AHL INSIDER

Jessica Nabongo

Travel Expert, Writer, Photographer

Jessica Nabongo

Jessica Nabongo is one of the most impressive, dynamic personalities in the travel space. After a career in international development and working with the United Nations, she became a travel expert and the first black woman to have visited every country in the world, changing our outdated perceptions of who travels and how. An advocate for sustainability in the tourism industry, Jessica is hosting NatGeo’s 2021 digital Earth Day celebration, is writing a book about her adventures around the world, and relaunching her travel collective. Always on the road, Jessica spoke to AHL’s Editor in Chief Tansy Kaschak from Malliouhana, Anguilla.

– follow Jessica –

Share this Story
Jessica Nabongo Coted Ivoire

Tansy Kaschak: What motivates you to travel and to do the work you do?

Jessica Nabongo: Primarily my travel has always been motivated by my curiosity. I’m a geography nerd, I’m so curious about how people live all over the world. I just want to see and know everything. Beyond that, so much of what I do is driven by wanting everyone who follows me—however they’re seeing me and following me—feels like the world is theirs to explore, to feel included. I move with my positive energy and with humility and that’s why I am able to build relationships with people all over the world. I don’t go to a place trying to confirm what I think I know about it, I go to ask questions because I want them to tell me what they want me to know about their home.

Tansy: A curious mind and a humble heart.

Jessica: Exactly, exactly.

Jessica in Nauru
Jessica in Nauru
.
.

Tansy: You started Jet Black in 2015 to support black travelers and to increase tourism in Africa, Central and South America, and The Caribbean. Your business has been evolving and is becoming a highly curated resource for travel experiences around the world. Where do you see the travel industry evolving and how do you see yourself in it?

Jessica: Obviously, COVID has changed everything. There was a $4.5 trillion loss in the travel industry last year, which is a number so staggering it doesn’t actually make sense in reality. I think what’s going to happen within the travel industry is that reviews and recommendations are going to become even more important because people are going to want to make sure they feel safe when they travel. Personal recommendations are going to be a huge part of that. People are also going to spend more time in specific places. They’re really going to want to dig into their bucket list.

As far as where I fit in, my work, whether it’s my book, The Nabongo List (which is my forthcoming new business), my goal is to help people curate and craft exactly what’s on their bucket list and then be a bridge for some of the amazing properties, restaurants, experiences I know around the world. There may be a recommendation for one of the best five-star hotels that I’ve stayed at but there also may be a street food cart recommendation or some tiny restaurant. For instance, there’s this little restaurant that I go to in Cartagena that I love. I want people to have a luxury experience but I also want people to have a local experience. So much of what I love is that, and that’s what I want to craft and curate for the world.

Jessica in Kyrgyzstan
Jessica in Kyrgyzstan

Tansy: It’s instrumental that we change the Eurocentric, young traveler narrative so we can change not only the perception of who travels, but indeed, the reality of travel. Your work has helped the evolution because, with your achievements and the way you communicate and engage your platform, you have been able to include more people of color in the travel space. Other than a shift in narrative, what else can we do to bring more diversity and inclusion to travel and hospitality?

Jessica: I love that. Number one, we all have to decenter ourselves. That’s the biggest thing. Decolonization it’s about decentering oneself because we’re not overnight going to get a mix of travel writers. It takes time. People have to build a career over a lifetime. There’s so much legacy involved in it and who knows who, and connections, and all of that. A white person can write an objective story about an African country if they’re open to decentering themselves and truly trying to see things through someone else’s lens. I think that’s one of the biggest things.

Beyond that, specifically in the travel and hospitality industry, we have to understand that everyone wants to travel. Whether it’s black travelers, BIPOC, fat travelers, skinny travelers, asian travelers, young travelers, old travelers, handicap travelers; everyone can be a traveler because everyone exists in society. Anyone that you can walk out of your house and see is someone who deserves to be featured in an ad, someone who needs to be talked to when you’re writing about a place. How can I fit in?

Jessica in Jaipur, India
Jessica in Jaipur, India
Jessica in Eritrea
Jessica in Eritrea

Tansy: You’ve given a brilliant TED talk on what it means to be a good neighbor. You talked about humans trusting other humans, both in real life and in the digital space, and about the deeper idea of humans being good neighbors to our planet. What would your advice to travelers and those making decisions in the travel space be, in order to be a “good neighbor”?

Jessica: One of the biggest issues right now facing the planet is single-use plastic. Remember when everything used to be in glass bottles? Milk used to be in glass bottles. Refillable bottles. What happened to that? What happened is the introduction of this really cheap thing called single-use plastic. It is literally destroying the world, especially on islands, and in the developing nations who don’t even have the infrastructure to rid themselves of it. I think one of the biggest things that travelers can do is make small changes. Travel with your reusable water bottle. Here at this property, they have plastic water bottles. I refuse to use it and I tell them about it. It requires some personal sacrifice.

Tansy: If, just like you, all travelers make the effort and show properties that we are not accepting their plastic bottles, that’s when business is going to start to change.

Jessica: Absolutely, and the thing that I do with my platform is I talk to people. I ask for the GM and say, “Look, we have to talk about sustainability. We have to figure it out. Let me help you figure it out. Here’s what I’ve seen at other properties. Here’s how you can do it.”

