide a vacation experience at a set price. You don't have to deal with flights and multiple hotels. And the prices per day are excellent.," Peters said.