Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – A couple of days ago, a person unknown to me questioned why I was speaking on a panel about Caribbean tourism rather than a person of Caribbean origin. It made me realize that perhaps those who stumble on this website might not know or go through the extra steps of digging up my story as the person who launched the See the Caribbean initiative. Who is this woman asking you to support exploring the region in a greener, socially conscious way in the future?
I’m seeing this as an opportunity to re-introduce myself and share the story of my connection to the Caribbean.
1. The global citizen life: From Ethiopia to the Caribbean
Hi, my name is Lebawit. It’s an Ethiopian name. I come from parents who are 100 percent Ethiopian and I was born in Addis Ababa. I’m a third culture kid – at nine months of age, we left Ethiopia and I was raised in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. At home, everything was very much Ethiopian, while at school I spoke French and my friends were from all over the world and from all over Africa. As a kid, I thought life should always be this way, where you’re surrounded with people of different cultures.
We vacationed in the US occasionally during the summer, and a couple of times, I traveled to other parts of Africa with my parents. I grew up with a mother and father who had distinct upbringings, yet a shared deep appreciation for travel, heritage and global connection.
Thanks to them, I learned my native Amharic language from day one, learning everything about our Ethiopian culture first-hand, albeit far from our homeland.
Above, left to right: In traditional Ethiopian clothing for a photo in our yard, in Cote d’Ivoire; March 2020 in Lalibela, Ethiopia, standing over St. George’s Church in my traditional Ethiopian dress.
I recall drooling at their photo albums, filled with visits to iconic sites in Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and South Korea. I dreamed of the places inside National Geographic Magazine, subscriptions that would reach our West Africa home months delayed, but worth every wait. My parents taught me to love reading and the importance of a solid education as the only way to move up in the world. Perhaps it was from there that I began to love writing about the world I was seeing and about figuring out my true identity as a third culture child. I bought every pretty journal I could from the librairie with my pocket money, especially if it had a lock and key, and filled them with memories.
Where does the Caribbean come in? I’m getting to it, hold on to your horses.
At 14, I boarded a plane for the UK where I completed high school, and spent four years there before the United States’ east coast became my home. Adapting to the American way of life was the roughest of all my immersive experiences. Being surrounded in African and Caribbean communities and other cultural groups in the Washington DC area, however, in the same way I was raised, made life bearable. That’s when I had my first brush with Caribbean people, food and culture. I remember going to African nightclubs, then to my first DC Carnival, and flying to Miami Carnival with my then Trini, Guyanese, and African college friends.
After college, I thought I wanted to be a translator and worked at the World Bank for two years, while figuring out my future. It led me to the law and three years studying full-time at the University of Virginia Law School. I graduated knowing I had a permanent offer from my dream firm waiting after summer and a successful bar exam. I could finally afford to return to Ethiopia to visit my birth country for the first time. I shed the fear my parents had carried of returning to a country ruled without real democracy at the time.
It was a mind-blowing experience. Imagine meeting your grandmother in person for the first time in your 20s? Politics had separated us from our extended family for years. But I digress. While in the US, I continued to travel – not for the sake of it, but to connect with other cultures, and for the powerful and valuable exchange that I’ve known travel can be since I was born. Travel and heritage were at the crux of every aspect of my life; beyond Ethiopia, I began exploring western Europe with friends. South America. Puerto Rico.
2. My first Caribbean trip: Saint Lucia, Martinique and the Grenadines
In 2005, I traveled to the Caribbean for the first time (aside from my initial jaunt with friends to Puerto Rico). My first solo travel vacation as an adult materialized after I’d completely burned out working at the “dream firm” (a dream that fizzled quickly over the years) and I’d accumulated three weeks of vacation. “Use it or lose it,” HR had said.
Hours of online research later (I was a newbie booking the Caribbean so I defaulted to the travel search engines), I ended up in Saint Lucia, at the Body Holiday Resort. One free spa treatment included in every night’s stay. I arrived late at night; American Airlines flights delayed and no suitcase (that’s when I learned to pack my swimsuit and a change of clothes in my carry on). I couldn’t see much from my balcony so I crashed of exhaustion.