Another thing that I do, I carry a reusable cup with me when I fly, so I never have to use a plastic cup on a plane. If you think about a typical eight-hour flight, they’re going to give you, each person, at least three cups, right? Now I’m using three less cups. Imagine if 100 people on that plane use three less cups. That’s 300 less plastic cups that are being used. It’s something very small, it doesn’t bother me to just throw this into my bag, into my carry-on bag and then I’ll say, “Oh, hold on. I already have my cup.” Our individual efforts add up.

Consumers have to talk to the hotels, even if you’re not in a position to meet with the GM. You can call ahead and say you don’t want any plastic in your room. Period. If we start doing that, then hotels start to understand that they don’t need to just automatically put all this plastic nonsense in my room because. Because sometimes if it is there and it’s convenient, you might use it, but if it’s not there, you’ll figure something else out. I think it’s also on consumers to start asking and holding the industry accountable.

Jessica in Kazakhstan
Jessica in Kazakhstan

Tansy: In all the countries you’ve visited and the countless experiences that you’ve had, what taught you the most about being a good neighbor?

Jessica: The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that most people are good. We are becoming very disillusioned with all the negativity we’re seeing on TV and on social media. Yes, there’s some really bad things happening, but there’s actually more good stuff happening than bad. I’ve been in countries, in conservative Muslim countries, where men helped me. I didn’t even ask and they’re offering me help. I’ve been in countries where I dealt with someone who clearly didn’t have anything and they were trying to give me something. Most people are good. I’ve traveled to 89 countries solo and I’ve remained completely safe. We have to readjust our thinking to understand most people truly are good. People will invite you into their home.

Tansy: Who inspires you the most in the travel industry?

Jessica: I feel like I always say the same people, but that’s okay. I mean, I think one has to make a nod to Anthony Bourdain. What he did in the travel industry was so unique and just something that we weren’t seeing, and so abrasive. He really did go into places to ask questions, to see what life was like, to get that real local culture. That’s definitely one. Cory Lee is someone that I follow. He’s in a wheelchair and I just love following him because, even if  I’m able-bodied and I never think about accessibility, I think we have to step outside of ourselves a lot of times. I’m not inspired by people who necessarily look like me. I’m inspired by seeing how other people are breaking barriers in whatever they’re doing. Cory is one of them.

Charlotte Wilson, traveling black widow, she’s another one. She’s probably in her sixties. She does a lot of solo travel. I think she’s been to 100 countries now. Once her husband died—, they travelled a lot together when they were married—, and once he died, she said, “Well, I’m still going to travel.” I’m so inspired by her because I think it’s so nice to see an older woman doing solo travel and inspiring other people. 

Then my friend, Kellee Edwards. She’s the first black woman to have a TV show on the Travel Channel. She’s a certified diver. She’s a certified pilot. She is just doing so much in the space. I’m constantly in awe of everything that she’s doing and the road that she’s paving for so many of us.

Tansy: What about businesses and hotels, any particular favorite? Any one that you feel is doing it just right?

Jessica: I am definitely a lover of the Four Seasons brand and I think they do a really good job listening. I think the changes that need to happen in the travel industry require listening and not everybody is prepared to listen. And if you have to listen if you want to learn. 

I love Auberge properties. I’m at an Auberge resort right now, Malliouhana in Anguilla. For me, I love luxury but I also love boutique and I think that Auberge does a really good job of creating these beautiful experiences and these very beautiful spaces but not feeling overwhelmed by the size of it. Then I’m definitely a lover of Relais & Chateau properties.

Jessica in Ubud, Bali
Jessica in Ubud, Bali

Tansy: What’s your favorite hotel amenity?

Jessica: Oh, my gosh. What is my favorite hotel amenity? I don’t know. You know what it is for me? It’s not a thing. For me, it’s the service. I appreciate when by day two or three, they know my preferences. If I’m going to breakfast, they know to not put a coffee cup at my place setting because I don’t want coffee. Ask me, “Oh, do you want green juice?” because I know that’s a thing you love. For me, it’s those little things. It’s the personalization. I mean, obviously, I want a nice bed, a nice robe, all of that stuff, but it’s the service part that I spend the money for. Call me by name. When I leave a hotel, I like to leave feeling like I made friends at the hotel. That’s a really big thing for me.

Tansy: Where are you off to next?

Jessica: That’s such a good question. I’m heading home. My birthday is in 29 days. I’m spending it somewhere outside of the US. It’s either going to be Belize, Guatemala, or Honduras.

Tansy: If you could choose the one hotel to spend your next birthday, which one would that be?

Jessica: Nihi Sumba in Indonesia. Something closer to home would be the Amanyara in Turks and Caicos. That’s definitely very high on my list. I would love to spend my birthday there.

Tansy: Knowing you, I guess you will. Jessica, thank you so much for your time and for your vibrant, contagious energy. 

Jessica: Thank you.

You can watch Jessica and National Geographic’s virtual Earth Day Eve celebration on the National Geographic YouTube channel and at NatGeo.com/EarthDayEve.

#StayPlasticFree

Share this Story

More Culture

PUBLIC Hotel Celebrates a New Beginning with Restaurant POPULAR

Chefs Diego Muñoz and John Fraser bring Peruvian to Manhattan’s Lower East Side

tell me more ›

Scarlet Envy’s NYC Pride Guide

The superstar gives us the T on NYC Pride this year

tell me more ›

Gabriele Salini

Palazzo Daniele's Gabriele Salini in conversation with Ruby Kean

tell me more ›

10 Events to Celebrate Juneteenth This Year

From brunches to block parties, our roundup of how to celebrate the newest national U.S. holiday

tell me more ›