Empowering Women through Adventure Travel Bolsters Local Economies

20 March 2013
The three case studies below, from Africa and Latin America, reflect struggles in developing communities, but we know that there are plenty of unique and complicated issues around gender, empowerment and engaging the full spectrum of your employee community in all parts and regions of our industry. In an upcoming ATTA Member webinar on March 28th, we will be Navigating Gender Issues in the Outdoor and Travel Sectors, highlighting new research from the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition and offering essential tools, skills, concepts and building blocks for leveraging gender diversity as an essential element of a company’s success.

ATTA Member Companies Drive both Successful Businesses and Social Progress through Female-Friendly Workplaces

By Nicole Petrak

Friday, March 8th 2013 was International Women’s Day, and since we believe that tourism is one of the most important industries for creating social and economic change we wanted to highlight some members who have undertaken efforts to creatively work towards improving access, resources and empowerment for women at a grassroots level through their tourism businesses. We especially want to acknowledge their commitment and successes in building profitable businesses while creatively empowering women via solutions that are flexible to their individual environments. These stories may be  inspirational to us all to push ourselves to think what more we can do in our corners of the industry and the globe - and how these shifts might be the key to even greater success.

A page from Abenteuer's May 2012 Newsletter reads, "Pampering Bottoms

'Pampering Bottoms Helps the Bottom-Line' - Abenteuer Afrika Responds to Baby Boom with Family-Friendly Workplace

Despite having seven employees becoming pregnant near the same time, Pauline Tonnemacher, Strategic Marketing and Communications Director of Namibian tour operator Abenteuer Afrika, explains that instead of a sudden shift in daily corporate culture the small inbound company experienced a “gradual understanding of some of the challenges faced by working mothers and fathers.”

The company employees hatched the idea for an on-site nursery for the new infants during routine brainstorming sessions they call “Creative Mind luncheons,” and announced the new initiative mid-2012  in a “Baby Boom!” newsletter where they explained, “Although delighted, we also understood the challenge of all new working parents to find reliable, safe and convenient care for their children.”

Before and after photos illustrate the one of the uses the new recycling program has.

Tonnemacher noted that the progressive step to meet the needs of the new parents - which today, includes employing two on-site nannies - has positively impacted the company’s culture and helped retention; all of those who took leave are now back at work. But she added that the shift has impacted the company’s operations in unexpected ways as well,  saying, “We've also created more itineraries centered around families traveling with children:  family-friendly activities, shorter travel times, family-friendly accommodation.” This move places the company in a strong position to benefit from one of adventure travel’s most consistent recent trends: family and multi-generational travel. Abenteuer Afrika also organized a local recycling program making paper bricks for firewood and creating shopping bags from old newspapers and has utilized local women from informal settlements around Swakopmund as the project managers.

ApusPeru Supports Grassroots Change by Providing Flexible Work Conditions for Women

Ariana Svenson, with her 3 month old daughter Molly, with women (and babies) of Threads of Peru in 2010. “Before having a child, I had connected with the women of Threads of Peru – but after having Molly, our connection has been much deeper, especially with the women who were pregnant and had babies at the same time as I did. I was profoundly affected by the differences in the care that they received and that I had access to.”

When business partners Ariana Svenson and Fely Callañaupa Gonzales first created Apus Peru, they envisioned not only an adventure travel company providing quality alternative travel experiences but a place women could work flexibly and raise families at the same time.

Svenson explained, “We were determined that we would not be part of the endemic exploitation and non-sustainable practices within the Cusco region tourism industry. This meant that we provided flexible, child-friendly working environments to women so that they could have a job. I’m Australian, and I know that there is a strong move within the workforce towards flexible, family-friendly work environments - but even in Australia there is a significant resistance to such moves in conservative workplaces. In Peru, it’s unheard of to have flexible hours or to work around children/child rearing, so we felt that creating such an environment was quite unique. It’s been well received and we have cultivated and kept some great employees. The company, which boasts an entirely female leadership team, also employs 70 percent women among their office staff with flexi-arrangements. Svenson speaks to the challenges that both the company and the individual women face in providing a place to earn an income for women in a country where traditional female roles are quite restricted, noting, “Each one has different challenges and problems, but all overcome them to do a great job. After school, some days when you arrive at the office you are greeted by a gaggle of children who are playing in the client reception room.” She adds, “I sometimes feel that it must seem crazy and a little disorganised but hope that it means that the parents are supported.”

