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International Women’s Day 2012: Perspectives from Women in Tourism

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Assistant Editor’s Note: March 8th was International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate respect, appreciation, equality and love towards women worldwide. Recognized by the United Nations, this year’s theme was: Empower Rural Women – End Hunger & Poverty. Tourism, one of the largest industries on earth, is a fundamental lifeline and vital to the livelihood of countless countries globally. It possesses the power to stimulate and strengthen economies, create employment opportunities and foster financial security, in addition to battling poverty and building a stable future. In honor of International Women’s Day, we asked three female leaders in tourism to answer questions about the our industry’s role in empowering women.
The following is the response from Malia Asfour (Director, Jordan Tourism Board North America), Manal S. Kelig (Co- founder of Gateway To Egypt for Travel Marketing in the Middle East & Great Wonders of Egypt for sustainable travel to Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East), and Megan Epler Wood, Co-Executive Director, Planeterra. Biographies at bottom.

Can you discuss the role tourism plays in empowering and helping women worldwide?

Manal Saad: Tourism is an important and often-implemented method of attracting foreign money in many areas of the globe especially developing countries, it has been used to boost local economies while respecting and celebrating local culture. Women’s employment in tourism brings benefits at both micro and macro levels. At the macro level there is a positive correlation between female labour force participation rates and economic growth. At the micro level the participation of women in the labour force is beneficial for the welfare of the family (income, health, children’s education etc.).

Malia Asfour: Tourism in many countries is the largest export industry and fuels many economies. However, there is a lack of understanding by governments on the ROI from this industry and the need for investment in the industry both for manpower and site protection. The lack of understanding of the direct and indirect economic impact from tourism filters through different levels and on down to the employment issues. The industry is more male dominant and in some cases it has been a cultural issue with the lack of understanding what this industry is about. Women lack the knowledge on how to present the job to their parents/superiors in order to be part of the work place. In the Arab World, it is difficult for a young woman to get a job working in various parts of a hotel. For example, most of the housekeeping is done by men rather than women in Jordan. It is hard for parents to appreciate where their daughter has to start to climb the managerial chain! And it is hard for the woman to explain it if her parents’ education, or hers, is limited.

In Petra, a microfinance project was started for a group of women to learn how to make Nabataean pottery. They were given some finance from USAID and the seven women who were taught were empowered to teach seven more and these women all work together in the Taybet Women Cooperative. They sell their goods in a little gift shop, they provide pottery for the big hotel chains and they support their families, and they teach more women in their community. When you teach women a trade, they are able to teach other women and support so many members of their family. I believe NGOs and governments need to look at these types of opportunities that end up being a win-win for the industry, the gender and economy.

Megan Epler Wood: Tourism is the largest employer in the world after agriculture. Women often benefit greatly from tourism as they are able to fill many positions that were not available to them in the past on farms in more traditional societies. Women are moving in the world, starting small businesses, getting out and working in small stores, hotels and even as guides.  These positions empower women, educate them and give them opportunities they may have never had in the past. Women are much more likely to save their earnings from tourism and invest in their children’s education and health than men are, making the employment of women a high priority for local well-being.

The BOMA Project by David duChemin

Planeterra funds over a dozen projects to provide supportive solutions to local problems in travel destinations around the world.  Planeterra began focusing on women’s small businesses in 2005, by supporting a women’s weaving cooperative in Ccaccaccollo, a small village near the Sacred Valley in Peru. Most G Adventures groups visit this community to learn about weaving, hand-spinning and to participate in weaving demonstrations. Over 10,000 visitors now visit the co-op annually. Visitors have the opportunity to buy hand-loomed goods from the village every day, and Planeterra has supported the women to develop a strong cooperative, raised funds for their main community building that was wiped out by floods, and provided local training to improve the quality of their goods.