I’ll never forget that first morning, waking up at 6:30am, drawing the curtains wide open and stepping out to that view: the Pitons in the near distance, the turquoise Caribbean Sea, and the golden beach below. I gasped, then held my breath. I just couldn’t believe I was seeing anything that resembled that kind of natural scenery. I had never seen what my eyes were experiencing in the continents I’d visited or lived in until that moment.
From there, I eventually hopped over to Martinique and to the Grenadines, while still keeping my main base in Saint Lucia. I’d say that was the trip that planted the seed of my captivation with the Caribbean.
Over the years since then, I began to travel slow and noticed a Caribbean no mainstream travel publication talked about. The Caribbean beyond the crowded resorts, the Caribbean of ceremonies and indigenous groups, of deep community values and celebrations. The Caribbean that is rich in places to commune in nature, the Caribbean of healing and spirituality, of diversity, sports and outdoor traditions.
After Saint Lucia, I decided to take a leap and visit the one island that had always fascinated me because of its connection to Ethiopia: Jamaica. T’was the summer of 2007. A friend planned canceled joining at the last minute. I decided that if I were to wait on others, I’d never go anywhere. So I booked and ventured solo to the land of wood and wata. All my friends and family thought I was crazy. “Jamaica, alone?! No way! It’s dangerous. Plus the men are super aggressive!”
As a global citizen, I don’t judge places or cultures according to the perception of the White-dominated media. I’d also learned to do things better after Saint Lucia: staying at a locally owned small hotel in Negril. I remember talking to the front desk directly; I didn’t use Expedia this time around. I spoke to a person and my mind was made up.
Two weeks in Jamaica and the rest was history. Jamaicans treated me with nothing but “Respect;” I love that greeting of theirs, by the way. Knowing I was Ethiopian bumped my title to Queen and Empress. Who was going to complain? Not I. I used the time to explore deeply as I’ve never been one to lay on beaches all day. I visited the south coast for a boat ride to see the crocodiles in Black River, I hiked the Mayfield River, swam at YS Falls, jumped off the West End cliffs, and enjoyed reggae on the beach one too many times. Yes, man, Jamaica was All Right, especially away from the big resorts. I vowed to return and travel slow around the island, which I did more times over than I can count.
I returned home to the USA and realized it was enough of being miserable day in day out at the firm. It wasn’t what I was brought here to do. What was my purpose? I had no idea, but if I was to figure it out then I must make the time to do that. I loved showing others how impactful travel could be, that was clear, and I decided to teach myself travel photography. What I’m not telling you, is that my disenchanment with corporate America had lasted seven years; during that time, I tried it all, including taking writing fiction classes and launching my own fashion shop featuring items from around the world.
3. Jamaica to the rest of the Caribbean: 15 years and ongoing
November 2008: I packed up my suitcase and pro photography gear, placed my other belongings in storage, left my car with my parents, and hit the road for Jamaica. I created a blog, Sunshine and Stilettos, and I had a Flickr page that brought to me my first online community. A six-week break turned into five months; during which time I explored almost every coastline of Jamaica and inland, as well as my first pro photography gig to shoot the Reggae Marathon.
Above: Scenes from Jamaica – on magazine assignment and from independent trips (Negril, Reach Falls, Belmont).
Over the years, I kept exploring the Caribbean solo whenever I could; no other region could capture my attention in the same way. Jamaica for repeated six-month winters at a time. Visiting Belize in 2010 for three weeks. That experience opened the door to a three-month writing and photography assignment with the Belize Tourism Board a year later. I spent subsequent winters in Belize exploring on my own and later on assignment, researching and writing guidebooks for Moon Guides (business owners were always surprised that a travel journalist would spent that much time on the ground to write about Belize; for me, I saw it as being ethical and fair to the destination).
Above, clockwise: Scenes from Belize – on assignment and independently (Dangriga, Caye Caulker, Barton Creek/Cayo, Half Moon Caye, Orange Walk.
I went to Grenada and Carriacou, and spent two months exploring the islands solo. As an advocate for cultural travel and a writer, exploring long term became my modus operandi.
Above, left to right: Scenes from Grenada (Concord Falls) and Carriacou Carnival.
