The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 12, 2017

Empowering women through international tourism: What we know and need to know

The United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, and for good reason. The tourism industry generates 10.2 percent of global GDP and employs 1 in 10 workers.

Women make up more than half of the tourism workforce, which makes the industry’s growth a unique opportunity to empower women across the world. But we need additional data to better understand how women intersect with this burgeoning industry.

Evidence shows tourism’s potential to empower women

Case studies on women’s participation in the tourism industry illustrate that, in the right conditions, tourism is an avenue for financial inclusion and social empowerment. Although the ways women work in tourism varies by region and culture, examples of empowerment through tourism have three central characteristics.

Transferring skills. The tourism industry is an entry point to the formal economy by allowing women to apply skills they have developed through unpaid care work or practicing cultural traditions. These transferrable skills include cooking, craft-making, and home management.

Developing new skills. Tourism provides opportunities for women to develop new technological, business, and vocational skills. The tourist-driven market for local pottery in Botswana allowed women with little formal education to receive on-the-job vocational training in pottery-making and sales, which they said increased their financial independence, confidence, and propensity for entrepreneurship.

The sharing economy has also increased the inclusion of women in the tourism industry, especially in roles where women have traditionally been absent, such as hosts, managers, and drivers. The largest example of the sharing economy at work in the tourism industry, Airbnb, provides a relevant case study. Fifty-five percent of Airbnb’s hosts are women, and they have earned $10 billion.

Sharing-economy giants like Airbnb and Uber are engaging with communities by training women in certain skills while helping them adapt to technologies like Facebook, WhatsApp, and e-mail. These skills will not only allow women to earn income, but also expand their economic horizon and opportunities in other spheres.

Forming partnerships. Partnerships between the public or private sector and communities can strengthen markets for tourism while facilitating women’s participation and empowerment. Airbnb, for example, partnered with the Self Employed Women’s Association in India to train women in hosting international travelers.

In Malaysia, indigenous women in tourism have benefited from the Orang Asli Development Agency’s creation of centralized handicraft centers within villages and the Forest Research Institute Malaysia’s work to measure the effectiveness and spread awareness of local herbal medicine.

We need to know more about women in the tourism industry

Despite case studies and descriptive analyses indicating the potential for tourism to empower women, few empirical studies support these cases. The sector’s informality poses a major challenge in accomplishing empirical studies.

Many contributors to the tourism industry are either not formally employed or their contribution is not well reported. Economic activities in the tourism industry are often intertwined with other sectors, which makes empirical estimation harder.

For example, the textile market has been a part of both the tourism and manufacturing industries, and estimating textile sales because of tourism alone is tough. This underlines the need for additional empirical investigation to ensure policymakers, development organizations, and potential private-sector partners understand how women can benefit from tourism.

Data collected on tourism should also be disaggregated by sex. The Global Report on Women in Tourism 2010, a publication by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, is the first and latest effort to quantify how women participate in the tourism industry.

The tourism industry and the corresponding technological landscape have changed significantly, and new analysis is long overdue. Thorough study of tourism’s economic and social opportunities can highlight how the industry can best empower women around the world. These new analyses can make important contributions to decisionmaking in both the public and private sectors.

An improvised craft market is set up for the arrival of tourists in the camp Batawana, outside the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. Photo by Sergi Reboredo/VW Pics/UIG via Getty Images.

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