More recently Planeterra has chosen to support women’s micro-enterprises in Northern Kenya, to help local people survive severe droughts. In 2011, we raised $50,000 in two days to support the building of two water stations to help desperate refugees flooding across the border from Somalia. Now we are helping families with a long-term solution. Every donation of $360 provides a business group of three women a seed capital grant, business skills and training. This creates a circle of support that can feed, clothe and cover the costs of schooling and medical care for an average of 15 children. We have launched this effort by providing seed capital for eight small women’s businesses in 2012.

Do you think different types of tourism affect global women in different ways (i.e.: positively / negatively)?

Megan Epler Wood: Ecotourism and responsible tourism stress benefits to local people. The more local people benefit from tourism, the more likely it is that women will benefit.  There can be negative impacts of course. Sex tourism is the most negative trend and is very exploitative of women.

Manal Saad: In developing countries the challenge has been promoting tourism to stimulate local economic growth while offering jobs to different members of the local community and in particular women.

In many countries and regardless of the type of tourism involved, women are still facing challenges in tourism as they are still underpaid, under-utilized, under-educated, and underrepresented. Women are often concentrated in low status, [low] paid jobs. Gender stereotyping and discrimination mean that women mainly tend to perform jobs such as cooking, cleaning and hospitality. Also much tourism employment is seasonal and fluctuates according to the volatile nature of the industry. In some destinations links have been found between tourism and the sex industry which could make women more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Malia Asfour:  I believe it depends on the location and the type of tourism. Female trafficking is extremely negative and should be stopped. However, I tend to think that there are more positive effects on women in the global tourism arena, global travel allows women to meet women from other countries and cultures which could help empower women in the workplace. And as Manal says, at this stage and until governments begin implementing equality for gender pay and positions women tend to play the back role in the industry.

How do you think tourism, as an industry, needs to change or evolve to accelerate the empowerment of global women? What concrete steps can tourism organizations individually take towards this goal?

Malia Asfour: I believe we FEMALES in the industry need to do a better job at empowering more women. I know that when I go out and speak in front of audiences they are surprised that there is a female running a tourism board in North America for an Arab country who is Arab!  Imagine how the local women would feel if we/I spent more time in country telling them what we/I did and empowering them to do more… just a thought!

  • I believe governments need to look at gender equality, employment and payment in the workforce.
  • Managers should be given incentives to educate, mobilize and develop more managerial skills in the workplace for women.
  • NGOs and Associations should help educate and motivate women and empower them to take on new roles by showing what the economic affect will be on their well being.
  • Micro-financing projects for women need to be given support

Manal Saad: Tourism provides better opportunities for women’s participation in the workforce, women’s entrepreneurship, and women’s leadership than other sectors of the economy. If public sectors and mainly tourism policy makers integrate a strong gender perspective into the planning and implementation processes, tourism can be harnessed as a vehicle for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment at the household, community, national and global level. Also if tourism organizations would promote gender equality and women’s empowerment as fundamental components of their corporate social responsibility activities it will be a strong proactive step to mainstream gender equality in tourism policy.

Yet it has to be mentioned that many of these efforts will face a major problem in getting accurate data to work on. Many sources cite different percentages as a result of inaccurate reporting and the failure to record casual jobs that are often carried out by women, as well as marginal forms of employment in small family restaurants and unclassified hotels.

Megan Epler Wood:  Tourists spend more than $200 billion annually in developing countries.  No other sector spreads wealth and jobs across poor countries in the same way. Because of tourism’s impacts in poorer countries, people who are living on $1-2 a day have a greater chance of benefiting from the tourism economy than almost any other type of work! The share of tourism received in poor countries has grown from 32% in 1990 to 47% in 2010. This makes it one of the best industries to help the bottom billion, and poor women are very likely to benefit as a result.

The industry gives women many opportunities that would not be available to them otherwise.  This can be accelerated by the financing of more targeted training programs for women in hospitality, tourism development, tourism management, tourism policy and other ways to help women move from low level service jobs to tourism management. Financing women’s enterprises, such as Planeterra’s project to support a woman owned Inca Trail biodegradable soap enterprise in Peru is another way to empower and help women to help themselves.

