#CaribbeanWeekNewYork2018 and Thoughts on Finding (and Funding) Our Own Stories

Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Hon. Edmund Bartlett, on the go at CaribbeanWeekNY2018.

Another informative, fun and organized Caribbean Week New York came and went, with the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s members pulling all the stops to show the world that the Caribbean is always open for visitors. 

It was great to see Puerto Rico, Dominica, and St. Maarten/St. Martin present at the Caribbean Media Marketplace. St. Maarten and St. Martin — now a “pro-mance” with a united marketing front for both sides of the island—hosted a luncheon where we learned of the recovery after last year’s hurricanes, with hotel re-openings, as well as a brand new promotional video shot there recently.

Aside from the excitement of the Caribbean Media Awards Dinner—I was a finalist in the “Virtual Visitor Award” category for my CNN piece on Curaçao—it was great catching up with colleagues, meeting new ones, as well as connecting and reconnecting with representatives of the various Caribbean destinations. Two years had passed since my last Caribbean Week appearance, in 2016, when I was honored with the Marcia Vickery Wallace Award.

Because I’m one of few US-publication journalists actually based in the Caribbean (currently living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and prior to that, Belize, and Jamaica), it’s important to show my face and network once in a while. It’s also a great time to catch up on the various islands’ latest and greatest.

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The CTO Media Awards Dinner

A week before the event, the CTO reached out to award finalists and asked for a video of no more than 45

seconds, explaining what our award-nominated piece was about and what winning the actual award would mean to us. So, of course, perfectionist-me got dressed properly despite the sweltering heat, got my hair and make-up done, and sent in a clip with proper audio that my better half helped record. After all, it would play on a big screen at the event, before all the Caribbean representatives, so it had to be done right.

The night of the awards dinner, select finalists’ videos were shown (mostly of the actual winners) but mine wasn’t. So here it is, because I am not about to let all that effort go to waste (ha).

 

On finding our own Caribbean stories (and journeys)

What did I mean at the end of my video clip about “finding our own journeys?”

When I headed to Curaçao last year, it was borne out of an assignment for a travel publication. I wasn’t required to go there to write it, but I felt uneasy about that, and about not having recent material. I always strive to create original content, and capture fresh images, while writing about a place in a manner that’s thorough, accurate, and respectful of that destination’s people and culture.

So I took a gamble on Curaçao and spent the fee that I was getting paid for the writing assignment to cover the expenses for my trip, since I wasn’t able to receive support from the destination’s tourist board. For those who don’t know, a great majority of consumer and trade writers’ articles on the Caribbean, aside from publications such as NY Times for example, are possible thanks to fully-funded press trips (group or individual) hosted by the destination through its public relations firm. But all too often, assistance is not available when like me, you’re on an individual assignment (budget constraints are usually cited), and publications rarely cover travel expenses anymore, except for a few select luxury travel magazines.

Last year in Curacao, chasing my own stories. Captured by a traveling family who wanted their photo taken, and we took turns.

What came of my bet on Curaçao? An abundance of stories, and serendipitous moments that led me to the right people and content. Perhaps it wasn’t even all serendipity – I was merely traveling the way I know how, seeking and digging into the topics (culture, adventure, history) that fascinate me, led by my experiences as a travel journalist, guidebook author (research and planning skills on fleek), photographer, and blogger for the last 7 years. I stumbled on multiple community projects, and met one creative individual after another, with each one of them connecting me to others. It’s such a fantastic feeling when you find stories that way.

I remember asking Nicole von Beusekom, one of the interviewees quoted in my CNN article, if anyone had written about their Street Art Skaloo art project in a major publication. She’d given it some thought, and said: “No, not yet. But maybe you’ll be the first?” We’d both smiled. I knew I’d surely try, because their art mural project, renovating a previously drug-ridden colonial neighborhood and breathing new life into it, was too inspiring not to share with the world.