Assistant guide Hilda Callanaupa Gonzales participating in a mountain rescue course done by Apus Peru guides at the end of 2012.

Initially included in Gonzales’s and Svenson’s goals for the company was to provide Peruvian women who wanted to be adventure tourism guides a "chance,” an effort that has been met with limited success due to the “macho” attitudes that still pervade Peruvian society:

We have had only one outstanding female guide who worked for a long period of time leading treks. To begin with, the steps to becoming a successful trekking guide are a long process. Firstly, the individual completes either an institute (technical college course) or a university degree. Once they have completed this training, many young people need to get the required English language level before they can be considered for work with tourists. We have groomed several young women as adventure trekking guides, and they have worked as assistant guides but a range of factors has meant it didn’t work out. These factors include having children and male partners finding the work inappropriate, or simply that they can’t be away from home for the multiple nights necessary to be an adventure guide. Also, on the trail the guides are also the team leader and need to coordinate a team of cooks, porters and muleteers. Therefore, a female adventure guide needs to be able to lead an all-male team who can sometimes have very macho attitudes. This is an extra difficulty that female guides face and while not insurmountable, makes things more difficult for them.

The one woman who was able to succeed as a lead guide for Apus Peru, Mayra Callo, is described by Svenson as a “special” individual who faced many difficulties to fulfill her ambition and carry out her work in an exemplary way. “I admire her determination, she faced a lot of challenges related to her gender and the way that (some) people in Cusco viewed her choice of occupation.” After four years as a guide, Callo had ceased after the birth of her son two years ago, and instead began a business providing local meals for trek companies, including Apus Peru. At the time of this article, she had returned to part time guiding and was on her first trek since motherhood, and gave us this reflection on guiding:

Mayra Callo pointing out points of interest on the Inca Jungle trek. Photo: Barry van Eyk.

It took me a while to guide in Cusco without any problem. When I started to guide Machu Picchu, the park rangers of Machu Picchu would stop me in the middle of my tour to ask me for my license. They were rude most of the times and very difficult to me. It was hard to deal with the crew, maybe because they thought I didn’t know the area or their traditions, but it was really the opposite because I have been travelling in the Andes since I was 15 years old and that is my passion. But nothing stops me in what I like most to do. So I kept hiking and leading groups with a lot of passion and joy. I like to explain what they are seeing, I like to make people understand that what they see is not poor people sowing potatoes, I like to introduce this special, different, unique and peaceful way of life. The importance of the family, the hard work and the simple life they have, how you can understand that nothing that we think we need, is necessary in your life. Whenever I have the chance I like to create opportunities to interact with the locals so they can see that they are not that different, they are moms, they are kids, they are elder people, they are just like us, in a different environment. I try to make people feel how powerful nature is and why our Andean friends believe and respect this. And finally, but not least, my goal is to keep my folks safe and happy.

Svenson said that her clientele widely loved the experience of having a female guide, especially the female travelers who felt more secure on the road in a mixed local group than an all male one. She plans to actively train more women this year in the hopes some of them will be able to prevail.

Women of Rumira Sondormayo at work as part of a Threads of Peru weaving capacitation workshop. Photo: Isaiah Brookshire.

Apus Peru furthers its commitment to local women via a $15 per client donation to an NGO they created in 2009 to help revitalize traditional textile practices and create income for the indigenous Quechua women that make them. Together the two founders teamed up with Canadians Adam Foster Collins and Angie Hodder to create Threads of Peru, which supports weaving associations in two communities where Apus Peru operates. By marketing the textiles for the women, the organization was able to sell approximately $10,000 from the communities of Rumira Sondormayo and Chaullacocha between 2011-2012. This is a direct cash injection into the hands of the women in the community and supplements their subsistence lifestyle while allowing them to live within their traditions.” Svenson added, “International development studies show that when women receive their own income, the health and well-being of their children improves at a much faster rate than when men have sole control of the family’s income.” In 2013, Apus Peru and Threads of Peru will fund the construction of weaving centers in these two communities, offering a comfortable meeting place for the women to weave together and learn from each other, and also providing a location to receive visitors to the communities and educate them about the weaving tradition.

