What should a royal visit look like? Why William and Kate’s recent trip might spark change for future tours
When Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, set off for the Caribbean recently, their royal visit was, among other things, billed as an opportunity to celebrate local culture and commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years as monarch.
Some also saw the first major overseas trip William and Kate have taken in more than two years as a bid to shore up ties between Britain and the Commonwealth countries on their itinerary: Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
In the end, however, the week-long visit drew more headlines for protests, the republican sentiment fomenting particularly in Jamaica, calls for slavery reparations and uncomfortable, potentially tone-deaf moments that seemed more rooted in the past than looking toward the future.
“I think they’ve gone backwards, actually,” British PR expert Mark Borkowski said in an interview. “It felt slightly colonial, the whole exercise.”
Take, for example, the moment when William and Kate, dressed in white, rode in a military parade in an open-top Land Rover, a nod to a ride the Queen and Prince Philip took in the same vehicle more than five decades ago.
“It was not a good image,” Borkowski said, likening it to something straight out of 1955.
Other images were happier. There were moments when people who came out to greet William and Kate were thrilled to see them, including one where, as the BBC reported, “wild cheers accompanied their every step and a walkabout at one point threatened to go out of control with excited people pressing them on every side.”
The trip also gave them a chance to focus on some of their key interests — early childhood development for Kate, conservation for William, among others — and have some fun at a regatta.
“It’s clear that the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was often appreciated at a local level when they were meeting local organizations or shaking hands with people in the various communities,” Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said in an interview.
Having moments on a royal tour that harken back to previous trips was no surprise — they’ve been a hallmark of such visits for generations. But now, they may seem out of place to some.
“When we see very visible aspects of continuity, such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attending a military review in … the same vehicle as Queen Elizabeth … and Prince Philip did beforehand, that continuity can make royal tours look rather old-fashioned,” said Harris.
And all that sets off a broader consideration for some about just what look is appropriate for a royal visit in a world where public perceptions are changing and there are deeper reckonings with the past, because of everything from Black Lives Matter to Barbados declaring itself a republic late last year.
“There’s been a debate about what a royal tour should look like in the 21st century and are these larger events still suitable in the modern context, particularly in countries where there is a lot of debate and discussion about the future of the monarchy and whether there will be a transition to a republic,” said Harris.
As William and Kate’s trip came to its conclusion, British reporters were acknowledging a changing landscape.
“At the end of the seven days, it feels like we are in a new era for royal tours,” wrote Sky News royal correspondent Rhiannon Mills. “It’s been a wake-up that the optics of the past no longer work, and there is no going back.”
ITV royal editor Chris Ship wrote that “always nodding back to outdated traditions leaves the monarchy open to the charge that the institution is out of date and backward-looking.”
“What is the point of royal tours in 2022?” he asked.
“Royal aides will need to find a way to reorientate these visits to Commonwealth countries and beyond, so that they focus overwhelmingly on the future and not the past.”
Harris sees the potential for future tours to more closely resemble what’s called a “working” royal visit, when members of the family undertake lower-profile trips tightly focused on particular regions and the work of specific groups and charities in local communities.
“It’s very clear that royal visits are very strongly appreciated at that level,” Harris said.
There is still no public word on whether there will be a royal visit to Canada this year, but Harris noted that the 2002 visit to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee came in the fall.