Black Skin, Blue Passport: Cruising Out of Our Comfort Zones

Why we lose by staying on the boat.

Getty Images
Getty Images

I recently came across the Web page for Black Cruise Week. The site serves as a kind of clearinghouse for African-American-themed cruises, including everything from Black Gay and Lesbian trips to Tom Joyner’s annual Fantastic Voyage.

Thirteen event cruises are scheduled for the rest of this year, with ports of call in Hawaii, the Caribbean and even parts of Africa.

The site’s offerings reflect the increasing popularity of cruise travel among African-Americans. While precise numbers are difficult to obtain, one study reported that the Caribbean is a top destination among African-American travelers, who generally “prefer destinations that are both ‘language comfortable’ and ‘color comfortable.'”

It’s easy to understand the appeal of the Caribbean. From its sandy beaches and sunny skies to its transcendent music and food, the region embodies the kind of relaxation and indulgence that vacationers crave. Former English colonies in the Caribbean also have large English-speaking, black populations, making them generally friendly places for African-American travelers.

And cruises tend to be relatively budget-friendly, offering vacationers an opportunity to sample multiple islands without having to spend lavishly on a single destination. So it makes sense that so many African-Americans opt to spend holidays, family reunions and long weekends on Caribbean cruises.

I have taken a handful of cruises, and I admit that, on one level, I enjoy the low-impact pampering and entertainment, the blissful ease of a floating resort. But shouldn’t vacations sometimes be about more than quickie group tours and where to find the best duty-free goods? Sometimes passengers don’t even venture off the ship. I sometimes wonder if these passengers would notice -– or even care — if their ship mistakenly docked in Grand Cayman instead of Puerto Rico.

The growing cottage industry around entertainment voyages, with names like “Smooth Jazz Cruise,” “Black Singles Love Cruise” and the “National Professionals Network Leadership Summit Cruise,” seem bent on ensuring that black travelers return home having learned very little about the history, culture or people of the places they have visited. Sure, they will have made contacts and connections — with other Americans, of course — but, to me, that seems to defeat the purpose and spirit of international travel.

The older I get, and the further away life takes me from my student travel days, the more nervous I am about what “adult” travel has in store for me. Are off-the-beaten-path travel experiences just for kids?

Certainly, there are aspects of youth travel that hold little appeal for grownups. I can’t say I’ll miss the days of staying in the kinds of hostels where I had to sleep in my street clothes out of fear they would be stolen. I also won’t long for the days of subsisting on gas-station snacks to afford museum visits in a city where the exchange rate rendered the dollar all but useless. And I will gladly sidestep the need to take a crowded bush taxi over bumpy terrain because a flight is too expensive.