Helping Tanzanian Women Break into Tourism, Craft and Guiding Work

Zainab Ansell of Zara Tours.

Zainab Ansell, Director of Zara Tours in Tanzania, believes that ecotourism development plays a critical role in the promotion of women’s empowerment in developing nations. “Generally men and women [here] are equally impacted by tourism. Women’s importance in the industry is often minimized or referenced primarily in terms of sex work.... [The goal] is to diminish the gap between women and men in terms of capacities, access to resources and opportunities, and vulnerability to violence and conflict.”

Zara Tours, in teamwork with its Non-profit organization Zara Charity, plays a vital role to enhance community economic development especially by supporting vulnerable groups in the community, such as orphans, the Masai women’s group and poor people, as well as porters who climb Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. Ansell describes the traditional challenges for local Maasai women:
Maasai women are clearly inferior to the man and have little opportunity for advancement without help. This inferiority is exemplified by several traditions. First, at an age of sixteen, the girls are traditionally sold by their parents for a price in between 5-50 cows to mostly older husbands. Men who have a lot of animal property or a superior task in the community as chiefs can have as many women as they want - up to 20 wives are thereby not rare. Then, the women have to build their own hut, where she will live with the children and some little goats. Her only property consists on the cattle which she has to take care of. When the animals are slaughtered, the best parts will be eaten by the man and the worse parts of meat will be distributed among the women. Once married, there is rarely a way out [for these women] as divorces are not accepted.

Zainab explains that education can be challenging for both genders -  many of the children have to overcome a distance of up to forty kilometers one way to get to school, making regular attendance problematic. Girls are dramatically underrepresented in schooling by less than half their male counterparts and by the age of 15 most of them have failed to finish primary education - rendering them “useless” in the community labor force. Ansell argues that through Zara Charity, training and employing large percentages of women at comparatively high wages in tourism will help improve the relative economic well-being of women. Until now, the organization has relied mainly on practical training for girls through the Mkombozi Vocational Training center where they are recruited for three months of field training and then go on to work in Zara’s businesses and hotels in Moshi, Karatu Ngorongoro and Serengeti. “This all leads to skills improvement and capacity building but also [helps the girls with] partnerships and networking. Between [the year] 2000 and now, we have trained a total number of 74 girls and employ 24,” she explains.

"You don’t see or hear of many women porters on Mt. Kilimanjaro," says Ansell.

She admits however, “In terms of formal employment, local women are often overlooked when other hotels, lodges and other tourist sites are developed. In many contexts women miss out on formal employment opportunities in tourism because social norms continue to restrict the type of economic activities in which women may engage.” Zara Charity is looking to expand its ability to offer vocational training in tourism, hotel management, arts and crafts and community development in a safe environment for women. By selling handicrafts from women in the program at their hotels, they’ve purchased 10 acres of land and accumulated $80,000 and are currently in talks with “friends and donors” to build their own center.

Ansell also says, “We believe that we will give them hope and sustainable employment opportunities. We expect to start by recruiting 50 students in each course for a total number of 200 students. We hope that by reducing 200 unemployed girls each year, after a few years to come we will have a Maasai community which is skilled and employed for livelihood sustainability and hence reduce the poverty and dependence ratio. Many of the girls we met during our visits to their locality were looking for a way out, but have no other choice.”

Like Apus Peru, Zara Tours is also attempting to help local women break into adventure tour guiding careers by supplying those with the right skills, additional English and first aid training and by getting them used to the mountain with regular porter jobs. Ansell says,
You don’t see or hear of many women porters on Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s generally a man’s world on the mountain, as most of the women are at home, working on the farm, taking care of all the children, going to the market and to fetch water. But [we’re] hoping to one day enable them to be the guides. Most [female] porters want to become a guide, as you don’t have to carry much, the money is better, and [they can] interact with people from all over the world. One lady porter told me: "If I improve my English I might be able to work as a mountain guide some day. But it would be even better if I could build up my own tailoring business. Then I would always be near my children.”


We want to hear from you if you have stories to tell of your own! We are sure there are more out there and by sharing together we can empower more women through adventure travel.