Last year, after crisscrossing the world several times over, Kellee Edwards decided she was looking forward to traveling a bit less in 2020. She didn’t mean, of course, for that notion to apply to the entire world.
As a licensed pilot, Edwards — who became the first black woman to host a series for Travel Channel with her show, “Mysterious Islands” — has been able to get away during the coronavirus pandemic by renting a plane at one of several airports in Los Angeles, where she lives, to sightsee from above or have a picnic in new surroundings.
Throughout her life and career as an explorer, adventurer and outdoorswoman, she has developed the skills that allow her to get away.
“Who knew that they would play such an important part in my life during a pandemic?” she said. “It was a way at first for me to explore, and now it’s become a way for me to live.”
Edwards has been spending her time working on projects she can’t yet discuss and hosting a new podcast from Travel + Leisure called “Let’s Go Together,” which highlights diversity in travel, from her home studio (also known as her closet).
She recently spoke to The Washington Post about the blessing and curse of not traveling, how she’ll think about solo trips in the future, the best ways to use this time at home and why she has hope that travel companies will do better by black travelers.
(Editor’s note: This Q&A is the third in a weekly series from By The Way, in which we interview prominent voices in the industry on the future of travel. It has been edited for clarity and length.)
What has it been like to host a travel podcast, talk to people about travel so much as part of your job — but at the same time know that so much of the world is not traveling, and the things that you’re talking about are not things that anybody can do the way that they used to do?
It’s been a gift and a curse. The curse is that we are grounded and that we are also learning at this time that there are more and more countries who unfortunately do not want Americans to come, it sounds like, anytime soon.
The gift is that people are connecting with their families more, they’re connecting with nature more, they’re turning their houses into homes. Because we are fully confronted with the world around us that we have built, and it’s making us look closer at that. And so there’s been a lot of shifts, you know, between our selves and amongst each other in a way had this pandemic not happened at this time, this shift wouldn’t have been there. We are hypersensitive and hyper-aware to everything around us right now, and the world is becoming a better place for it.
Do you have any expectations or any hope for when travel might return to any kind of normalcy? Or what it might look like, like what might be changed significantly, when Americans can start going to other parts of the world again?
I will echo the sentiment that it will never be the same. We are going forward with the new normal as in the way travel changed after 9/11.
The concern that I have is that because people haven’t been able to travel — or there’s people who had never traveled before who are now more interested in travel because of the cabin fever — that when everyone is traveling again there will be overtourism in places.
The person who’s looking to truly get an experience and a taste of a place will now have to compete with so many other tourists for that picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, for that meal at a restaurant that was recommended on a food television program or in a travel magazine.
And so I’m looking forward to travel coming back, but I’m hoping that it’ll be through a lens that people are more appreciative of what the world as a whole has to offer, and not consume it in a selfish way that is more detrimental than helpful.
I read that you like to travel solo or that you do travel solo a lot, and that seems like a way to connect with new people. But I wonder if you’ve been thinking about traveling solo in a post-pandemic world — where strangers are trying to not be close to each other, where social distancing is the name of the game? Are you thinking about how your own travel habits and the things that you’ve gotten used to could need to be different, or how that might change the way that you travel?
I think what it’s going to make me do more than ever is to respect cultures and people and their personal space. I think the best thing about travel is the connection with other people, but this is a time where I’m going to have to be diligent in reading the tone and the energy of the place that I’m in.
For those who are comfortable with still engaging, I will make sure that my mask is on. If I see other people with masks, again, I’ll make sure that my mask is on. If people want to speak and engage without masks, I will keep my distance, the six feet out of respect and just being smart.
So will it change the way I travel as a solo woman? Not really. Because I was still going to places to learn about, as a test to myself, how I can navigate in the world. What I’m thinking about now is when I interact with people, respecting them as a person more than ever. I already did it before, but now it’s just a way of being mindful of personal space.