With every passing year, I continued splitting my time with the Caribbean: six months in the region, six months back in the USA. Then one day, as my travel writing and content work increased, I was able to stop splitting my life across borders.
After Jamaica, Belize and Grenada, I ended up choosing the Dominican Republic, where I’ve been based since 2015. I was initially sent to the DR to write a 400-page travel guidebook for Moon Guides, my publisher. I’ve completed two editions since then, plus a world of articles in US, UK, Canadian and other foreign outlets showcasing a different Dominican Republic. At the time, there were no influencers or bloggers doing it.
Above, clockwise: Scenes from the Dominican Republic – Villa Mella, Buenhombre, Monte Cristi.
In 2016, I met the love of my life who is 100 percent Dominican, born and raised in Santo Domingo. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s also Ethiopian, and that we all come from the same place: Africa (smile).
4. Sustainable travel stories: Then and now
If you followed my work from day one, you’d know all the adventures I’ve had across the Caribbean as I went forth carrying the same message I carry today: this region desperately needs immersive and conscious travelers, and it needs a tourism industry that rewards local businesses. The image of cruise ships and massive foreign-owned all inclusive resorts is antithetic to the true spirit of Caribbean people and culture.
Culture! So much culture and diversity in the Caribbean, in addition to the outdoors. Part of the connection I felt with the region is also linked to my African heritage. I love noticing the striking similarities of life and traditions in the Caribbean and life as I’d experienced it growing up in West Africa.
Above, clockwise: Scenes from Curacao (Otrabanda-Willemstad, Punda Vibes Thursdays).
Over the years, being a travel journalist and photographer has helped me amplify the message of seeing the Caribbean in different ways, pitching to my editors, prioritizing it in my guidebooks, posting on my blogs and showing it through my photography. It was ultra niche in those days to be writing about sustainable tourism in the Caribbean – and particularly showing an Afro-Caribbean – and you certainly didn’t get as much work as your counterparts, nor invitations to press trips because of it. If you weren’t pushing the latest luxury resort or the latest man made attraction for tourists, it was a no go!
But I never let up and I am proud of sticking to my message. I persisted – the highs of my multiple immersive Caribbean experiences got me through the sweat, tears, frustration and discouragement at not being heard or amplified because I was a Black female journalist or because I was pushing immersive travel outside of resorts.
Above, clockwise: Scenes from Martinique, Haiti and Guadeloupe Islands.
In time, I got editors interested, slowly but surely, as the world tide began shifting in favor of responsibility in tourism.
Getting published for the type of content I wanted was a feat in this White-dominated tourism industry as the story of brown destinations have always been shown through the white gaze; an immersive community stay wasn’t as “hot” as staying in a five-star suite. I’d spend hours on the road researching for my Belize or Dominican Republic guidebooks, as well as for my articles – often on trips I funded myself such as the one to Puerto Rico, or based on assignment fees when I went to Curacao.
Above, left to right: Friday night at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados; El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico.
Then one day, a magazine called AFAR came along and said hey, “experiential travel” is the way to go. I’d been experientially traveling my entire life, as had others (Africans travel a ton) and I’d always pushed for travel as a force for social change. But I was happy to see a mainstream publication pushing that message. I wrote several Caribbean digital guides for them, the first one on Jamaica, and one print piece – because even then and until recently, it was White writers getting the features and being sent to the Caribbean, a region I’d been studying and exploring for years.
Over time, I became increasingly passionate as well as privy to the social inequities in Caribbean societies, the legacy of a post-colonial system, and the injustice of the tourism construct here, where tourism dollars go primarily to foreign corporations while locals benefit little.
Living in the region gives you a completely different level of understanding. So every time I’d see or hear of a locally-led initiative, my heart rejoiced and I’d do my best to make it there and write about it wherever I could. Over 12 years as a travel journalist and Caribbean resident, I became almost obsessive about finding locals to support and amplify through my work. I was also intent on not promoting the wrong kind of immigrant with businesses in the Caribbean; I paid attention to the “why” behind their business. It’s the kind of detail that I’ve been fortunate to be able to discern because I live in the region since 2008 and because I explore slow and learn every day about the complexities of each destination.
