travel blogger interview - ethical travel blogging

Let’s get Ethical – travel blogging interview with Kay from The Awkward Traveler

Next up on the Diversity in Travel series? I am so excited to bring you this FANTASTIC interview with Kay from The Awkward Traveller! She is an astounding supportive member of the travel blogging community,always here to shout out talented creators and share fantastic insights of her own.

If you’re a conscious traveller, I think you’ll love this introduction to her work!

And if you’re a travel blogger? Honestly, I think her words are invaluable. Read on for some interesting points about what it means to be an inclusive, responsible and ethical travel blogger.

Hi Kay! First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview as part of my Diversity in Travel series. Could you begin by telling us a little bit about who you are and what you do? 

Hi everyone! I’m Kay! In a nutshell, I am a candy and book loving gamer part-time grad student who is a master procrastinator and joke maker. But in terms of what I do, I work in manufacturing and I am a travel blogger during my lunch break a la The Awkward Traveller. 

I created my blog as mostly a place to tell my silly misadventures abroad, but as I dived deeper into the travel industry, I noticed a lot of gatekeeping, information access gaps, and unrealistic #goals that I personally do not relate to or agree with. 

So, I guess I subconsciously protested the norm by ensuring my blog was a welcoming and judge-free space where my community could ask all of those “dumb” questions go unanswered by more “experienced” travelers.

I regularly pass my platform to individuals from the countries I visit so that people can learn about that place from a local’s perspective alongside my tourist perspective, to give a more well-rounded understanding. Because let’s be real, no matter how experienced a traveler you are – you’re still a tourist and your experience will not reflect all of the complicated nuances of a destination.

I also highlight and inform my audience of tips and advice in areas where I feel like the travel industry neglects – such as traveling with a chronic condition, traveling with older relatives, traveling with disabilities (mental and physical), and traveling as someone in a marginalized community. I aim to tackle these topics in a light way so that we can all collectively learn and not leave behind the fun and exciting part of travel out of the discussion.

AND – I still do silly stories about travel haha.

You have been a wonderful supporter of my Diversity in Travel series, and I’ve noticed you seem to champion diversity – alongside being a cheerleader for many individual creators – all day long. I am in awe of your energy, and beyond appreciative that we have people like that within the travel community!

What motivates you? Where do you find that energy?

Hahahha ya gonna make me blush over here, thank you! And honestly, I think Black liberation (which is liberation for all) is what motivates a lot of it. But also, I’ve always craved accomplishment. The drive to improve, both myself and things around me. 

The energy, however, is a different story, haha. 

I have the hardest time just “sitting down and doing” something. Anything, really. So, honestly, my blog posts are usually a result of procrastination. Oh, I need to finish writing my novel? I do a blog post instead. Grad school homework? I do a blog post instead. Everyday chores and tasks I need to do to stay alive, healthy, and housed? 

You get the idea, haha.

It also helps that my blog is truly a passion project. I don’t make any money from it and I have a full-time non-remote job that financially supports it. SO, there’s no external pressure of needing to publish x-amount of posts with x-amounts of ads and hassle for brand deals and opportunities. If I don’t want to do it – I don’t.  

I’ve often found myself at odds with wealthy travel bloggers making claims like ‘I’m not rich – Everyone Can Travel!’ when asked how they managed to live abroad full-time because it seems at odds with recognising privilege. Reading your content, I realised that getting lost in these sorts of debates can distract us from taking action...

You went many steps further and actively began helping people to travel by setting up the Global Dreamers Foundation. What inspired you to start taking action on this? 

Yeah, I mean, I don’t relate to that mindset at all. Even if you’re not rich, there are certain privileges that you may have that can give you easier access and comfort to traveling *~*at wim*~* even if we’re just talking about finances. 

When I worked at a fast food place, I was making minimum wage. I was VERY not rich. I had to save for the entire year for a one week trip to Mexico. But even then, I had a passport that granted me access to a nearby country visa-free. Although I earned minimum wage in my country, the currency was stronger and had more value abroad. I did not have any kind of savings, nor safety net (no parents or family members I could stay with or help me financially), I was able-bodied and could hopefully find another minimum wage job. My community also had a food pantry. 