And I will keep the same hyper-awareness that I did before. If I shouldn’t go down that street, maybe I really shouldn’t this time. Because before, I would anyways. I’m the type of person if they say “don’t go left,” I am going left, I am hopping the wall, I am digging underneath to get to see what they don’t want me to see. I’m definitely a rebel with a cause when it comes to that — going off the beaten path — that’s for sure.
But now I think I’ll just be more respectful, you know ... of what the rules are in place. Because it’s a privilege to travel, but now it’s really a privilege to travel, and I hope that we are all more aware of that and take that in our journey with us.
Do you have any advice for people who are sad about not traveling, or motivated when things are better to start traveling more because they realize what they’re missing? How can they best spend this time?
I would say ... patience is a virtue, that anything worth having is worth waiting for. The world is not going anywhere. The destinations will still be there, the countries will still be there, the people will still be there. This time that we have right now at some point will pass. And this is the time to learn how to become a better citizen of the world. ...
It’s a good time to use technology to dive a little deeper into the places that you would want to go. You don’t need to necessarily use the guides that are out there now; you can do your own research. Your trips don’t have to be so cookie cutter, they don’t have to be so prefabricated based off of information that’s provided to you. You can use this time now to become navigators and explorers of your travel going forward, which I think would be a beautiful thing.
I think people will value the experiences they have going forward if they put more depth into the research that they do of the place. ... And I have even been guilty of this. I never liked to research before I went to a place. I was a renegade. I just wanted to go and figure it out like most explorers do. We don’t like blueprints, we don’t like maps, we chart our own paths.
But right now, I’m finding that there is so much that I thought I knew that I didn’t. One of my favorite things to do right now is to go on the Google Earth map and hit the dice button and it just randomly takes you to a place, and I’m like, ‘Where in the heck is this?’ ... And so I think we can be the next explorers, the next Magellan, the Bessie Colemans, the Wright brothers, the Jane Goodalls. We can be all those explorers now. This is a time for the rebirth of exploration, and it starts right here at our own fingertips.
Have you thought about what your first non-work-related trip, just a trip for you will be when you can start traveling again? Beyond the flights that you’re able to take now as a pilot.
I am really interested in going to the national parks personally. Because I will say that I have seen more of the world than I have seen of my own country, and I want to change that. So before I try to traverse across the world, let me go to Yosemite, let me go to the Grand Canyon, let me go to Yellowstone. I look sometimes and I’m like, ‘How on earth have I not been to these places yet?’ It’s a shame.
My road trips are going to be insane. When I tell you the gear that I have: I’ve pulled out all of my tents, my sleeping bag, my lantern, my fire starters. I’ve got gear that I didn’t even know I had in my stash that is ready for a road trip.
This Future of Travel project has been very much around post-pandemic travel. But then we’ve also seen these unprecedented worldwide protests against racial injustice and more public demands for accountability around — it’s a very corporate term, but around diversity and inclusion, both in media and in travel. Do you foresee any change in store for either black travelers or black travel professionals? What would you like to see change?
I would say as a person who has spoken to some of the largest brands in travel and adventure, there will absolutely be change going forward. There will be change in marketing, there will be change in collaborations, there will be internal changes, there will be more hires within these companies because the biggest issue is how can we talk about diversity and inclusion if you don’t even have it within your own establishment?
So as a person who has had numerous one-on-one conversations with people who can make decisions, I know that there are people who are ... very much concerned about owning up to the fact that they are late to the game, but knowing that it’s not too late, and that the only way to truly make change is to do it within. There have been a lot of uncomfortable conversations — and they haven’t been for me, it’s been uncomfortable for them. But at the end of these conversations, the only thing that they can say as a whole is ‘We have to do better’ and I respect that. ...
We’ve always been here as travelers, as adventurers, as explorers. I know particularly the black community, we have always been here ... Now you choose to pay attention — well, guess what? Show us. And if you’re uncomfortable, that lets me know that you’ve been thinking enough that your thoughts have taken you out of your comfort zone and you know you can do better. And that’s it. So yes, I have a lot of hope.