My Black Daughter Has Always Been Skeptical About Cruises — We Took One Together Anyway

While the travel industry has moved to embrace and celebrate diversity, guests on high-end cruises remain almost entirely white. On a trip with her daughter, one writer set out to learn whether people of color can ever feel truly at ease at sea.



A tuxedo-clad butler takes my roll-aboard in his white-gloved hand, and I follow him up the gangway to the ship. My heels click boldly on the steel, an expression of both confidence and anticipation. I listen for my daughter’s footsteps, just behind me. They’re softer, and slower. I know why she’s hesitant: she’s fearful of being one of the few Black passengers — or perhaps even the only one — aboard the Silver Spirit, the 608-passenger ship operated by Silversea.

The truth is, it took some persuasion to get my adult daughter, Kerith, to set off on this cruise from Athens to Venice in the summer of 2022. Not that I’m surprised. Kerith has had less than perfect luxury cruise experiences in the past: passengers have mistaken her for a member of staff or, when she has initiated conversation, shown little interest in chatting. As a passionate cruiser, I want her to know that upscale sailing, long a bastion of whiteness, is changing, as the world’s leading lines are seeking greater passenger diversity.

On cruises over the years, I’ve seen countless guests who look like me and plenty who look like mothers and daughters. But Kerith and I don’t look alike: she’s the spitting image of her late dad. With her locs, tattoos, and nose ring, she doesn’t quite fit the stereotypical picture of a Silversea passenger, or that of any other upscale line, for that matter. Then there’s her age: she’s a 40-something who looks 20-something, while the average age of most luxury lines’ guests skews much older.

“You don’t get it,” Kerith tells me before our trip. “When you board, you look for people matching your vibe, to have drinks with, or dinner. When I get on a luxury cruise, I rarely see passengers who resemble me.”

She’s not convinced that luxury cruising is evolving to embrace inclusivity either. “My friends can afford luxury cruises, but they’ll book a less pricey one or do a charter sail for fear of lack of diversity. If I go with you, I’m going to call it as I see it,” she warns me. So when we board Silver Spirit in Athens, on a typically sweltering July day, I desperately want her to see friendly faces. But I quickly feel a fraction of her anxiety when I realize there are no other Black passengers on this sailing. The two of us stand out. And, I admit, it’s not a comfortable feeling.

On the other hand, when the primarily BIPOC crew sees my daughter, their faces light up. “As people of color, they see me as one of them who’s made it,” Kerith explains.

Although I know that Silversea consistently wins awards for its passenger service, I’m still astonished by how much the crew dotes on Kerith. As she leaves our suite one day, our otherwise reserved Filipino butler spontaneously exclaims, “I love your locs!” A server brings her two Aperol Spritzes at dinner, although she only ordered one. Our suite attendant fawns over her gold bangles and earrings. The tall Moroccan scooping gelato by the pizzeria waves her over every time he sees her on deck.

Fellow passengers prove friendly, too. When Kerith embarks on a shore excursion solo, she meets a white mother and daughter duo, both of whom, like Kerith, went to UCLA. (After this, the three women high-five with a “Go Bruins” every time they run into each other.)

In Croatia, on an excursion from Split to Hvar, we sip cappuccinos and swim with four fun-loving Floridians like we’re longtime friends. Two older, formally dressed British couples seated beside us at dinner chat us up throughout the meal, and no one blinks when we say we’re mother and daughter.

For its part, Silversea says creating a more inclusive onboard experience is a goal. “We recently launched a program to integrate more diversity into our marketing,” says Barbara Muckermann, Silversea’s CEO, in an e-mail response to questions I sent after my trip. “We invited six designers to display collections related to our new 2024 and 2025 voyages. BIPOC designers — Cecilia del Carmen Juarez Balta from Peru and Fikile Sokhulu from South Africa — play as equal a role as European designers.”

Muckermann also tells me that Silversea is extending its crew recruitment efforts in Africa. (Although crew from more than 80 nationalities work for the company, the majority are Filipino and Indian.)

Lingering on deck after dinner on our last night on board, Kerith admits that she felt more comfortable on Silver Spirit than she had on our last cruise together, six years ago. Then, suddenly, she grabs my arm and points to the sky, saying “Look, Mom.” On one side of the ship, a scarlet sunset rages. On the other, a full moon bursts out of an inky sky, casting a shimmering path on the dark sea below. A day ending, and, somewhere beyond the horizon, a new one beginning.

Glimmers of Change

Silversea isn’t the only upscale cruise line putting more emphasis on welcoming a broader range of passengers. In August, AmaWaterways has a seven-night Soulful Epicurean Experience trip on the Rhône River aboard the 78-stateroom AmaKristina that includes a full-day Black heritage tour in Marseille, France. Post-cruise, passengers stay in Paris, with a variety of excursions, including one focused on the life of Josephine Baker and another on the city’s Black history.

Hurtigruten Group, meanwhile, has assembled a Black Traveler Advisory Board and is recruiting more expedition leaders of color, actively seeking Black scientists to serve as onboard lecturers, and creating itineraries that incorporate the stories of unsung Black explorers — including Matthew Henson, an American adventurer who was a part of the first expedition to reach the North Pole, and George W. Gibbs Jr., the first Black person to visit Antarctica.

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "A Warmer Welcome."

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