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Travel professionals listen to a lecture at the Women in Travel Summit
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In honor of Women’s History Month in March and International Women’s Day on March 8, let’s talk about women and tourism!

Often, stories about women and traveling are from an individual perspective. How to stay safe, how you’re treated differently in another culture as a woman, and so on. While these stories are important and we should keep telling them, they aren’t the only discussions we should have about women and tourism.

This post will be more about the social, political, and economic effects of women in tourism, specifically women working in the travel and tourism industry. It won’t be an individual woman’s travel story, but instead a discussion of the broad trends and features of gender equality in tourism.

I also want to highlight the huge impact the travel industry has the global workforce – given how hard tourism is being hit right now due to the spread of COVID-19.

In this post I’m going to explain three things.

  1. How women are the driving force behind the global travel and tourism industry
  2. Where opportunities lie for women’s empowerment in travel and tourism
  3. How, despite their large representation and opportunities in the travel and tourism industry, women still face significant socioeconomic barriers in this space

Let’s dive in.

Related: A Belgian Experiment in Democracy

Women Drive the Global Tourism Industry

Women make up between 60-70 percent of the labor force in travel and tourism. There is a higher proportion of women and young people in tourism than there is in any other sector of the global workforce. Airbnb reports that women make up 55 percent of its worldwide community. These numbers are only meaningful, however, if we take the size of the tourism industry into account. In 2018, the tourism industry

  • Contributed $8.8 trillion to the global economy, generating 10.4 percent of all economic activity
  • Created 319 million jobs, or one in ten jobs globally
  • Grew at a rate of 3.9 percent in 2018, the second fastest-growing sector in the world (manufacturing was first, growing 4 percent).

Travel and tourism creates more jobs, contributes more money, and grows faster than healthcare, information technology, and financial services (which is maybe why so many countries are worried about their loss of tourism revenue during this novel coronavirus pandemic).

woman serving hot chocolate and cakes
There is a higher proportion of women and young people working in the travel and tourism industry than in any other workforce.
Attribution: photo by byronv2 under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

As you can see, tourism makes up a significant chunk of the global economy. Tourism matters, so women’s participation in its labor force matters as well. Without women working in travel and tourism, some countries would see huge losses to their travel sector. In 11 out of 19 G20 countries analyzed by the World Travel & Tourism Council, women worked in travel and tourism more than in any other workforce.

Opportunities for Women in Travel and Tourism

Women are integral to travel and tourism. Which jobs are women doing in tourism? What further opportunities are there for them to advance their careers, if any? While it’s true that women make up between 60-70 percent of the labor force in travel and tourism, the jobs they take are often low-paid, low-skills positions. This reality is reflected in the World Bank’s reasons for women’s higher chances of gaining employment in tourism:

  • Tourism places less emphasis on formal education and training and greater emphasis on hospitality and personal skills
  • Travel jobs tend to have more part-time, flexible, and remote-working options
  • Entrepreneurship in tourism often doesn’t require a lot of start-up capital
  • More opportunities are available through the sharing economy via online platforms like Airbnb and Uber

Not only do women have better job prospects in tourism, but they also have more chances to run their own business. Travel and tourism has twice as many female employers as any other sector across the world. Women own more than half the tourism enterprises in Latin America. In Panama and Nicaragua, it’s even higher, with 70 percent women-owned travel businesses.

UN Women support women entrepreneurs in Guatemala
Participants in UN Women’s Joint Programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women, which empowers rural women to grow their businesses and save money for their families. These women operate their businesses in Aldea Campur, Alta Verapaz, Guatelmala.
Attribution: photo by UN Women shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license via Flickr

Women are more likely to run private organizations and NGOs in travel and tourism than in other industries as well. Government ministers in tourism are more likely to be women than other policy areas. The potential for women’s empowerment through travel and tourism is there, giving women the chance to lend their voice in the industry. Despite these opportunities, though, challenges to reach gender equality remain.

Related: Traveling in Europe – What is the Schengen Area?

