Welcome to Community Conversations, an interview series with intrepid travelers, creatives and activists in our community. In each Q&A, we will ask an inspiring person about their worldview and their world adventure.
Today we’re talking to Lawrence Phillips, founder and CEO of the first Black travel review site, Green Book Global. The name of the website is inspired by The green motorist book, which was published from 1936 to 1966 by Harlem-based Victor Hugo Green. The guidebook outlined safe places for black travelers to eat and sleep throughout the United States during the Jim Crow era.
Hi Lawrence! Tell us about yourself.
I am originally from Boston, Massachusetts and I currently live in Harlem, New York. I’ve been married three years this September and I have a new 14 month old daughter – she was born during COVID so it’s been an adventure! My wife and I love to travel and my daughter had already been to five countries while she was still in her mother’s womb. We did West Africa at the end of December 2019 and went to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and also did Morocco earlier in the year and Barbados for our “Babymoon”.
What is Green Book Global?
Green Book Global is essentially the first black travel review site. But what makes us different is that instead of rating activities, we rate cities. Cities score for adventure, things to do, relaxation, affordability, nightlife, history, local food, romance and, most importantly, what it’s like to travel while Black.
So far we have over 5,000 reviews on the site for over 400 destinations. So it’s not just my opinion, but thousands of black travelers from all over the world share their authentic travel experiences.
What inspired you to start Green Book Global?
I started Green Book Global after feeling burnt out working as a consultant. I needed a break for my mental health and happiness, so I quit my job to travel the world. In 10 months I traveled to 30+ countries and all 7 continents, including Antarctica.
But as I traveled, I learned two things. First, it takes an inordinate amount of time to plan a trip. I was constantly researching where to go, what to eat, what to do. Maybe I want to relax this time, maybe I want to party.
Second, as a black traveler, I was nervous about traveling and didn’t know how my blackness would be received. And there was no platform that could tell me that. You can Google it, but you can’t really get an overall view of what it’s like. This is how Green Book Global was born.
What would you like the travel community/industry to know about black travelers?
There was a article in the Huffington Postt that said, black travelers find themselves in experiences tailored exclusively for white consumers. As a result, a lot of black travel groups were formed because we know we are not catered to like other demographics. These groups allow us to feel protected and make us feel special when we travel.
For example, say you are going to Johannesburg. Many tourists just go there as a transit town to go on safari. But if you only focus on the safari, you’re missing out on all the amazing black culture and history Johannesburg has to offer. What about Mandela and Desmond Tutu and Vilakazi Street in Soweto? What about the vibrant art scene, festivals and rooftop bars? That’s something a black consumer wants to know.
Black consumers are more likely to learn about a place’s history. Are there any dark historical references to this destination, or is there an interesting local history?
What problems do black travelers face on their travels?
When you’re in a place where there’s not a lot of diversity, people will stop to take pictures of you, touch you without your permission, touch your hair—especially for black women. You can see their phones under their arms as they try to take a picture of you. Some of it is curiosity, but some of it is also racism. It gets overwhelming and sometimes you’re exhausted and just like, “I don’t care if it’s curiosity or racism, I don’t want to deal with it”.
I will also say that because black culture is popular, sometimes people think you’re very cool, which is great, but sometimes you become like a trophy or a notch on your belt. Especially for black women. People want to appreciate how beautiful black women are, but then take it too far and it becomes oversexualized.
Or on the other hand, the locals might not think you belong in their town and will treat you like you can’t afford things. Taxis sometimes go right past you. It will not all be experiences, but these are experiences that happen. On GreenBookGlobal.com, you can see that. If you were to filter different destinations and look at the ‘Travel While Black’ section, you would see these stories.
How do you think travel will change after the pandemic and in response to the BLM movement?
Following the tragic events of George Floyd, there has been a resurgence of focus on diversity, justice and inclusion. People are talking about it. Whether they will do anything about it remains to be seen, but the fact that talks are taking place is a good sign.
Marketers are starting to focus more on black travelers. There have been many reports recently of Black travel. An American study said that we spend over 100 billion dollars on travel. We did that at Green Book Global our own studio. We surveyed over 2,000 black travelers about travel after COVID.
COVID made everyone realize that you can’t take things for granted. Why wait to save that dream vacation for 5 or 10 years from now? People are booking these trips right now or planning them in the near future. I think it has been a big change.
What else are you up to?
Green Book Global also has a consulting department. Our mission is to inspire and empower black travelers to confidently explore the world. We do that with our reviews and our Instagram page. We have over 100,000 followers and we repost black travelers in different destinations to show that black people are everywhere and to give that vote of confidence to other black people to get out there and see the world.
But helping black consumers feel more empowered isn’t changing the industry. I try to work with different destinations and brands to ask, “What are you really doing to change the industry, to make it more inclusive and fair for black consumers as well as indigenous people and people of color?” Because of the resurgence of BLM, black people are the focus now, but that will spill over to other minority demographics.
What are some of your favorite destinations or destinations you recommend for black travelers?
Johannesburg, South Africa. I went to Jo’burg twice. The first time, because everyone said Jo’burg was so dangerous, I literally did what I just said I shouldn’t do: I went there as a transit town to go on safari in the Kruger National Park. It was a great learning experience for me. I literally stayed in a hotel for 12 hours. I think I went to the mall, came back, went on safari and then left town.
But because I did, I had to go back. I spent about two weeks the next time. I stayed in a few different areas to get a good feel for the city and it was absolutely amazing! Jo’burg is like the heartbeat of South Africa. I made friends with the locals, took frequent trips to Soweto in local taxis, supported some entrepreneurial initiatives, went to festivals and had home-cooked meals from friends and their families. It was such a good time!
Another is Accra, Ghana. I went there in January 2019 for The year of return. It was 400 years ago that the first slave ship left Africa in 1619 to reach the United States. A lot of black people from the US went to Ghana and West Africa for The Year of Return and it was really a great experience.
I especially recommend Accra as a black traveller. Although the story is somewhat grim, the experience of going to Elmina Castle is a must. Many slaves left Africa from Elmina Castle. We saw the terrible conditions slaves were kept in, learned about the treatment they received, and even learned that some tribes in Africa participated in the trade. It’s something I never learned in school and it’s not written in most textbooks. I really think every black person should try to go to Ghana at least once.
Cartagena, Colombia is one more. For me, it is almost the perfect destination. It hits everything on the list, from things to do to romance and adventure. There’s the beach, the history – you’ve got Palenque, which is about an hour and a half away, and there’s a lot of Afro-Caribbean history there. They also have a fun nightlife and good food. And traveling while Black was great because of the Afro-Caribbean heritage, so we felt really accepted.
What fearless ride would you most like to go on?
I am curious about the Arctic and would love to do it Northern Lights trip to East Greenland and Iceland. I’ve been to Iceland, but it was such a short trip that I didn’t see the northern lights, the waterfalls or the Golden Circle.
Who are some people in the travel space who inspire you?
I have a few! One is Nadia Henry of Travel with Sparkle. She is the most dedicated travel agent I know and is always on the go revealing the next destination to plan future trips for her clients. I also really respect how much she did during COVID to make sure her clients were protected.
Stephanie Jones from Blacks in travel and tourism. She works to educate black tour operators – making sure their customer service is great, they have the right resources and give them a platform to talk to consumers and customers.
Also from Evita Robinson Nomadness Travel Tribe. That group really started the black travel movement. And Martinique Lewis, president of Black Travel Alliance. She truly holds the travel industry accountable and has helped open the door to more diversity, equity and inclusion conversations.
Learn more about Intrepid’s diversity and inclusion efforts here.