So while you don’t have to be RICH to travel, there are other aspects that can still make travel more accessible at lower risk and frustration. 

Global Dreamers Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to making international travel more accessible for young Americans by sponsoring the cost for new passport applications and further travel experiences.

I started the Global Dreamers Foundation, along with a few other travel and content creators with similar convictions, because I wanted to help alleviate even just the smallest of travel roadblocks for young people in the community. I don’t come from a family that travels. I didn’t grow up in an environment or neighborhood where leisure travel was even a wild fantasy. 

I, personally, cannot change visa or immigration requirements. I cannot redistribute wealth, access, and opportunities. But maybe I could help shape the way people think about others, and show them the possibilities outside of their block. I wanted to plant that idea in more communities.

I can’t do much alone, but together, with open minds, we can move mountains. Even if I just brought along one more person to help push that rock, then I did something.  

Aside from this, what are you most proud of?

A few people think I’m funny online, so that’s a win, haha. 

Reading about your first international trip really resonated with me. I took my first flight at sixteen and it was a school trip (like your first international trip)! However, I then didn’t fly again till I was twenty-four, so I was really intrigued as to how – or if – this early travel experience kick-started your love of travel.

What do you remember about that early trip? Did you fall into love at first sight with travel, or did you still have some (practical or internal) fighting to do before you realised travel was for you and *belonged* to your narrative?

My story is actually very similar! After my first international flight at fifteen or sixteen (I don’t even remember anymore, ha!), I didn’t take another flight until I was nineteen and studying abroad in France. So…still for school, haha. However, aside from being in France, I didn’t have the opportunity to really travel then. My passport was stolen and I didn’t have enough money to replace it, so I had to cut back on food for a few weeks so I could save up my “allowance” money to pay for an emergency passport. 

Then, once I had gotten a replacement passport, everyone else in my study abroad group had already travelled all over Europe and I wasn’t really motivated to travel solo at the time.

I know, I know, it’s like WILD for a travel blogger to say that, but at the time, I was just someone hyper-focused on school and not traveling. 

I didn’t really fall in love with traveling until after I graduated and I was literally working 60-70 hours a week between two minimum wage jobs. I was stressed, living on literal scraps, and I wasn’t doing too hot mentally either. I don’t even remember what compelled me to THINK about traveling…it’s like one of those situations where an internal voice plants something in your head.

Before I knew it, I was saving $20 a week for a 10-day trip to Mexico. It was my ONLY trip that year, but after the weeks I spent planning, researching, and talking about a new unknown for me, I just knew I wanted to do it again.

I will say, however, that it still feels weird to call myself a traveler. It feels weird to indulge in (arguably) A LOT of travel when I am simultaneously helping my family financially. It’s a form of travel guilt, for spending money leisurely and frequently when I could be better assisting my family with basic necessities. 

Going forward, do you have any dream travel plans or destinations? 

Oh, of course! I want to go practically everywhere, but my level of enthusiasm about a destination changes frequently. I would say half of my trips for the year are planned, and the other half are impulse buys. 

For example, in 2019, my biggest international trips were Iceland, China, The Bahamas and Jordan. I have been obsessed with ancient Chinese history (specifically the Warring States Era, 280-320 AD), so China had been on my “bucket list” for a long time, so it was a dream to finally see it. Similarly, I had heard so many amazing things about Iceland that I had booked tickets the year before. 

I more so stumbled into the other destinations. My old roommate was Jordanian, and I was originally supposed to just tag along with her and meet up with other friends there… but their schedules changed and I ended up going without any of them – a destination I wouldn’t have necessarily picked myself haha. 

So, as of right now, the destinations highest on my travel plans are actually mostly “revisits” to see friends and family: Japan, South Korea, China, Iceland, The Bahamas. But in terms of new places, I am REALLY keen to see all states in the USA, and all of the states in Mexico as well! My top US states to visit would have to be Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, and the Carolinas. For Mexico, I’d love to see Tabasco, Veracruz, Puebla, and Chihuahua! 

Abroad, for new locations, I’m hoping to see more of South America and Africa in the coming years! 

