At the beginning of the year — when few could have predicted a future defined by travel restrictions, border closures, changing visa regulations and social unrest — Ernest White II was preparing for the kind of year most travel media professionals dream about. White’s first TV show, “Fly Brother With Ernest White II,” was set to premiere nationally on public television in January (it debuted locally in May); his crew was gearing up to start filming season two in April. The docu-series focuses on the power of human connection as he explores 11 global destinations including Namibia, Sweden, Tajikistan and Colombia with a personal friend as local guide.
While the show did air as planned, season two is on hold indefinitely, and White has been (mostly) stuck at home in San Francisco like the rest of us. We spoke with White to discuss how the world has changed for a professional traveler and what the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement might mean for the future of global travel.
Q: How have the last five months affected the way you think about travel and where you see the future of travel going?
A: As spring turned to summer, we decided that we would stick a pinkie toe into the pool to test the temperature, so I ended up going to Mexico for the month of July to see how airlines were handling it. In my experience flying to and from Mexico on Aeroméxico, I felt like they were incredibly careful in terms of their own procedures and protocols, making sure everyone had PPE on the plane. Their flight attendants wore face shields as well as masks, everyone had to slather themselves in hand sanitizer upon boarding, they kept service to an absolute minimum, and they stayed on people who let their masks slip. I did not see that same type of care on the U.S. carrier side, unfortunately.
I did recognize my role as a journalist, and as a pioneer in some ways, in going out and seeing what it was like on the ground or in the air because I knew that I would be looked to for guidance and understanding. As we are experiencing a major shift economically, people are still concerned about finances, but they’re more concerned about their health. Be it an airline, a hotel, ride share, home-sharing situation, everyone is going to be concerned about how those companies are putting the health and safety of customers and employees ahead of every other consideration.
Q: What was it like having a travel show during a time when everyone is stuck at home?
A: This is in no way to minimize the traumatic effects of the pandemic and social transformation, (but) when it comes to a television series debuting when people are stuck at home and production has shifted or slowed or shut down completely, it did help boost our viewership and splash into the industry because the field was less crowded.
The focus of the show, which is friendship and connection, is more necessary than ever at this time, from the perspective of a health crisis from which no one is immune to a societal reckoning that’s global in scope — from which none of us is immune.
Q: What is in store for the second season, given how the world has changed?
A: The themes — friendship and connection — will always be the same for this particular project. In that regard, we will never be at a loss for phenomenal people to connect with and amazing experiences to have. Now we just have to put more thought into how we can make it work in a way that is sustainable and scalable. I don’t believe any barriers are permanent; we’ve seen that in our lifetimes. We’ve seen just as many positive forms of transformation and human connectivity as we’ve seen new barriers go up.
Q: What do we lose out on when we can’t travel?
A: We’re losing out on short-term gratification. In the midst of the pandemic, we’re seeing behavior that indicates a lack of awareness regarding how our actions impact others, be it not wearing masks or disregarding local customs and regulations in the few places U.S. citizens are even allowed to travel.
Still, I’d like to think that many more people are aware and are becoming aware of how connected we all are on this planet. We are being called to think deeper about ourselves, our own lives, our space in the world, our immediate environment, our global environment. Once we do start engaging again, we will then be more aware of how we’re engaging with other people.
I believe the world will remain isolated for as long as it takes to engage again safely. 2020 may be challenging, but are we just going to give up? That’s not something my internal constitution allows me to do. What I can do is do my research, follow safety guidelines and honor what I feel compelled to do: the work of connecting with people and sharing those stories. As much as I feel like there’s no replacement for physical contact and face-to-face engagement with people, we do have other ways of connecting with people everywhere. Now is a time we can lean into that as well.
Q: Will the protest movement in the United States and around the world have a tangible impact on how it feels to travel as a Black person?
A: It’s something that’s incredibly nuanced — it’s the way that race, class, color, heritage and culture come together in their various ways in every single country on the planet. Black Lives Matter is not something that is relegated to the United States; it’s global in scope, as it always has been, just as slavery was global in scope.
I believe I will probably be having more conversations with people than ever before who want to know more and are more aware, who recognize there is a problem with the way people have been treated based on their race, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability, age or mental capacity. People want to do better, so I believe that people will be engaged in more conversation. But as a Black American traveler and as a journalist and educator, that’s been something I’ve been engaging in for the last 20 years.
Q: When things open back up, where do you want to go first?
A: I would love to see my parents and my family in Jacksonville (Fla.). That’s one of those things you take for granted until you’re not able to do it.
Valerie Stimac is a freelance writer based in the Bay Area. Email: [email protected]