Henderson Travel, a black-owned agency founded back in the Civil Rights era, pioneered roots travel to Africa. Its continued success is a testament not just to the popularity of genealogical tourism, but a booming African-American travel market.
When Henderson Travel Service started operations in 1955, African Americans faced huge travel obstacles and genealogical tours to Africa were unheard of.
The agency, which led African “roots” tours even before Alex Haley’s book and TV mini-series sparked the trend back in the 1970s, is still going strong in the midst of today’s booming interest in ancestry. Another factor is a growing African American tourism market that accounted for $63 billion in spending in 2018, up from $48 billion in 2010, according to a study from Mandala Research.
“I had planned on semi-retiring last year, but I kept getting all these requests for travel to Africa, so I’m still at it,” said Gaynelle Henderson Baily, owner of Henderson Travel and daughter of founders Freddye and Jake Henderson. Henderson Baily now works from home but also maintains an office in Silver Springs, Maryland, with a staff of outside sales advisors. The agency claims to be the first black-owned, fully appointed travel agency in the U.S.
This current interest in Africa is in marked contrast to when the Hendersons first opened an office in Atlanta during the same year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.
“My mother pioneered tourism to Africa, but she really had to convince people to go there,” Henderson Bailey said. “This was true even when I started in travel. I grew up in the business and was leading tours while still in my teens.”
Along the way, there were impressive milestones for the agency, including escorting and handling arrangements for Dr. Martin Luther King when he traveled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1957 Henderson Travel took the first group of Americans to Accra, Ghana to participate in a ceremony marking the nation’s independence.
With 2019 designated as the Year of Return by the president of Ghana, Henderson Travel is among agencies planning group tours to Ghana commemorating the launch of the first slave ship departure 400 years ago. Along with visiting historical and cultural sites, Henderson’s tour will coincide with Panafest, a festival held in Ghana every two years celebrating traditional arts and culture.
While West Africa with its genealogical significance to many black Americans remains a mainstay, Henderson Travel, which has strengthened contacts and knowledge through active participation in the Africa Travel Association, focuses on travel throughout Africa. The agency’s South African tours, which include a focus on Nelson Mandela as well as a safari experience, are especially popular, according to Henderson Bailey.
However, the agency, which led a group of 130 to Dubai last year, is not exclusively focused on Africa. Serving a mostly African American clientele means keeping pace with a travel market that Henderson Baily has seen expand and evolve greatly over the years.
“African Americans have tremendous interest in seeing the world and many have the discretionary income to do so,” she said. “As is true of the general market, there are lot of Baby Boomers who are retiring and have a huge interest in traveling all over.”
Henderson Travel’s focus on cultural heritage is in tune with what Mandala research found is an especially lucrative African American travel segment. “African American ‘cultural’ travelers are the highest spenders, with an average per trip spend of $2,078 versus $1,345 for all African American travelers,” according to the study.
The agency’s focus on group travel is also in line with African American travel preferences, said Henderson Bailey.
“We tend to travel in groups, often in affinity groups, but there’s also a growing trend for multi-generational family trips,” she said. “We recently did a South African tour that included four grandmothers, including myself, as well as eight couples in their 30s and 40s and 13 children from four to 15. It was great fun.”
Another black-owned travel agency with expertise in African tourism is Philadelphia-based Palace Travel, which was founded in 1991 with a general travel focus.
“We started to specialize exclusively in Africa travel after 9/11 when there was a drastic reduction in travelers going anyplace,” said owner Lloyd Murray. “Africa was one of the few destinations that did not see a significant drop in travel.”
In 2006, Palace Travel expanded by opening full-service, locally staffed travel agencies in Ghana and Mali.
“We’re the only North American travel company with wholly owned, fully operational offices that are strategically located in West Africa,” Murray said. “In addition to leisure travel, we arrange meetings, seminars and employee incentives for NGOs (non-governmental organizations), corporations and government clients.”
Palace Travel sends travelers to every country on the continent, including seldom-visited destinations such as Eritrea, Djibouti, South Sudan, Niger, Madagascar and Comoros, said Murray. It also serves as a wholesale tour operator that pays commissions to other travel agencies.
Among this year’s tour offerings is a 10-day itinerary to Ghana in August centered around the Year of Return.
“It’s not every year that a 400th anniversary comes around,” Murray said. “And although it is in some ways a sad anniversary, the activities are scheduled to bring people of African descent full circle back to one of the countries where their ancestors were forcibly removed.”
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Photo credit: Henderson Travel is among agencies offering Ghana tours in 2019 to mark the Year of Return. Bloomberg