You’ve written and curated some highly informative articles about how race affects travel.  What can Black or racially ambiguous travellers expect from life on the road, and how does it differ from what we usually see from travel influencers in the media? 

I think the travel industry, and many industries in general, avoids talking about race. 

Maybe not out of ill-intentions, but they do skirt around the fact that race plays a major role in how society operates globally. And I think the industry avoids that because it isn’t a pretty topic. Would you book a trip to x-country if they listed how many times travelers were discriminated against at the airport customs line? What about if they included in their travel brochures how many times someone liked you was unjustly harassed by police? 

What about if the pilot listed all popular racial slurs you might be called upon landing in the destination? Or if there was a buzzfeed quiz that would judge your instagram page and determine if creeps in alleys would think you were a sex worker?

 For the most part, it isn’t anything a non-white person living in America (or Canada, or Europe, etc) has never seen or heard of before. The world is racist. But racism is also unexpected, and when it happens during a fabulous vacation that someone put a lot of time and energy and money into, it can be a blow to the entire mood of the trip. So, it’s always good to have a heads up. 

Talking about how race affects travel isn’t fun. A lot of times, it’s disheartening, and discouraging. From a financial standpoint, that’s NOT what the industry wants. A lot of large travel influencers may not be as vocal, because it could cause them to lose opportunities. I’m not faulting them, it’s the way the industry moves. Unfortunately, that means the influencers who would be MOST affected (Black, Indigenous, and non-white influencers), have to bear the weight of the burden. 

As someone who does not create travel content for a living, I do not have that worry. So I will do what I can to speak on it. 

Do you find that travel information written by white bloggers sometimes misses the mark when it comes to giving travel advice? (For example, by not being inclusive when it comes to important safety advice.) 

Mm, I wouldn’t say it flat out misses the mark, because it is true for their perspective. Someone with a similar perspective would probably experience the same and the travel information would ring true in that instance. 

That said, there are things that are very important to certain communities that would fly under the radar from others. For example, writing hotel reviews and neighborhood guides are a pretty standard practice for travel bloggers. But how often do those hotel reviews include if there is a visual doorbell or alarm system? What about if the sidewalks are wide enough for a wheelchair, or if storefronts are usually step free? Do the crosswalks have audible cues to alert when it is safe to cross? 

It’s natural to overlook details if they do not affect you. I wouldn’t expect a man to know if a certain city is notorious for harassing women because they likely wouldn’t be harassed in that way. So while I do think that the information that white bloggers give may not encompass what a non-white traveler would experience, the same is true intersectionality as well. That’s why representation is important in the travel industry, so that travelers can also see a destination from a perspective similar to their own. 

How do you think race affects opportunities as a travel blogger? 

Ah for sure. And I mean, it happens in many different levels and degrees as well, deliberate to unintentional. Since I am a Black travel blogger, I’ll mostly speak about how Blackness affects opportunities for a bit, but you can see how Indigenous, Asian, and non-white Hispanic, Arab, and Pacific Islander communities are also affected. 

For starters, Black travel bloggers are dramatically paid less. Many times, not even a quarter of what the same opportunity would pay a white travel blogger, even for the “ethnic history month” posts brands do. The pay discrepancy is staggering, and that’s even if monetary compensation is offered. 

For press trips, there is very little racial diversity, if at all, with maybe one or two “token” bloggers of a different race. And when you start to account for differences in sexuality, gender, body shape, and even the way they wear their hair, the window for opportunities shrinks.

Colorism plays a part as well, where I’ve had darker-skinned friends (Black, Hispanic, and Asian) passed for opportunities and lighter-skinned bloggers were chosen instead.

And we already briefly mentioned it, but Black travel bloggers are often at odds with providing valuable information to their Black audience but still being “nice” enough for the industry. If they speak out on racial issues, they could be seen as too “extreme” by brands. If they express their negative experience in a destination due to the local racism, it might make them a target for trolls or that destination might not want to work with them. 

The brunt of changing the travel industry is falling on those most neglected and exploited by it. BIPOC travel bloggers shouldn’t be the only ones turning down press trips when they see it isn’t inclusive. BIPOC travel bloggers shouldn’t be the only ones noticing and taking a stand against problematic and harmful brands. 

