To celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8, I’ve decided to do my bit to spotlight the role of women in tourism. In this round-up, I profile nine female-focused travel companies and speak to four incredible women who are changing the face of the travel industry.
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Women in tourism
Women assume many roles in tourism: As leaders, innovators and business owners, as teachers, trainers and guides—and, of course, as tourists. Women account for the majority of the global tourism workforce, but tend to work in low-paying, informal and low-status positions. Wherever I travel, I’m constantly impressed by women who challenge the status quo—often while defying cultural boundaries and social norms—to lead their own ventures and harness tourism as a tool for empowering their communities.
All around the world, some of the travel industry’s biggest changes and improvements are being made at the hands of women. Women lead efforts in ecotourism and socially responsible travel. Initiatives to encourage more women to enter the tourism industry often turn out to be game-changing innovations. Whether its providing income opportunities to women, mentoring the next generation of female leaders, or highlighting women’s role in history to foster greater respect, women are changing the face of tourism for the better.
For tourists like myself, travelling with women-focused companies can cultivate deeper connections, shine a light on the individual and collective challenges women around the globe face—and ultimately inspire us to give back to the communities we encounter.
Female-focused travel companies
Most if not all big travel companies now incorporate gender equality into their operations. At the same time, there are dozens of independent organisations around the world—many of them founded and led by females—that exist with the sole purpose of empowering women in their communities.
Here are 9 grassroots, female-focused companies and organisations that are changing the role of women in tourism from the ground up.
Tours in Colombia | 5Bogota.com
As Colombia becomes safer and more accessible to tourists, there’s a new opportunity to re-shape often misguided perceptions of the country. 5Bogota is one company that recognises the crucial role women must play in this ongoing process.
Based in Colombia’s capital city, 5Bogota aims to create deeper travel experiences via tours and activities that excite all five of the senses. The company was founded by three women—two sisters and their mum—and employs an all-female team of guides who showcase their culinary talents and abilities in salsa dancing, photography, and more.
5Bogota proves that women can offer something new and exciting to a traditionally male-dominated industry. The founders lead by example, showing other companies that women are more than capable of running a company, and building a new business ecosystem around women in tourism.
I asked Diana, 5Bogota Co-Founder, how her business is perceived in Colombia.
“I’ve found that the best partners to work with are led by women as well. I think there’s a code that’s easy to understand between us and make us stronger.”
“Colombia is still closed-minded in terms of gender. Leading a company here has been a big challenge—even harder being a young women. Sometimes people just can’t believe three ladies can handle everything, not just creating itineraries, but also working out all the logistics.
I’ve found that the best partners to work with are led by women as well. I think there’s a code that’s easy to understand between us and make us stronger.
I think travellers love to see our roles as mother and daughters. I believe women are the best at making a place feel warmer, and that’s what we do.”
Tours in Peru | EvolutionTreksPeru.com
Peru’s biggest tourist attractions, Machu Pichu and the Inca Trail, welcomed more than 1.2 million tourists in 2013. Just imagine the potential for impact if every one of those people had a chance to give back to the local community.
Evolution Treks was founded on the ancient Andean principle of Ainy, which stands for reciprocity, altruism, and mutual benefits. Thinking outside of the box to advance women in tourism in Peru, the company has spearheaded some pretty impressive innovations.
Evolution Treks was the first company in the country to employ women porters for its hiking tours. This act alone has created sustainable income opportunities for women who were previously excluded from this aspect of tourism. Not only that, but Evolution has gone above and beyond to ensure healthy working conditions for all its staff, both male and female. It is the sole Inca Trail operator that supplies porters with sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and camping tents, and uses lightweight gear in the place of heavy equipment. Company chefs cater to porters as well as guests (another first in Peru), preparing nutritious meals from organic products sourced along the trail instead of packaged foods.
Tours in Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria & Ghana | GirlsTrip.tours
Believing that the future of Africa is female, Girls Trip harnesses the power of tourism to empower the continent’s next generation of leaders. Founded by four women entrepreneurs, all heavyweights in their chosen fields, the company pairs unconventional travel experiences with a transformative mentorship program.
Alongside the usual sightseeing and outdoor experiences you might expect, Girls Trip’s custom tours to various African cities also involve dinner dates with high-profile business women, meet-ups with industry leaders, and other opportunities to hear from inspiring African women. Tours attract participants from around the continent, the African diaspora and international guests, who are all invited to give back through an exchange of knowledge and skills along the way.
