Black Travelers Join the Club

Members of Black Ski Inc., a travel group, gather after biking in Maryland.
Members of Black Ski Inc., a travel group, gather after biking in Maryland. (© Black Ski Inc.)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Before buying plane tickets, booking hotels or checking out guidebooks, many African Americans are turning to a source close to home to inspire their travel planning: each other.

More precisely, they are seeking out travel clubs run by and for blacks. After a post-9/11 falloff, organizations and gatherings promoting travel opportunities for blacks are reporting increased interest.

When the Black Boaters Summit, a gathering of black sailing fans, first convened in 1998 in the British Virgin Islands, it drew all of eight attendees in one boat. For the eighth summit, which returned to the BVI in August, 115 participants in 14 yachts attended. When Los Angeles-based 4 Seasons West, a ski club with more than 1,000 African American members, planned its winter carnival in January, officials hoped for 400 travelers; 800 skiers showed up for the Lake Tahoe event. The National Association of Black Scuba Divers, started 15 years ago by District scuba aficionado Jose Jones, has mushroomed to include 50 clubs across the country.

Jones, a seventy-something retired professor of marine science at the University of the District of Columbia, explained the clubs' appeal. "When you are black and venture somewhere exotic, there is always a deeper feeling of accomplishment," he said. "And the experience is all the richer when you share it with folks that come from a similar background. You can't help but have an incredible feeling of euphoria for how far you had to come to get to that point."

Like their white-run counterparts, the mission of black travel groups is to provide travel counsel, assistance and camaraderie for their members. For a modest fee, they typically organize social mixers, orientation sessions, sports and adventure training, in addition to featuring two to six trips a year.

The excursions the clubs offer are far more affordable than those organized by individual travelers. For its annual ski summit scheduled for February 2007 in Steamboat Springs, Colo., the National Brotherhood of Skiers is offering its members rooms for $199 a night, discounted from $375. Lift tickets are $45 a day, reduced from the $75 a day for a five-day pass that individual travelers would pay.

For a 12-day diving trip to Malaysia and Borneo earlier this summer, members of the National Association of Black Scuba divers paid the bargain rate of $2,600 for round-trip airfare, lodging, meals, excursions and dives. "Because we are well-established and have been doing this for a long time, we are usually able to offer rates of a third or more less than what other travelers would pay," said Jones.

Although bound by the spirit of racial solidarity and wanderlust, the groups' focuses vary widely. Some are for the general interest traveler, those seeking to explore destinations rather than indulge hobbies. But most specialize in a sport or activity: sailing, motorcycling, tennis or other avocations.

In size, social makeup and structure, the clubs also run the gamut. Sankofa Odyssey, a District-based club that has organized sailing trips to such exotic destinations as the Greek Islands and the Grenadines, is at the haute end of the spectrum. The Denver-based James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club, at the more earthy end, takes small groups hiking or backpacking through the Rockies and other points west. (For more examples and contact information, see sidebar.)

Unsurprisingly, many of the clubs grew out of segregation or incidents of discrimination. Many black club organizers reported being shunned when they approached predominantly white travel groups and so opted to create their own organizations. The story of sailing enthusiast Robert Jordan is typical. After taking boating lessons in North Carolina, he tried to join a couple of mostly white boating clubs there. "They didn't exactly greet me warmly," he recalls. Five years ago, the 41-year-old Maryland business entrepreneur and some friends started Sankofa Odyssey. Its 28 members are all people of color.

"It's true that many of our clubs were started because we were not welcomed on many ski slopes," said Rose Thomas Pickrum, president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), an umbrella group of 77 black ski clubs across the country. "But now most of those slopes actively court us because we spend money."