What steps can consumers take to ensure they are engaging in travel that is responsible to women?

Megan Epler Wood: Consumers can be proactive by asking for women guides who are from local countries. Guiding has been a male province for decades, but more and more women are now becoming guides. Consumers should ask companies to be certain they have policies to protect local women from inappropriate behavior during trips and have responsible tourism guidelines for ensuring local women are fully respected by their guests. Making tourists aware of local cultural norms is critical.

Malia Asfour: Education, education, education!

  • More awareness of the importance of travel to local communities and genders needs to brought forward. When I took a group of journalists last year to the Taybet Women’s Cooperative, I had to wrestle with the guide to get us there because he had no clue what this was about, what to expect, etc… Now, he takes every one of his groups to the cooperative. It was a matter of introducing the guide to something new but also educating the guide on what this empowerment of women has done for their local community in the Petra region.
  • Tourism boards, tour operators, travel agents, guides, etc… need to be constantly reminded and educated on the value of women in the workforce and the importance of responsible tourism from all angles.

Manal Saad: I believe that greater gender equality will contribute to the overall quality of the tourist experience, with a considerable impact on profitability and quality across all aspects of the industry.

The first step needs to be from the side of the different tourism organizations. They should increase awareness of the important economic roles that women play in the tourism industry. They also need to push for strengthening legal protection for women in tourism employment: minimum wage regulations and equal pay laws, flexible hours, work-from-home options, and arrangements for childcare.

This work should be available for travelers to review and learn about and possibly be one of the factors that would encourage them to use a certain establishment or travel services of a certain tour operator.

What organizations can someone visit for more information if they’re interested in learning more or getting involved with the empowerment of women through tourism?

Malia Asfour: UNWTO and local NGOs in many countries are dedicated to help with the empowerment of women… There is the Women in Tourism  International Alliance (WITIA) database, at USAID might also be a good resource.

Megan Epler Wood: and

Can you comment on the current professional situation facing females in the tourism industry (which tends to have predominately male leadership) – both globally and in your home region?

Manal Saad: One of the recent studies of the UNWTO has stated the following:

  • Women make up a large proportion of the formal tourism workforce.
  • Women are well represented in service and clerical level jobs but poorly represented at professional levels.
  • Women in tourism are typically earning 10% to 15% less than their male counterparts.
  • The tourism sector has almost twice as many women employers as other sectors.
  • Women make up a much higher proportion of own-account workers in tourism than in other sectors.
  • A large amount of unpaid work is being carried out by women in family tourism businesses.

In the case of Egypt, the regional distribution of female employment indicates a preference for hotel jobs in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria which are the three main cities of Egypt located in the north. Around 60% of female workers are employed in accommodation facilities in these cities. Another 20% work in the four main tourist destinations, namely Luxor & Aswan in the south of Egypt, South Sinai and Red Sea areas (mainly Sharm ElSheikh and Hurghada). The distribution of female employment in the hotel industry by educational level indicates that almost 25% of women employees hold a university degree.

Data on the tourism business demonstrates that over 50% of female personnel are employed in the accommodation sector and mainly in five-star hotels; another 30% work in four- and three-star establishments. These figures show that within the hospitality sector, the three- to five-star hotels are the main providers of jobs for women who have relatively high educational qualifications. But this does not preclude the fact that hotel jobs occupied by women follow the ‘gender pyramid’ found in other sectors.  In fact, women tend to be in occupations with low career-development prospects, while managerial positions are male-dominated.

In 2010 the Egyptian government announced that the total cost of projects aiming at the enhancement of women is estimated to be about LE 139 million, of which 53% is to be directed to Southern Egypt and frontier governorates. The projects are in the sphere of education, health, poverty eradication and economic empowerment, in addition to social care, public awareness, information technology and tourism.

Megan Epler Wood: Tourism relies on many women to work in lower paid service positions, we have all seen this. Chamber maids and other women who are frequently immigrants work behind the scenes in the tourism industry. To build women’s opportunities requires dedication to education and training of women and hiring pro-actively. It also includes providing small loans to microenterprises and small and medium women-owned businesses that supply the tourism industry.