I returned home, completed my initial assignment with ease, and then pitched and sold additional articles based on the stories I uncovered while there, including the CNN piece that was nominated for a CTO Award this year. I recovered all of my fee from the initial project, and even profited from the trip.

The slideshow below shows a selection of my Curacao photography portfolio.


When I was notified that the CTO’s judges panel had selected my piece as a finalist from the hundreds of submissions in the popular “Virtual Visitor Award” category, my first thought went to the making of my article—which would not have been possible if it weren’t for the chance I took, but also for the amazing people of Curaçao. The ones who were so open with me when I approached them asking questions, and thanks to whom I was able to tell the story. They trusted me when I walked off the street and introduced myself as a travel journalist, even when I showed up all sweaty and dishelved from exploring the city on foot for hours. They gave their all to show me their projects, community, passion, and tell the history of their island. I had just one confirmed assignment, but I was planning to land more from the trip and they had faith in that. I remember how quickly I was connected to Marcel Dennert, Managing Director of Curaçao’s Monuments Foundation, who spent an entire afternoon with me, impromptu, to tell me all about Willemstad’s architecture, history and UNESCO designation in detail. The near two-hour talk in his office extended into a one-on-one walking tour through renovated sections of the city’s colonial neighborhoods.

The day I stumbled on the Street Art Skalo team, with visiting artist Alex da Silva.

Marcel Dennert giving me an impromptu, informative walking tour around the Curacao Monuments Foundation’s renovation work in Fleur de Marie, one of Willemstad’s colonial neighborhoods.

My second thought went to the fact that despite the initial financial hurdle (Curaçao is an expensive destination, so without hosting and no time or help to directly contact hotels, I ended up staying in AirBnBs, which were affordable and perfect for my research trip), I managed to accomplish my goals and was the first to place Curaçao on CNN Travel (and also placed it on Lonely Planet, among others).

Lastly, my mind drifted to how even more incredible results could be achieved if our travel industry could put aside the traditional press trip model and put more faith in independent consumer travel journalists (with an established track record, of course), giving them ample room and time to sniff out their own stories and carve their own paths in-country. Like a recent destination did with me recently, letting me design my own itinerary based on my niche topics of Caribbean culture and adventure for a set number of days (and then to that, I added my own extra time). That’s what produces unique content. That’s what travel editors end up loving and assigning immediately. And that’s what leads to a win-win for everyone—destination, writer, and most of all, our beloved Caribbean region.


Thanks to the CTO for supporting the media every year with these awards, to the judges on the CTO panel for selecting my Curaçao piece as a finalist, plus a big hurrah for all my colleagues who went home with an award.

And cheers to another year of writing, photographing, finding and telling my own Caribbean stories.

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning writer, photographer, guidebook author, and blogger specializing in the Caribbean region. Her work has been published in major travel publications, including CNN, AFAR, Delta Sky, Lonely Planet, Shermans Travel, and BBC, among others. A self-professed "culture-holic," Lily left her native Ethiopia at age one, fast developing a passion for the expat life. In 2008, she ditched her US corporate law career for the road and created Sunshine and Stilettos— a travel photography blog showcasing authentic ways to experience the Caribbean, through culture and nature. Lily has since partnered with multiple travel brands and Caribbean tourism boards, and also authors major print guidebooks on three Caribbean destinations, including Belize, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. She is the 2016 recipient of the Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism from the Caribbean Tourism Organization and Jamaica Tourist Board.

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2 Comments

  1. Lola 13 June, 2018 at 6:04 PM #

    Congratulations Lily and so glad you posted the video!! Looking absolutely smashing as always! <3
    Loved the backstory of your Curacao journey and story.
    Congrats once again and see you soon!

  2. Lebawit Lily Girma 13 June, 2018 at 6:23 PM #

    Thanks so much, Lola! I am counting the weeks I tell you – cannot wait to see you at TravelCon!!

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