ImageA Nomadness Travel Tribe’s women trek, on a camel safari through India’s Pushkar Desert.CreditCreditEvita Robinson/Nomadness
As I stood barefoot at the entrance to the Chottanikkara Bhagavathy Temple, a labyrinthine Hindu shrine in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala that is forbidden to nonworshipers, a man studied me.
Wrapped in a blue silk sari, I was an anomaly in the crowds of worshipers and wedding guests sweeping past. My pecan-brown skin had been tanned by the sun, my tightly coiled hair was cut in a close crop, and I spoke a foreigner’s English. There was no one like me there except my then-boyfriend, who was standing next to me with his modest Afro as we waited for my college roommate’s wedding party.
“What are you? South African?” the man finally said. When I told him we were American, he asked again, “South African?”
This kind of encounter with incredulity is a recurring scene for black Americans traveling to far-flung destinations, and their experiences led to the creation of the Nomadness Travel Tribe, an invitation-only collective of more than 10,000 globe-trotters spread out over 36 countries.
The group began in September 2011 on Facebook as a fellowship of travelers who rely on one another as they navigate a world that is not accustomed to black American travelers, one that is liberating in the best cases and inhospitable in the worst. I joined over a year ago. Though open to any invitee with at least one passport stamp, the vast majority of Nomadness members are African-Americans and women. About half are millennials, and most are strangers, the plus-ones of plus-ones. We meet up like old friends in cities from Los Angeles to Seoul, refer to each other affectionately as tenders (a shortened slang term referring to attractive women) and JBs (short for “jungle brothers”), and snap up flights going just about anywhere in the world.
Nomadness is one of several virtual communities that have sprung up on social media in recent years catering to African-Americans, who rarely find themselves the target market of tourism and hospitality companies.
They are carrying on a long tradition of travel media created by and for black consumers, from the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” which helped black vacationers find lodging during the years of segregation, to the professional and fraternal organizations that book large group trips, to cultural sponsors like Essence, which draws thousands to New Orleans each year for its music festival.
Led predominantly by black millennial women, the new virtual communities rely on networks like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to push travelers to venture out more often and farther afield. These networks include two-year-old Travel Noire, Soul Society and Black Adventuristas.
“We’re here,” said Evita Robinson, 31, the creator of Nomadness. “We’re taking our stake, we’re planting our flag and we’re very unapologetic about it.”
The images uploaded by the black travel networks run counter to the typical profile of the international traveler. On television and in magazines, for example, many hosts and writers are middle-aged white males, and travel media and advertising campaigns often feature people of color only as the airport and airline staff or locals.
Yet African-Americans are one of the fastest-growing travel markets. Black travel spending is approaching $50 billion on domestic travel, and about one in five black travelers take at least one international trip each year, according to a 2011 online panel study by Mandala Research.
On social media, that growing travel base is represented. Black vacationers zip-line through the jungles of Central and South America, hitch camel rides across the Arabian Desert, tour the ancient temples of Asia and make pilgrimages to Africa. We are even taking in the ancient ruins of Greece and relaxing on beaches in Kenya, despite warnings about increasing racist attacks in Europe and extremist violence in East Africa. Nomadness members have been to all but a handful of countries, according to Ms. Robinson.
Like their predecessors, the groups help black travelers figure out where it is safe to go, whether they will feel welcome once they arrive, and which activities might interest them. In addition, the organizations provide tips on things like caring for natural hair while traveling, responding when someone utters a discriminatory slur, and dating interracially and interculturally abroad. And unlike blogs and books, questions are answered in real-time by members all over the world.
But the appeal of the movement lies mainly in the imagery, and it is no accident that these sites have taken off amid a boom in visual social media. Since it began in September 2013, Travel Noire has gained more than 125,000 Instagram followers attracted to a movement that is about representation, said Zim Ugochukwu, 27, who created Travel Noire to put to rest the notion that black travelers do not wander the world. The community draws on contributions from more than 100 black travelers worldwide who share their experiences and expertise on Travel Noire’s website.
“If you see somebody who looks like you in a certain destination, on a billboard doing things you never thought you could do, then that thing becomes a possibility,” Ms. Ugochukwu, the Minnesota-born daughter of Nigerian immigrants, said.
ImageZim Ugochukwu with a local villager in Ubud on a trip to Bali, Indonesia.
