Tourism is one of the industries which has been most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with unprecedented restrictions being placed on international travel. This has caused local and regional economies to be pushed to the brink of collapse, as well as having unforeseen consequences such as allowing over-exploited wilderness areas a chance to recover.
From a women’s empowerment perspective, the dramatic contraction of the tourism industry is particularly regrettable. Prior to the pandemic, tourism had been identified as a powerful force enabling the pursuit of the gender parity agenda and in the creation of meaningful economic opportunities for women.
The importance of tourism in enabling women
As vaccination programmes are rolled out, the first glimmers of hope are being seen of a gradual upturn in tourism. However, there are real questions as to whether it can return in the same form as before. Only time will tell. In the meantime, let’s take a look at why it matters that this industry recovers.
Tourism creates jobs at every level on the skill spectrum, from service to management. It is an example of a sector where women were in fact over-represented (although typically in lower-paid roles, such as waitresses, receptionists and housekeepers).
The wider benefits of tourism
Nonetheless, tourism provides workforce participation opportunities, which in turn can inspire or empower women to begin their own enterprises. Tourism can lift entire local economies – it brings an injection of foreign currency and often, governments will respond by improving or adding infrastructure such as roads and regional airports.
Tourism can also act as a stimulus to entrepreneurship at a micro-enterprise level: craft shops, cafés and service companies all find ready markets among tourists and the hotels and lodges they stay in. Again, many of these roles are aligned with women’s strengths.
Tourism can revive or reinvigorate indigenous cultures – again, many aspects of the expression of cultural heritage fall within the traditional sphere of women’s activities.
How women gain from tourism
Through working in tourism, women can acquire new skills which will stand them in good stead when they branch out on their own. These new aptitudes can include administrative and financial management skills, as well as the ability to speak foreign languages.
Exposure to tourists from different (and often richer) countries will give women a better understanding of the service standards that they expect, and how to ensure they are happy customers. In addition, this exposure can be immensely inspiring – by meeting successful women from countries where equality of opportunity is more of a given, local women’s sense of worth and potential will be reinforced.
Particularly where women work for organisations catering to overseas visitors, they are likely to receive training that will facilitate their own entrepreneurial activities.
In short, tourism is unique in that, perhaps more than any other economic activity, it employs more women (at every level within both private and public sector organisations), inspires more women to be entrepreneurs, and enables more women to acquire economically productive skills. In almost every country with a meaningful tourism industry, the percentages of women who are economically involved is higher than that of men.
When the tourists stopped coming
The flipside of these advantages of the tourism industry are that when it suddenly ground to a halt in March 2020, millions of women around the world (and especially in emerging economies) lost their livelihoods with little prospect of alternative employment.
Although tourism has begun what could be a long, slow recovery, there is an urgent need in many countries to find alternative sources of income for women who were previously employed in hospitality and related services industries.
The way forward
This could be an increased emphasis on local tourism (although this is unlikely to generate the same levels of revenue and employment opportunities as international tourism). Equally, the sea change in tourism could prove to be an example of an opportunity within a crisis – without the crutch of tourism, women who were previously employed in the sector will have to rely on their own resources and those of their communities – and this could just be the ultimate spur to increased entrepreneurial activity by women. It may well turn out that necessity, not opportunity, is the mother of economic reinvention.