And what can the travel community do to make it a more inclusive and accessible space? 

Ultimately, it comes down to humbling yourself. 

While I volunteer and donate in my personal life, I specifically use my blog to champion for diversity and inclusion in the travel realm. I can’t speak for everyone – I don’t know every community’s struggles, issues, and concerns – but I can work within myself to identify when their voices are absent. And then DO something about it. 

When I visit National Parks in the US, but realize the STARK absence of information on the Indigenous history and cultural holdings of the land, I ensure that I include that information in my blog posts, along with Indigenous organizations that are fighting to reclaim their land. 

When I leave hotel reviews, I try to take pictures of any doorways, ramps, stove heights, shower entrances, and alarm systems for travelers who may need accessibility accommodations. 

Often, what motivates me is giving the information that I (and my friends/family) would want to know. What is the golden rule again – treat others how you want to be treated? But as a travel creator, you need to implement the platinum rule:

Treat others how THEY want to be treated. 

It starts with admitting that your content could probably be more inclusive – mine sure could. Inclusivity on the individual level is a constant work in progress. When you are given the chance to share or extend an opportunity to someone, take a look and see what voices are missing from the conversation. 

Diversify your media intake, and I don’t mean just follow a bunch of x-bloggers and your content will magically be more inclusive. Bloggers are people before they are any diversity-metric they may fall under, meaning they have different personalities. Follow bloggers that look different than you, yes, but also bloggers that you ACTUALLY like and value their content. 

Do you think the travel community is making much progress in terms of diversity or inclusivity? 

Yes and no. I mean, I don’t want to be a complete cynic, but while the travel community has made progress with at least recognizing racial/ethnic inclusivity, I do feel as though it is still trailing behind in other sectors of diversity. 

For example, I’ve attended a few virtual travel conferences over the past year and none of the panels had an ASL interpreter with the few exceptions during the diversity panel where a Deaf travel blogger would be on panel. I’ve never received transcripts of the panel after either, or even prompted if I would like or need one.

I also think a lot of the perceived progress is for clout. Over the past year, I’ve seen many travel bloggers post “Black owned restaurant” articles, but with posts filled with vague descriptions and even establishments that have closed, it is clear the bloggers had never even visited. There were even instances where white bloggers plagiarized the work from Black bloggers who had already written about it.

So, the work continues.

I have your website open at the moment, and I find myself getting distracted by the sheer amount of fantastic travel articles on your site. There is SUCH a variety – from listicles, to think pieces, and truly amazing travel advice and itineraries.

I’m currently doing the WHO ARE YOU IN YOUR TRAVEL SQUAD?- PERSONALITY QUIZ woohoo. (I’m ‘the explorer’, FYI.) How do you come up with such a wide range of content?

Hahaha, um, I don’t know honestly! I just think about content that would be fun and/or useful to me – and I write that! I guess I may have a different view of my blog because I don’t see it as a money source (because it doesn’t make any lol), so I have more freedom to do what I want, regardless if it brings traffic to my site or not.

I don’t run my blog like a business (and it shows, lol) because I don’t want it to feel like a business to me. I created my blog primarily for me, and while I’m over the moon that others enjoy it, if I don’t enjoy it, then I would stop doing it. 

And your website is FUN. You’re writing style is FUN and it feels like everyone is invited! There is a HUGE emphasis on SEO-driven blog content and ‘quantity over quality’ social media content.

Global crises aside, what do you think of the state of travel blogging in 2021? What sort of content do you wish there was more of?

I think there are two sides to this question, and both relate back to function, but for whom. As a blogger (that runs their blog like a business anyway), then SEO is the bottom line for everything. It drives traffic, which drives opportunities, which drives money, which drives livelihood. In that sense, content written FOR SEO will always be at the forefront for travel creators. That is how a blog functions for the blogger. 

For the audience, they couldn’t care less about your blog posting frequency, as long as it has the information they need when they need it. Buuut, they wouldn’t be able to find those posts unless they were also written with SEO in mind. So they work hand in hand. It’s a hard balance to strike, especially with large longer-established sites pumping out a (poorly written) listicle a day and claiming the top results on search engines. 