Challenges to Equality in the Travel and Tourism Industry

Full empowerment of women and gender equality are still lacking in the sector in some parts of the world. Although there are statistics showing women’s leadership roles in travel and tourism, the group Equality in Tourism presents a different picture with their 2018 survey. In the 58 international companies they sampled, the percentage of women on boards was 23 percent. Women make up a significant chunk of the tourism labor force, yet they are underrepresented at the most senior levels in the sector.

female hotel receptionist
Women make up 60-70% of the travel and tourism workforce worldwide.
Attribution: photo by John Ragai shared under a CC BY 2.0 license via Flickr

The World Bank also found that women working in tourism more often do lower-paid, gender-role stereotyped jobs. Spa, clerical, and cleaning jobs are common examples. There aren’t as many women in higher-paid professions, like tour guides, chefs, land-and-water transportation. Women aren’t in senior technical and managerial positions as much, either. The reasons listed above that explain why working in travel is easier for women also account for limitations to their empowerment.

On the one hand, travel jobs tend to afford more flexibility. On the other hand, flexibility translates into temporary, seasonal, or even informal work that leaves women in precious economic situations. Travel jobs also don’t require as many start-up funds, but women’s limited or lack of access to financing disqualifies them to start and grow a business completely.

Human Rights at Risk in Tourism

In addition to these labor force inequalities, women’s human rights are at risk in the tourism industry. The World Bank notes that in some countries, tourism is a means for prostitution or child trafficking. Furthermore, women engaged in informal professions that are common in travel and tourism, like homestays and handicraft activities, have no protection for their wages or for obtaining healthcare. In addition, positions in hotels, catering, and other service sectors can be strenuous. They often require women to stand for long periods of time or come into contact with people who are unaware of their cultural norms.

Basic rights to dignity, respect, safety, and fair wages are often violated in travel and tourism. Without more protections in place, women will continue to be unequal to men in terms of rights and empowerment.

Woman speaking at UN World Tourism Organization event
The UNWTO’s launch of the Global Report on Women in Tourism on 6 November 2019.
Attribution: photo by World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license via Flickr

Empowering Women in Travel and Tourism

Experts and analysts seem to agree that travel and tourism, as a sector, provides opportunities for women’s empowerment. But there are still barriers to realizing their agency and equality fully. International organizations and policy experts have developed recommendations to overcome these obstacles and empower women more fully.

UN Women and the UN Global Compact launched the “Women’s Empowerment Principles” (WEPs) to raise awareness about business practices that will empower women. The platform Gender Responsible Tourism built on the WEPs with their six pillars. These focus specifically on the travel industry. The six pillars are:

  1. Promoting the quality, as well as quantity of women’s engagement in the tourism sector
  2. Promoting equal access to opportunities in tourism for women
  3. Promoting a fair and equitable sharing of benefits from tourism
  4. Upholding the rights of women employed in tourism
  5. Opposing commoditization and others forms of gender-based exploitation in the tourism sector
  6. Promoting women’s voices and leadership
A female tour guide in St. Lucia
Tour guides have traditionally been men, but more and more travel companies, like Trafalgar, are employing women as tour guides. This woman is a tour guide in St. Lucia.
Attribution: photo by JD Lasica shared under a CC BY 2.0 license via Flickr

Women in Tourism – More Left to Do

According to experts, gender equality in travel and tourism can be achieved broadly in several ways:

  • Breaking down sociocultural gender biases
  • Enhancing women’s training and access to entrepreneurial resources
  • Closing the pay gap
  • Creating women’s awareness of their legal rights in tourism employment
  • Promoting women’s participation in planning, project development, and decision-making in the industry

This is by no means a comprehensive list of actions to take for equality in tourism. But it’s a great place to start. Women are essential to the global travel and tourism industry. There are opportunities for their empowerment and the realization of gender equality, but there’s still much to overcome.

When it comes to gender equality in travel and tourism, this post only scratches the surface. There are many more resources, organisations, and individuals out there studying and actively promoting women’s empowerment in tourism. Scholars have written a decent amount of academic literature on the subject, organsiations give out awards for women in travel, companies develop programs to support their female employees’ professional development, and more.

Here are some great resources if you want to explore more:

Got some other resources to suggest? Leave links in the comments!

Featured Image: photo by Women in Travel Summit by Wanderful

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Welcome to All Abroad

Thanks for stopping by! My name's Courtney. I'm a travel and politics writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I write about travel, culture, expat life, and food & wine - infusing a bit of politics into each. Learn more about this blog here.