Travel writer BIANCA BUJAN contemplates passport privilege, how gender and race impact our travel experiences and what we can do to use our privilege to promote responsible tourism.
Passport in hand, I head to the airport, hop on a plane and eagerly await my arrival in Ecuador. I’ve been wanting to visit the Galapagos Islands since I first learned about the archipelago of volcanic islands in a high school geography class. Thanks to a last-minute invite to report on a new land-based, eco-friendly lodge, I’m on my way. As a Canadian travel writer, entry to the country is easy, but as a woman of colour, I have concerns about my safety and status upon arrival.
As someone who travels often, I’m not blind to the benefits that come with carrying a coveted Canadian blue book. My passport provides me with easy access to most of the world, and I’m aware that this benefit—based solely on my birthplace—is a privilege. Beyond accessibility, I also recognize the impacts of my gender and race on my travel experiences. Upon arrival, I wonder: Will I be safe as a woman travelling solo? Will I be pulled aside and questioned due to the colour of my skin?
Travel privilege is rarely discussed, yet it has a great influence on both those who can enjoy global mobility with ease and those who cannot. When recognizing our privilege as it relates to our passports, gender and race, we should also consider how our presence in a new place can make a positive impact.
It's mid-December in 2019 when I depart on this journey to the Galapagos Islands—it will become my last international trip before Covid-19 halts global travel.
With the onset of the pandemic, I watched my neighbours to the south swiftly shift from packing one of the most powerful passports in the world to realizing the woes of having little-to-no access to overseas destinations.
According to the Henley Passport Index—a ranking of the world’s most powerful passports—Canada ranks ninth. Our passports grant us visa-free access to 183 destinations around the world. In contrast, my ancestors in Nigeria have visa free access to only 46 countries—24 per cent of the world—and that’s if they even have the means to travel. Afghanistan comes in last on the list with visa-free access to only 26 countries.
I asked my friend and fellow travel writer Heather Greenwood Davis to share her thoughts on Canadian passport privilege. “It really hit me on my family’s trip around the world in 2011,” she recalled. “We visited 29 countries on six continents over a year. We first realized our privilege when we were in Vietnam. We struck up a conversation with a waitress, and when she heard what we were up to, she shared how impossible it would be for her and described the red-tape process necessary for her to leave the country. It was an eyeopener I’ve never forgotten.”
I arrive in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in the middle of the night—it’s a stopover before my final destination. The empty airport hallways are sprinkled with sleepy strangers. I look around cautiously as I make my way through the terminal alone. As a woman, I’ve learned to pay careful attention to my surroundings. In the past, men have awkwardly eyed me up and down, followed me through the airport and attempted to lure me into a car. I avoid falling asleep during long layovers and don’t drink alcohol, afraid of what might happen to me if I’m not completely alert and aware of my surroundings. I always take these safety precautions when travelling—primarily because of my gender.
But while I’m vigilant as a female traveller, I’ve come to realize that there can also be perks to travelling alone. My friend and fellow travel writer Diane Selkirk has taken many solo trips, and she agrees that there are pros and cons when travelling alone as a woman. “Women aren’t given much agency in some places in the world and are seen as something to both protect and exploit,” she said. “For me, my gender has been a positive and negative. But the number of people who have wanted to assist or be kind . . . has been even greater.” I agree.
When I arrive in the Galapagos Islands, I meet up with a small group of travel media—mostly women—and we spend the week exploring the region by land and sea. I take comfort in travelling in a group, knowing that we are guided by a local who takes extra care to ensure our safety throughout the journey.
“Are you a local?” a curious vendor asks me as I fish out a bill from my wallet at an airport kiosk while waiting to depart the Galapagos Islands. I’ve wandered away from my group of Caucasian travel companions to purchase a keepsake for my kids, and, as is often the case, my darker complexion creates cultural curiosity. I take her question as a compliment and receive a surprised look when I explain that I’m a Canadian travel writer visiting on assignment.
While waiting to board the plane, my name is called on the loudspeaker, followed by a series of words that I don’t understand. My heart races. I look at my travel companions, shrug my shoulders and follow a man in uniform who leads me through a door and down a dark staircase into the basement of the airport, along with five dark-skinned men who have received the same message. My teeth chatter. I ask what’s going on, but no one around me can respond in English.
I stand wide-eyed and watch as another man in uniform dumps the contents of my carry-on onto a metal table before me. He fingers his way through my personal items, ignoring my questions as he works. I assume this is a “random” security check, and I am not blind to the fact that everyone in the room has a darker complexion like myself. Dissatisfied, the man tosses my things aside and motions for me to pack up. Shaken, I stuff my things back into my suitcase. I hear the final boarding call for my flight and ask if I can go. I’m dismissed with a flick of his hand and left to navigate my way back to the lobby—just in time to board my plane.
For Greenwood Davis, the travel privilege that comes with race is also apparent. She shares, “It’s out there. But while the recipient recognizes it immediately because they have experienced it, the privilege holder often tries to explain it away as you being overly sensitive. I was ignored at a restaurant while a white family who came in later was attended to immediately. Is there an overt clarity that this happened because I’m Black? No. But after a few similar experiences, you begin to look for the common denominator in the situation, and often it’s race.”
I return home filled with fond memories of my time spent in the Galapagos Islands. From the adrenaline rush of up-close encounters with wildlife to sampling the local cuisine, I savoured every moment of my visit. But what stuck with me most was seeing firsthand how the locals coexist in harmony with the creatures of the islands.
While there, I made it a priority to connect with the people who call the islands home. I found out how I could contribute to the community as a visitor, and I only purchased items from local vendors. Before departing, I planted a Scalesia tree through a local reforestation program designed to ensure the birds and tortoises thrive, contributing to the overall wellbeing of the islands.
Through my experiences in the Galapagos Islands, I realized the importance of using travel privilege to promote responsible tourism. With this in mind, I asked Greenwood Davis to share her thoughts on how Canadians can positively impact tourism while travelling. “With great access comes great responsibility,” she said. “We have to approach every inch of this planet with dignity and respect for it and the people who inhabit it. If being a Canadian grants me greater access to the world, it also requires I represent my country in a way that suggests I recognize the privilege it brings.”
Selkirk agreed, adding, “We need to travel with an awareness that thanks to an accident of birth, the world is open to us. We need to treat that lucky bit of chance as the precious gift it is, by going further afield and challenging ourselves to learn more and see more. By exploring off the beaten path, our tourism dollars reach places that need them most.”
For me, this awareness becomes more apparent with each trip. While I remain conscious of how my travel experiences are impacted by my gender and race, I also aim to focus more on how my visits can benefit each destination. By choosing to stay at locally-run resorts, making it a priority to engage with local communities and highlighting the ways in which other visitors can travel responsibly, I hope that my own travel privilege will positively impact the tourism industry and encourage others to travel with the same goals in mind.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Canadian Traveller.