Washington and its suburbs, home to one of the most affluent concentrations of blacks in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau's account, are a stronghold for black travel groups. D.C.-based Black Ski Inc., with more than 1,500 members, bills itself as the largest gathering of skiers of color in the United States. Besides skiing, the group also sponsors outings to local and out-of-town cultural events. Underwater Adventure Seekers, the scuba club also started by Jones in D.C. in 1959, has grown from a handful of friends to more than 100 members. It has become a model for other black dive groups around the country. More than a dozen black motorbike associations are based in the Washington area.

Every participant in a black club outing seems to return with a Black Travel Moment, a tale from a sojourn infused with ethnic pride.

For Pickrum, the moment came during NBS's 30th-anniversary summit, held in Canada's Whistler-Blackcomb range in 2003. "When I looked across the mountain and saw black skiers everywhere, I couldn't help but remember when it was tough for us to get on major slopes," said the 52-year-old Cincinnati banker. "Now they welcome us. The transformation has been moving to watch."

Jones, a veteran of 6,000 dives, remembers a plunge he took a few years ago off the coast of Fiji. Deep into the waters off the island of Taveuni, sharks circled within a few yards, the coral was stunningly pristine and boldly colored sea life darted everywhere. As much as the underwater spectacle thrilled him, what sent shivers down his spine was the boatload of African American divers who greeted him above. "The camaraderie sealed that experience for me," he said.

Even though more options for blacks to join predominantly white groups have opened up, many still prefer black-run clubs. "When people have time for a getaway, they don't want to be careful about what they say or how they act or to have second thoughts about what someone else might say," explained Eileen Crawford, a District psychoanalyst and scuba fan who travels frequently with Deep Dreams Youth Program, a local dive group that introduces teens and young adults to scuba. "These kind of travel clubs allow them the freedom to feel like they are at home even when they are in a far-off place."

Another appeal of the clubs is the social activities they offer. Most of the local chapters hold cookouts, dances and other gatherings. The annual NBS summit, the premier event for black skiers, always includes a schedule of cocktail hours, live music and other entertainment. Most of the attendees at the Black Boaters Summit don't come for the sailing, according to Paul Mixon, the California travel agent who organizes the event, but for the music and dance. "Not many of us know how to sail," he said. "But we all know how to do the electric slide."

Many of the clubs also offer their members training, classes and a non-threatening environment to learn or develop their skills in an avocation or sport. Carlyn Cole is a good example. An African American who lives in the District, Cole didn't learn to swim or dive until she was in her forties. Now the 54-year-old is the president of Underwater Adventure Seekers and takes three to four diving trips a year, often to foreign destinations. "I don't think I would have had the confidence to learn those skills without the security of a group of like-minded people," she said.

Pickrum concurs. "If you're new to skiing, it's different learning it in a black group," she said. "You get a lot more nurturing."

Besides ethnic camaraderie and training in a supportive environment, the clubs make exploring different cultures easier and more affordable. Over the years, Underwater Adventure Seekers has taken excursions to an impressive list of destinations, including Egypt, Morocco, Fiji and Cuba. While independent travelers to such destinations have to hassle with plane and hotel reservations, the groups typically have organizers who work out the details.

Most black travel groups attract a more affluent sector of black professionals. The James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club, named after a 19th-century black trapper and mountain man, is an exception. Located in Denver, the club offers a wide range of outdoor adventures -- including day-long trail hikes, overnight raft floats, mountain climbing and camping excursions -- all at moderate prices. The club has a mentoring program that offers urban youth outings to national parks and wilderness areas free of charge.

"We try to give people opportunities to see the beauties of nature who otherwise might not have access to it," said Winston Walker, a spokesman. "We are aware that many folks can't pay much so we keep the prices as low as possible."

Over time, the clubs have become a powerful bonding experience for members from across the gamut of socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of the ski groups have a story of members who have met in a club gathering or excursion, dated and eventually married. Some of the early black scuba club organizers now have children -- and grandchildren -- who are club members.

The experience is infectious, according to NBS president Pickrum. "People find that once they get into the spirit of what we do it becomes a central focus of their lives."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company