To kick off International Women’s Day on March 8, we gathered another inspiring panel for our sixth Retravel Live: Women & Travel. Our founder, Bruce Poon Tip, was joined by responsible travel experts Alessandra Alonso (founder and managing director, Women in Travel), Becki Enright (founder, Borders of Adventure), and Meenu Vadera (founder, Azad Foundation / Women With Wheels) for an online conversation about travel’s ability to empower women all across the planet.
Our panelists discussed how travel can be a force for good for women everywhere — not just in the destinations we visit but those working in the tourism industry and travelling the world. Read on for our key takeaways and/or watch the full event recording below.
1. Reaching gender equality in travel is on all of us
Given that the theme of International Women’s Day this year is ‘Choose To Challenge’, Bruce asked each panelist how they would personally challenge the travel industry to change.
Alessandra challenges the industry to rethink how it attracts and retains female talent especially in leadership roles. Many women have left the industry in droves during the pandemic and may not return. She sees an opportunity to train and support marginalized and vulnerable women to take their place.
“Challenge yourself and look at the broader pool if you can, because there are a lot of women out there who are keen to work but don’t know where to start.”
Becki would challenge the travel industry to help change the stereotype of certain tourism job profiles as belonging to men and train women for these roles as well.
“One example is that I trek a lot but I’ve never had a female trekking guide. So there’s places where you have porters and guides but they’re traditionally jobs that are given to the men of the community. I’d like to see that ratio change.”
Meenu would also challenge the norms of unpaid care work at home falling mostly to women. Until men help 50/50 with housework and childcare, she says women enter the workforce on very unequal terms.
“[Women also need to] have a gender-sensitive infrastructure which means full-time creches, working women hostels, and safe and hygienic washrooms. There needs to be investment in all of this to encourage women to join the workforce.”
2. Educated women benefit the whole community
With this in mind, Bruce asked each panelist to share how they’ve seen women empowering other women in the communities they visit or support.
Meenu sees it firsthand in her social enterprise work running Women with Wheels in India, a program that trains marginalized women as drivers including airport pickups for G Adventures travellers. Even through the lockdowns, her foundation pivoted to delivering food and sanitary supplies to disadvantaged communities and expanded into e-commerce delivery. Not only did they not have to let go of any drivers, but have since hired 70 more women.
For Becki, her most memorable experience was a community homestay in Panauti, Nepal where the entire setup is run by women villagers. It gives them meaningful employment and put a new area on the map for visitors beyond Kathmandu.
“On top of what you get from it as a traveller by interacting with the community and seeing a different place, some of those tourism dollars then get pushed back into the community for education, for training and for the things that the community wants to see developed.”
Most recently, she also visited the Maasai Clean Cookstoves project in the Serengeti. The women-led program pulls in community tourism dollars to help combat traditional stove pollution which is a leading health concern in Maasai villages.
“They’re the engineers, they’re the heads of this enterprise and they are the face of changing this community issue.”
For Alessandra, seeing women empower others is close to home at Women in Travel. They give opportunity to survivors of domestic abuse, sexual trafficking and homelessness who often lack experience, skills and confidence.
“For us, economic empowerment is the beginning of everything. Because when a woman earns, then the kids get educated, the extended family eats and the whole community is much better off.”
3. Allyship is key to supporting women everywhere
Seeing as women represent a large part of the workforce in travel, tourism and hospitality, Bruce wonders what allies can do to better support women in the industry.
Alessandra says travel organizations need to put their own house in order first.
“If you want to be an ally to your black, minority, and ethnic traveller, it’s not just about the picture that you put into your brochure or onto your website. It’s about the number, and the opportunity, and the position, and the mentoring of your staff.”
“The other thing to remember is that we are all an ally to someone else.” It isn’t reserved for a stereotypical white male boss, we can all speak up for and support the women around us.
Meenu stressed that allyship is even more important now as we see domestic violence evolve as a disturbing shadow pandemic to COVID-19. When everyone is together in a one-room house, the typical phone helplines are of little use. Given what women may be going through now, she expects they’ll need more support when they can speak privately again.
4. Small group tours build confidence for solo travel
With two-thirds of G Adventures travellers being women on solo tours, Bruce wonders what it is about small groups that appeal to women most.
Becki breaks it down into three core reasons:
• it’s your best introduction to solo travel
• it offers increased safety in riskier destinations
• it builds camaraderie between fellow travellers
With plenty of free time, you can get a taste for exploring on your own with your guide still in reach. It also gives you a way to engage with people where it’s difficult without a local introduction due to language differences or cultural restrictions. She has even gone on to travel together with women she met on our tours.
Picking up on that idea, Bruce asks her for tips women can use to have a more immersive experience. She says it takes time but it’s all about research, forums and finding connections.
• Look for online forums as most local people love to help
• Consider couch surfing to meet your host’s friends and community
• Ask friends of friends for someone to connect with in your destination
5. Our panelists share great travel safety tips
Most of the questions from our viewers involved how women can feel safer in foreign destinations. Bruce asked our panelists for tips for both solo travellers and the women in the communities they visit.
• Spend time researching and dig deeper on off-limits areas and cultural etiquette
• For places you still want to go, consider hiring a local walking guide like she did in Cairo who shared insight on her life in Egypt and introduced her to a female archaeologist instead of a male one
• Book local experiences to see places you wouldn’t normally on your own
• Seek out women-led tours, experiences and organizations in your destination
• Check out the Gender Responsible Tourism site for resources
• Befriend local women for guidance and a safety net and ask how to return the favour
• Lean on local wisdom as it has a high premium to it
• Stay open to experiences led by men who are supportive and have feminist perspectives
• Make sure your tour operator is proactively ensuring your health and safety
Before wrapping up our insightful conversation, Bruce asked each panelist how we can learn more or help their foundations. Here are the links:
Site: womenintravel.cic | Donations: Women in Travel CIC
Site: azadfoundation.com | Donations: Women with Wheels
Site: Borders of Adventure
Want to learn more? Watch the whole thing here:
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