Engendering Tourism Beyond Numbers

Written by Semina Diakopoulou

Tourism is commonly seen as a strong medium of empowerment for local communities. It is an industry that can provide both direct (hotels, restaurants, travel agencies) and indirect employment (municipal authorities, medical institutions, security services) to a local community.

Tourism employment consists of high involvement of women. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the participation of women in the hotel and restaurant service industry is approximately 55.5 percent globally, and in some regions reaches up to 70 percent. That makes tourism industry the third labour force in the world for women, after education and health work (Baum, 2013). The UN committed to sustainable tourism in their political agenda as it can contribute to the achievement of SDG 5. In 2010, UNWTO presented an Action Plan that consists of objectives regarding poverty reduction and gender equality such as ‘build international awareness about opportunities for women in tourism’ (UNWTO, 2006). 

Tourism can be beneficial to women in very different ways. For instance, in developing countries women with limited access to education are more likely to find a job in hospitality businesses than any other industry. Additionally, thanks to flexible working hours, part-time, and shift work in hospitality businesses it is helpful for women to combine work with household responsibilities. Through employment tourism can increase women’s standards of living, influence their socio-economic position within the wider community and most importantly they gain confidence and more control over their own future. For instance, women workers in the tourism industry of Central America discussed how earning their own income contributed to the decision making in the household.

Another example of women empowerment through tourism is about few Maasai women in Kenya. ‘Ol Lentille’ is a tourism business with safari lodges and offer employment to locals including women. The business works together with Maasai women in a variety of positions. For instance, few women are responsible for building and hosting a craft manyatta (Maasai belts) for their guests and they are also trained to be the guides and keep the accounts. Another Masai woman is now acting head of the spa, fully trained, and she is the first woman to have a driving license. They provide to the women training in book keeping and in developing a women’s investment plan. In conjunction with the African wildlife foundation they have helped the women set up an egg project to supply Ol Lentille with all their eggs and to market them elsewhere. Besides economic effects, women are also getting more socially empowered. Ol Lentille have a large medical program which involves five women (as well as men) being trained as community health workers. They have had to learn to ride bicycles, to attend training sessions and be able to go into the community to work with HIV/AIDS patients and a family planning program. Women now regularly attend HIV/AIDS awareness sessions (Ampumuza C. Van der Heijden F., et al., 2008). 

Tourism industry has indeed demonstrated its potential for generating jobs and for women in local communities. However, do high numbers female employment equal to women empowerment? Is employment itself the only indicator of equality? Do women have equal opportunities within the workforce of the industry than men? 

It was not until 2013 that the first official report on the situation of women in the hotel trade, catering and tourism was produced (Baum, 2013). In a sample of 78 tourism companies, women only made up 15,8% of board members, and over 20% of the companies had no women on their boards (Equality in tourism, 2013).

Conducted research in Spain highlight gender variation across departments in hotels, with the female majority of the staff working in the kitchen (70%) and cleaning (95%) when men are found by 60% in management and organizational positions. The same research reveals that the reason men occupy most of the managerial positions is due to the requirements of a time availability. It is believed that women can dedicate less time to work due to the fact that they assume family responsibilities. This produces a vertical division by which women generally accept jobs with worse wages and working conditions than men, and a horizontal division according to which women are concentrated in the lowest paid jobs due to perception of certain gender roles that are based on stereotypes (Wong & Ko, 2009).  

Additionally, another limitation for women in tourism industry is the sex harassment and sex tourism. In 1995 the UNWTO adopted a Declaration on the Prevention of Organized Sex Tourism. In many tourism destination areas, the spread of prostitution has caused several cases of abuse and violence (ILO 2011). In San Francisco for instance, women were interviewed regarding the extent of violence they deal with. The results show that as adults in prostitution, 82% had been physically assaulted; 83% had been threatened with a weapon; 68% had been raped while working as prostitutes; and 84% reported current or past homelessness (Farley & Barkan, 1998). 

In order to transform the existing situation, it is not enough to generate employment for women. Difficulties of women in the market are not only regarding promotion or insertion but also facings bias and stereotypes that are against the female gender (Pastor, 2009). Therefore, the tourism industry as a promoter of employment for women would be good for women only if it ensured optimal working conditions within the framework of the principles of decent work from a gender perspective. In order to assure optimal working conditions, it requires a re-evaluation of the dynamics of work in the industry, to build a social protection mechanism, like insurance. To assure that women have equal opportunities to higher positions. Furthermore, governments need to implement employment analyses, per destination, to understand the realities of the women involved in tourism industry. Multiple variables such as economy, cultures, politics, social health, and more, can have different effect on women. Gender analyses need to be integrated into the value chain of businesses as well in that way we consolidate fair trade.

The aspiration towards decent work in the field of tourism must be developed with the capacity and political will to incorporate a deeper gender perspective in their agenda. That requires proper gender analysis in the thinking, development, practice and evaluation of the performance of the industry. Without a gender dimension and reframing of policies, women will continue to be exploited and any attempts to build a sustainable tourism industry will be failed. 


Ampumuza, C., Van der Heijden, F., Hendriks, N., Klunder, R., Mazurek, J., Van de Mosselaer, F., ... & Van Rumpt, I. (2008). Women empowerment through tourism. Wageningen University, Project Wageningen University, Netherlands, July.

Baum, T. (2013). International perspectives on women and work in hotels, catering and tourism. Geneva: OIT.

Equality in Tourism. (2013). Sun, sand and ceilings: Women in the boardroom in the tourism industry. Accessed28 April 2019,  http://equalityintourism.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/%2007/Sun_Sand_Ceiling_F.pdf

Farley, M., & Barkan, H. (1998). Prostitution, violence, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Women & health, 27(3), 37-49.

International Labour Office. (2011). Global employment trends 2011: The challenge of a jobs recovery. Geneva: International Labour Office.

Jayswal, D. K., & Jaiswal, M. (2015). Women’s participation and Tourism industry: An overview. Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 6(4), 269-273.

Keyser, H. (2002). Tourism Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Pastor, M. (2009). Las mujeres jóvenes en el mercado de trabajo: entre los datos y los discursos. En M. Astelarra (Coord.), Documentos de Trabajo Fundación Carolina (pp. 79-86). Madrid: Fundación Carolina. 

UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization). 2006. UNWTO's declaration on tourism and the millennium goals: Harnessing tourism for the Millennium Development Goals, Madrid: Author.

Wong, S. C. K., & Ko, A. (2009). Exploratory study of understanding hotel employees’ perception on work–life balance issues. International Journal of Hospitality Management28(2), 195-203.

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