Girls Trip tours raise funds for Girls MAP, a Mentorship and Advancement Program for teenagers across Africa. Internships, grants and study scholarships distributed through the program are designed to help young women reach their full potential, focusing on technology and coding to help Africa thrive in the digital age.
Seven Women & Hands On Development
Tours in Nepal | SevenWomen.org
Founded by Australian Stephanie Woollard in 2006, Seven Women was originally conceived as a small-scale project to assist a group of artisans in Kathmandu. It has since grown into a successful social business, providing training, education and employment to well over 5,000 women. Immersive tour itineraries that expose visitors to Nepal’s challenges and success stories shape visitors into advocates and change agents.
Seven Women and its sister organisation, Hands On Development, operate a fair trade clothing workshop, a guesthouse and a cooking school. The company puts strong emphasis on empowering disabled and marginalised women by training and employing them as tour guides and workshop facilitators.
Culture-oriented tours for school groups and independent travellers allow outsiders to connect with grassroots organisations in Nepal. Experiences centred on spirituality, language, handicrafts and culinary heritage are intended to give visitors a full picture of Nepali culture while also illustrating what meaningful change in developing communities can look life.
I spoke to Ritu Ghosh, Marketing and Partnerships Manager at Seven Women, about the changing role of women in tourism in Nepal.
“At present, there is not a single country in the world that has attained complete gender equality. Nepal, being primarily a patriarchal society where women are seen as second rate citizens, they are extremely underrepresented in the paid workforce and tourism industry, which is one of Nepal’s biggest GDP earners. Education and employment is their ticket out of poverty.
“In Nepal, tourism is a big industry. But without women, it cannot reach its full potential.”
In Nepal, tourism is a big industry. But without women, it cannot reach its full potential. Tourism can empower women and provide opportunities for them to improve their lives. Giving tourists both female and male tour guides is important too, as they will have a different experience in Nepal and fuller understanding of the country as they both share different perspectives from their lived experiences.
Tour companies operating in Nepal have a big opportunity to make a difference by creating their business around the question: ‘How can our tours enrich the lives of locals and tourists?’ And if they really wanted to make a difference, they would ask themselves one more question: ‘How can our tours uplift women by including them in our business operations?'”
Seven Women and Hands On Development offer immersive tours that include staying with a local family, a ‘Trek With a Purpose’ itinerary that matches hiking with social impact, and cooking classes at the Seven Women centre in Kathmandu.
Tours in Vietnam | YESD.org
Seeing the potential for sustainable tourism to be a positive force in Ha Giang, a remote province of far-northern Vietnam, friends Trang, Tuyet and Toi created their own social enterprise. YESD (Youth Employment and Society Development) highlights the role of young people and women in tourism.
Guided tours to Ha Giang and other parts of Vietnam are underpinned by YESD’s strict policies on responsible tourism. The company also runs a range of educational programs to promote sustainable travel among Vietnamese an international guests. This is quite a change for Vietnam, a country that’s now feeling the social and environmental impacts of over-tourism.
As part of its efforts to assist with development in Ha Giang, YESD offers training for local guides and homestay owners, helping families in some of the most remote and impoverished communities to become business owners. A portion of tour costs is set aside for a community fund and invested in infrastructure programs that benefit the entire village. YESD also facilitates volunteers and exchange groups to visit villages and pitch-in on community projects.
Read more: My experience travelling with YESD in Ha Giang.
Tours in Georgia | MadeByMySisters.com
Part handicraft social enterprise and part tourism company, My Sisters was founded with the explicit purpose of supporting women in Georgia. The female-run venture focuses its efforts on rural communities, where women are most threatened by poverty and labour migration.
The team visits remote parts of the country to assist artisans with product development and market access. Part of the profits from the sale of their artisan products is invested back into the community, improving living conditions and allowing for more women to be trained in handicraft production.
To complement their work with artisans, My Sisters started bringing tourists into the homes of the women they work with. They quickly discovered that sharing a meal with someone is the quickest way to cultivate mutual understanding and empathy. For women, hosting tourists is another income stream and an opportunity to be proud of their culture. For tourists, it’s a unique opportunity to experience a slice of daily life in Georgia.
I asked Anna Kharzeeva, Co-Founder of My Sisters, how tourism empowers women in Georgia.