Personally, I want more storytelling content. I want the “soul” of blogging to re-emerge in travel content in 2021. I want random stories about how bloggers almost got arrested. I am excited for bloggers that share more about their trip than just what to do “in general.” It’s not content that everyone wants, but I do haha.

I love that you don’t seem too stuck in ‘one niche’. For example, you have posts with book recommendations alongside your travel info. Do you think this is an effective strategy for bloggers? Or is it more of a ‘hey, I want to write about this, so I’m gonna’ sort of thing? 

HAHAHHAHA not at all. In fact, I think it’s a bit…of a detour on the road to “success,” metric-wise anyway. Sticking to one niche is VERY beneficial to SEO, and designates your site as “authority” on the subject. It’s so important that bloggers even start second and third websites dedicated to specific niches, and those grow multitudes faster than general travel blogs. 

Having multiple angles to your content definitely “mutes” its growth, which can be discouraging or stifling to some bloggers or creators. Then they either have to decide to specialize in one niche for growth (which would lead to more visibility -> more opportunities -> more money), or…indulge in all of their interests and accept slower growth. 

What do you think it means to be a responsible traveller and ethical travel blogger in 2021?

I think it means being open to change, but also open to understanding. That might sound like the same thing, but hear me out. 

Not everyone is as far along in their “travel experience,” as folks who are travel bloggers or content creators or industry professionals. So things that are obviously problematic to more aware travelers, like riding elephants, may not be for those who haven’t learned about the issue. 

However, when you DO learn about irresponsible travel practices, you need to be open to hearing the issue and changing your perspective on the situation. 

The system makes sense, but still sucks to have to choose. My blog isn’t monetized, so I definitely value expressing my passions over growth, and I like to think my lil rowdy community does too. I may not come out getting featured on the covers of travel magazines or anything, but not sticking to one niche helps keep me excited about creating content.

Know better, do better, right? And continue to educate others about that issue you now know and help others do better as well. Don’t remain obtuse just because it’s always been your dream to do x,y,z. Before you sum someone up to be “the woke police,” always take a second to hear them out and really consider what they are saying. Always check yourself before you wreck yourself. 

That said, recognize that some “sustainable” options are not accessible to everyone. While it’s great that you can carry around your own metal straw, many plastic alternatives can pose safety mobility concerns for others. The “eco-friendly” retreat you choose over a brand hotel may not have ADA compliant ramps or doors. On top of that, some green alternatives to food and energy, such as soy-based products and lithium batteries for electric vehicles, are extremely detrimental to marginalized communities, usually Indigenous. 

So yes, being an ethical or responsible traveler means taking individual steps to lessen your negative impact on the environment and communities you visit when you travel,but it is also understanding that those steps may not be accessible to everyone (cost or otherwise). It is a constant learning process, so don’t shame others for not being at the same responsible pace as you. 

What are your plans going forward? What should we be looking out for on your site?! 

Well, I’m hoping to publish my second novel by the end of the year, so that will be taking a large chunk of my time and energy. (You can find excerpts of my first novel, TW:Flatline,” on my website as well!)

Aside from that, I’m just chugging along through the piles of ideas I have for blog posts, from city guides, to informative exposes, to interviews, to think pieces, and all the fun silly things in-between. 

Finally, are there any amazing bloggers or creators you’d like to shout out today?

Ahhh, this is always the hardest part!! I’ve made so many amazing connections in the travel realm, and some have become serious lifelong friends. So I’ll just list a short handful of people you will enjoy if you like my content (and probably even if you don’t like my content, haha).

Aneesa from Expat Panda

Millette from The Next Somewhere

Gerry from Dominican Abroad

Amanda from PT Passages 

Yishyene from Small Crazy

7 Comments

  1. Very eye-opening! It’s so true that you see the world from your own perspective, it takes a bit of effort to look a bit harder and see how it is for others. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Wow, what a great interview. That was insightful, informative, and eye opening. Thank you so much for sharing, I got a lot out of reading this.

  3. Well Kay sounds amazing! And now I want to be her best friend and travel buddy haha. I really appreciated this interview, thank you! It opened my eyes to some issues that I haven’t thought of before with traveling. Also, I love the Global Dreamers Foundation, it’s an incredible idea.

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