Clockwise: The Rose Hall Drummers in St. Vincent; hiking at Guadeloupe National Park, Basse-Terre; a ti’punch cocktail after the hike; Petit Border on leeward St. Vincent.
I remember a friend and former editor saying, “Why shouldn’t it be you, Lily, speaking on the Caribbean? You are way more knowledgeable (than the White male counterpart who is repeatedly chosen for these panels)!”
5. Leading The Initiative
From The Bahamas to Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, the BVIs, US Virgin Islands, Curacao, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Martinique, Haiti and Guadeloupe Islands, among others, I’ve had the great privilege of exploring and making deep connections across the region with communities, social entrepreneurs, lodge owners, farmers, leaders of environmental groups and educational non profit organizations, as well as locals from all walks of life and all careers.
I don’t pretend to be a “know it all” about this region; humility is one of my core values. But I can stand up and proudly state that I do know about the Caribbean tourism industry, that I have worked my tail end in learning and experiencing and living in the region, and I have in depth expertise about Caribbean sustainable tourism and can speak on it with authority.
This pandemic is disastrous for the Caribbean; tourism is the main earner for many of the small island states, but the people here are resilient. What this is, is an opportunity to show travelers to the region that they do have power in their decision-making and can opt to empower local businesses in the future.
Those of us who love the Caribbean and believe in travel as a tool for human connection and for social progress must come together and share that message. While we sit home and reconsider how we interact with others and how we interact with the places we visit, the Caribbean needs that same kind of consideration and thought. It needs those immersive travelers to see it for what it is: not as a playground where you release your stresses while leaving a trail of destruction implicitly or explicitly, but as one of the most fragile and beautiful regions in the world, the most tourism-reliant and the most in need of investment in the local economy.
Top left, clockwise: Belize, Cuba, Jamaica, Belize, Curacao.
That’s why I created this initiative after 15 years of dedication to the Caribbean and 12 years of living in the region full-time. My message isn’t new; it’s a natural progression and a next level growth in my work and in my mission.
Lately, I’ve felt it to my core to see what’s happening in my region, to witness how those who have worked hard to build a responsible, local business and whom I’ve come to know through my work on the ground over the years are struggling. I decided to use my storytelling skills, my connections and my talent to support my colleagues and push even further the message of sustainable tourism as an urgent need for the Caribbean. As my friend and fellow Jamaican writer Diana O’Gilvie said the other day, “the Caribbean needs a rewrite.”
I’m grateful to be leading the message on a wider platform, which is much needed at this time. This is a topic and a part of the world that I’ve been passionate about since the beginning of my second career as a travel journalist and even prior to that, from the moment I saw the Pitons. And one thing’s for sure: I didn’t stick to this road all these years for the money.
That’s why today, I’m collaborating with a range of colleagues in tourism who are in the Caribbean just as I am; a majority are of Caribbean origin, while others who aren’t have earned that honorary badge through their actions and contributions to their destinations and to the region. They are people I’ve been blessed to know and work with as sustainable tourism advocates.
As they say in the French islands, “l’union fait la force.” Whether Patois-speaking, Kriol or Creole speaking, French-speaking, Spanish-speaking, Papiamento-speaking, English-speaking or Dutch-speaking, my Caribbean sustainable tourism collaborators and I are uniting from the various corners of the Caribbean irrespective of past colonial narratives.
Whether you’re heading to Jamaica, Belize, Antigua, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe Islands, Martinique or any of the 20+ territories that make up this stunning region, we will showcase and promote an equitable, inclusive, green Caribbean travel that benefits people and nature, and show you where to put your dollars. It’s the future, if we want to preserve our region’s well-being, and the time is ripe to speak truth to power.
I welcome you to See the Caribbean initiative. Thank you for being here and for joining the movement.
Until you can freely explore again as immersive travelers, use this time to get inspired on this platform through the visual stories that will begin rolling out this month. We plan to show you how easy it is to plan an impactful, life-changing visit to the Caribbean– for yourself, for your families, for those you’ll meet and for the destination.
Your global ally, honorary Caribbean sister and Founder of See the Caribbean,