Whether traveling solo or in groups, African-American travelers are often the only black passengers on an international flight. And once we land at our destination, we can be the only black guests at the hotel, restaurant or attraction. Although people the world over have heard of famous African-Americans like President Obama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many locals, like my fellow wedding guest in India, really do not know what to make of ordinary black travelers.
These experiences can be isolating, and they are part of what draws black travelers to the movement emerging on social media. Ms. Robinson created Nomadness after returning from a year spent teaching in Asia, and following a fruitless search for a young, diverse and energetic community where she could be vulnerable and share her experiences. One of the most common reasons people want to join Nomadness, she said, is “knowing that anywhere you want to go in the world, there’s someone there.”
It is a movement that exists in an economy that says it should not. The Great Recession wiped out twice as much black wealth as it did white, and created the widest wealth gap between blacks and whites in nearly a generation, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. Post-recession median wealth for black households in 2014 had fallen to $11,000 from $19,200, and was less than a tenth of the median wealth for white households. At the same time, African-American median household income was around $35,000, compared with $60,000 for whites, and it was down from $38,000 in 2009, the year the Great Recession ended, according to census data.
The post-recession growth of the African-American travel market has been helped by the proliferation of websites and mobile apps that make it easier to travel cheaply. A 2013 joint report of African-American consumers by the Nielsen Company and the National Newspaper Publishing Association, a black press trade group, pointed out that African-Americans are more likely than the average consumer to use a variety of online resources to plan travel, and they spend the most time on discount travel websites such as Priceline and Expedia.
Affordability is a central pillar of the emerging black travel movement. Travel Noire offers a four- to six-month fellowship program teaching novices how to find deals. Since 2014, fellows have earned more than 500,000 frequent flier miles, roughly the equivalent of 13 free international flights, according to Ms. Ugochukwu.
Nomadness’s members, who range from broke college students to millionaires, share tips and tricks in group files. They use messenger services like WhatsApp to spread the word about cheap airfares in chat rooms governed by a single rule, “No dinging if it ain’t dealing.” Ms. Robinson also organizes several group trips each year with an average cost of about $500, before flights, and they sell out as quickly as tickets to a Beyoncé concert.
Curating the black travel movement has turned into a business for Ms. Robinson and Ms. Ugochukwu, who both say the travel industry is beginning to take notice.
In the pre-dawn hours of last Christmas morning, a series of fare glitches on Etihad Airways priced flights from the United States to Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg and Manila for less than $250 a ticket, steals for fares that normally cost three or four times as much. Nomadness members using the hashtag #bookdatish purchased more than 400 tickets, Ms. Robinson said, and Ms. Ugochukwu estimated that more than 1,000 Travel Noire followers had done the same.
That drew the attention of officials at Etihad, who reached out to Travel Noire in an effort that resulted in discount codes aimed at Travel Noire’s followers. The codes were packaged in curated gift boxes from Quarterly, another Travel Noire partner, that sold out and shipped in late April. Travel Noire also has partnerships with Airbnb and the French luggage manufacturer Delsey and Co.
Nomadness began a YouTube series called the Nomadness Project in May in a partnership with the creator of the award-winning YouTube series, “Awkward Black Girl.” And in September, the group plans to host its first paid travel conference in New York, NMDN, with a roster of partners and sponsors that includes Black Enterprise magazine, Traveler Beer, the Brooklyn-based apparel company Holstee and Issa Rae Productions.
Ms. Ugochukwu said that brands have been struggling to figure out how to reach black travelers in ways that are authentic and unoffensive, and are turning to influencers to create meaningful campaigns.
“It shows that there is traction, she said. “This isn’t a trend, it’s something that’s here to stay. And brands are realizing that if they don’t jump in on that, then they will lose out.”
Travelers are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of their presence.
After being told she had multiple sclerosis and given a year to live, Vickie Reed-Jones, 40, a science researcher and teacher in suburban Dallas, posted in Nomadness in November, asking members where they would go. In one day, the post received more than 300 responses, some from members who also have terminal illnesses, offering words of encouragement, ideas for using miles to travel free on short getaways and healing retreats, as well as advice about planning for a future she would not live to see.
Their responses were more than the handful that Ms. Reed-Jones had expected, and she believes they helped to extend the time she had left.
“You could feel the love,” she said. “People had never seen me and never knew anything about me, but they had accepted me.”
She added, “It turned out to be one of the best things that I have done.”
A version of this article appears in print on
of the New York edition
with the headline:
Black Travelers Find Fellowship Online