“I think it’s important that women get to meet international travellers and feel that those people are interested in their lives and work.”
“Tourism empowers women in Georgia because it allows them to make money by working as tour guides, write blogs, and express their thoughts and opinions, as well as make money, get jobs in international hotels and receive good training. All of this is relevant for women in the city.
In villages, women can sell their arts and crafts, host guests in their homes, sell homemade food, or even run a small hotel or hostel. All this gives them the chance to make a living and (hopefully) feel strong and independent without leaving their home towns or villages and facing the risks associated with moving to the big city.
I think it’s important that women get to meet international travellers and feel that those people are interested in their lives and work.”
Tours in Croatia | Secret-Zagreb.com
Anyone who has visited Zagreb, Croatia will tell you it’s one of the most intriguing capitals in the region. Secret Zagreb helps tourists get beneath the surface via off-beat and interactive city tours—one of which showcases the role of women in Zagreb’s development.
Secret Zagreb is the brainchild of Iva Silla, who grew up in Zagreb and has dedicated her life’s work to cultural tourism, storytelling, and creating memorable experiences for visitors to her city. Among Iva’s imaginative tours is ‘Badass Women in Zagreb’—a walking itinerary that acquaints visitors with a lesser-seen side of Croatian history. The tour follows the footsteps of iconic figures—opera singers, resistance fighters, scientists, journalists—all women, and all pivotal in some way to the cultural and social evolution of the city.
Their role in history may have been overlooked or even erased, but Secret Zagreb breathes new life into their stories. Iva believes that learning more about the women who embodied self-conviction and stood in the face of adversity to break the mould will empower more of today’s women to do the same.
Tours in Jordan, Egypt & Morocco | ArchaeoAdventures.com
Founded on the conviction that women bring a different perspective to travel, ArchaeoAdventures employs female guides to lead its immersive tours in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The company’s founders coined the term ‘women-powered travel’ to describe a philosophy that empowers both women travellers, and locals in the countries they visit.
ArchaeoAdventures partners with women-owned local tour companies and makes a point of supporting other women-owned businesses. In doing so, the company empowers women to become equal wage earners. Expert women guides offer in-depth knowledge of their home countries and help travellers connect with other locals. It’s all part of an effort to break down barriers and give travellers a new outlook on women in the region.
I spoke to Genevieve Hathaway, ArchaeoAdventures Founder, Co-Owner, and Director of Operations and Marketing, what women contribute to tourism in the countries she works in.
“Oftentimes, travellers experience a new place mostly through a male lens because most the tourism professionals they interact with are men. In many cultures around the world, women are more removed from tourism and contact with travellers. Women are 50 percent of the culture, so travellers miss out on a big piece of understanding a place and its people. Spending time with a local woman feels like experiencing a place with a friend. You see the country and culture differently.
“Women are 50 percent of the culture, so travellers miss out on a big piece of understanding a place and its people.”
It’s important to have women equally represented at all levels of the tourism industry to add more voices and perspectives into crafting the experiences travelers have, as well as making sure more women have opportunities in tourism.
Women not only bring their unique and fresh perspectives to tourism, but they often bring the resources they gain in tourism back to their communities and reinvest it in their families and those around them. It has a ripple effect that goes far beyond employing women.”
ArchaeoAdventures tours are tailor-made for anyone who loves history, culture and adventure. Itineraries focus on off-the-beaten-path destinations and culturally immersive experiences.
Tours in Tanzania | MaggiesTourCompany.com
In a country where women in tourism is still a relatively new concept, Maggie Duncan Simbeye is a pioneer. The only Tanzanian woman to own and operate a travel company, Maggie was also one of the first women in the country to obtain her tourist guide credentials.
Now, Maggie is paying it forward by mentoring other Tanzanian women to advance their own careers in tourism. Safari guide training and employment empowers women to become their family’s breadwinner, creating inter-generational social and economic benefits.
As well as wildlife experiences and cultural itineraries, Maggie’s Tours offers ‘women-to-women’ tours, where travellers are given a unique chance to pursue meaningful interactions with local women. Maggie hopes that by exchanging stories and experiences with Tanzanian women, tourists will start to see her country through a different lens—one characterised by empathy and compassion.
Have you ever travelled with a women-led tour company? What other ways do you support local women when you travel? How will you be celebrating women in travel this International Women’s Day?