Malia Asfour: I am clearly not an expert on this subject and yet I am passionate about getting more women involved in our industry. I [researched statistics for Jordan’s gender breakdown in the industry] which (to be honest with you) were very shocking to me. I was blown away by how low the number of women working in this sector in Jordan really is. I have definitely witnessed a change and an increase but I did not realize how little it had changed on the ground.

  • I believe more needs to be done on gender equality in employment and the empowerment of women.
  • It is clear from the statistics that women need to be encouraged and I am encouraged that the National Tourism Strategy [in Jordan] is calling for the increase in employment of women by 15% by 2015. However, I am not sure that is enough! I would like to see the number of women in this sector increase because once a woman is empowered and develops skills, she will empower more women.
  • There are many success stories about how micro-financing projects have helped women develop and have fueled education and progress in many rural communities.


Manal S. Kelig is one of three co-founders of Gateway To Egypt (GWE) for Travel Marketing in the Middle East & Great Wonders of Egypt for sustainable travel to Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East. She received her B.A. in Egyptology & Tourism in 1992 from the Faculty of Tourism & Hotel Management Helwan University of Cairo. Upon graduation she pursued a career as an Egyptologist and guide, and also worked on a Masters Degree in Modern History. However, through her work she realized that there was a huge misconception, misunderstanding and stereotyping about the status of women in the Middle East and Islamic countries. This encouraged her to change course and chose instead to study the Public & Political role of women in Egypt during the 19th century, which became the subject of her thesis. Her research got her quite involved in various issues of women and the community on the national and international scale.

Since the operation of GWE in 2005, her work in the field of tourism along with her community development interests brought to her attention another urgent issue, which is the preservation of the cultural heritage of Egypt whether ancient or Modern. Since then, Manal and her partners became dedicated to operating only responsible travel to Egypt and the Middle East, and developing programs that foster a culture of peace between the travelers and the locals. In the past five years, Manal has conducted voluntary work with United Nations organizations, earned her PhD degree, and pursued more studies in the field of Peace & Conflict studies. Manal is a regular speaker in different events related to the travel industry and History & Politics of the Middle East.

Megan Epler Wood has long been a believer in the power of creating a new, more sustainable world through travel. Her career has been dedicated to proving just how powerful the travel economy can be for good. With Planeterra, Megan has seen the potential of working with travelers, and travel companies, to galvanize a real ethic and understanding for supporting long-term solutions in travel destinations worldwide.  Megan started on this path in 1990 when she founded The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), the oldest and largest non-profit organization in the world dedicated to making ecotourism a tool for sustainable tourism development worldwide.  Megan established her own consulting firm EplerWood International in 2003, which allows her to engage in profound ways with local people and sustainable tourism development in some of the poorest countries in the world, ranging from Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and India to Honduras and Brazil. Megan also currently lectures at Harvard University Extension on environmental management of international tourism development via a global, televised classroom.

Malia Asfour, Director of the Jordan Tourism Board in North America (JTBNA), began handling tourism for the Jordanian government in the U.S. as tourism attaché in Washington in 1995. She was a key participant in creating the country’s first tourism office in North America, which was launched in 1997. Malia moved to the US in 1990 and handled the press for the Jordan Information Bureau during the Middle East peace process. Malia currently serves on the board of directors of the National Tourism Association Services, Inc. (NTASI), she is a member of the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s (ATTA) Advisory Committee and also serves on the US Tour Operator Association’s Allied & Associate Committee (USTOA); the National Tourism Association’s Faith Tourism Advisory Council (NTA) and Tourism Cares Global Outreach Committee. She also served on the board of directors of the American Tourism Society (ATS).

Malia graduated with her BA in Public Communications from the American University and her MA in International Marketing from the University of Maryland. In 2002, Travel Agent Magazine nominated her as one of the most powerful women in travel.



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