The Influence and Impact of Women in Adventure Travel

1 March 2022

It is a critical moment for women in adventure travel. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated much of the tourism industry around the world, with the worst impacts being felt by small organizations and by women. According to the United Nations, sustainability in travel and tourism cannot be achieved without gender equality and empowerment of all women; denying rights and access to opportunities from an entire gender stops humanity from achieving a sustainable world.

A new report released by Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), in partnership with Switzerland Tourism, describes the findings of a 2022 survey on women in adventure travel, as it concerns women employees, women travelers, and women in local communities. This report is the second in a series from the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) and Switzerland Tourism that discusses how the adventure travel industry can use the current interruption in travel to reassess their impact on the world around them and put sustainability first. The report is free to download on the ATTA’s website.

The report discusses what roles are held by women at adventure businesses, the types of benefits offered to employees to support a work-life balance and encourage leadership development, what adventure travel businesses are doing to serve the needs of women travelers, and learn how the adventure travel industry might be proactive about identifying and supporting pathways to success for women. 

A few key findings from survey respondents in the adventure travel industry include:

  • The percentage of board members identifying as women (34%), and the percentage of boards that have at least one woman (74%) have both decreased in the past 5 years.
  • Only 33% of companies with 2021 revenue of $5-10 million are led by women, and a slim 11% of companies with 2021 revenue over $10 million have a female CEO/top leader.
  • 35% of respondents have experienced sexual harassment or assault at work by a coworker. 30% have experienced sexual harassment or assault at work by a client or guest.
  • Overall, respondents were pleased with the level of equality in their own organizations. However, many view the adventure tourism industry and the overall tourism industry as only being “somewhat equal” in opportunities for men and women.
  • 23% of respondents have personally experienced or witnessed instances of gender bias in their own organization and 53% have personally experienced or witnessed instances of gender bias in the adventure industry.
  • Women comprise 57% of respondents’ clients on average, showing a clear demand for adventure travel. Products and marketing need to support this demand by listening to what women want and encouraging equity in all areas.
  • Organizations led by women are more likely to be concerned about team culture, product development, project management, and training & development. Men-led organizations are more likely to be concerned about technology.
The report discusses these findings in more detail, and spotlights ATTA member businesses that showcase the dedication and innovation that happens when focusing on women as guides, hosts, and as unique travelers with specific values and needs.

Download the Report Here


Making Women Leaders and Employees a Priority

Although women comprise more than half of the tourism workforce, and more than half of adventure travelers, they are much less likely to be present at the top levels of organizations. Only a third of board members are women, and although half of survey respondents’ CEOs/top leaders are women, they typically run smaller companies.

Only 33% of companies with 2021 revenue of $5-10 million are led by women, and a slim 11% of companies with 2021 revenue over $10 million have a female CEO/top leader. This means that the largest and most visible organizations in the industry are overwhelmingly led by men, who therefore have more access to resources and more influence. 

Overall, respondents feel their own organization is quite fair in the areas of professional development opportunities and equal pay, and do not see a large gender bias internally. However, it appears that many people see the wider adventure travel industry and the travel industry as a whole as being quite biased and unequal. As one survey respondent said, “The industry is equal except in management or positions of power.”

The high prevalence of sexual harassment and assault also has to be called out as a concern for the industry as a whole. Even for organizations that are led by women and employ mostly (or all) women, this is an issue that must be recognized and changed. Sexual harassment and assault is less likely to have occurred in organizations that have a formal mechanism for addressing these situations, but it is unclear if this is due to higher resources in general available to these organizations, a more formal team culture, or some other reason. This topic needs further research and guideline development.

Making Women Travelers a Priority

About 150 years ago, Lucy Walker was the first woman to reach the summit of the Matterhorn. Neither the gloating of men at the time nor the voluminous skirt she had to wear on the climb could stop her. But even today, female climbers and guides are in the minority.

Travelers are obviously an essential part of the adventure tourism industry, particularly women, which make up an average of 57% of respondents’ clients. Many organizations are taking actions to address the specific needs of women travelers, particularly hiring women guides, ensuring proper gear, offering products on trips that women request, and having women-only trips.

Outdoor women represented in advertising and the media are often young, slim, with long hair, and perfectly styled creating a biased assumption of who average women-adventurers are. Also, many may think that a 28-year-old male would be the average adventure traveler, when in fact it is a 47-year-old female, who wears size 12. These real women want to see themselves portrayed in marketing images, therefore, giving visibility and airtime to as many different types of women as possible plays an important role in creating a more welcoming and supporting travel environment.

Making Women in Local Communities a Priority

Women travelers often want to connect more with local communities, as they have a hunger to hear women’s stories and learn about their lives, to understand the local culture through a woman’s perspective. They want authentic connections with women from other countries through tours led by local women. This leads to opportunities for local suppliers and guides, but needs to be managed carefully. 

The gender gaps discussed throughout this report affect women in local communities serving as hosts to adventure travelers. In many cases, they have been impacted more by COVID-19 than travelers or industry organizations, particularly in underdeveloped tourism destinations and poorer countries. Women generally struggle more in these countries as they often have less access to capital and are paid considerably less than men.

A survey respondent said, “I've been leading an adventure tour operator for more than 20 years. I work very hard to train women adventure guides, because a high percentage of the guides still now, are men. I think women need to hear more from women that work in the business to motivate them to be part of this amazing lifestyle that adventure and outdoors mean in our lives!!”

This is one area where adventure travel can make a massive difference. By putting forth an effort to work with local communities and leave as much money as possible in them, adventure travel companies can increase women’s earning power, therefore magnifying the positive impacts. Supporting women in local government and encouraging participation in conservation efforts will also result in a more positive world.

Recommendations and Taking Action

The report concludes with recommendations on how to reduce gender gaps and increase equality in all areas of the adventure travel industry. A few examples include:

  • When looking at leadership, add more women to your boards, especially as you consider the global and business issues that differ between genders. This will allow a more balanced representation of priorities. In addition, when you consider succession planning and professional development, look to women in management in your organization as potential future leaders, especially those in larger companies. And lastly, reconsider mentorship programs–they may have become informal during COVID-19 but consider reinstatement if applicable.
  • While the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the tourism industry worldwide, its effects have been far worse for women, especially in developing tourism destinations. Adventure tourism organizations can make conscious programmatic choices to benefit women in local communities.
  • Be more inclusive in your organization’s marketing and communications. Travel advertising and the media often show young, slim, perfectly styled models in staged scenes. However, women travelers relate to “real women” who look like them, are similar in age or behavior, or who could be their best friend. Adventure travel needs to be welcoming to all by breaking away from prevailing stereotypes and showing as many different women as possible in varied, realistic roles and situations in life. Having women at the top levels of leadership is beneficial here, as they make the final decisions on how the creative team represents women.
The report also includes a “self-check” list of items compiled by Switzerland Tourism for organizations to use when taking an account of their current approach to women. A list of reading recommendations also is available to encourage more discussion. ATTA also coordinates a Women in Adventure Travel group on LinkedIn, and welcomes anyone interested in the topic to join.

Download Report Here

On 9 March (following International Women’s Day on 8 March 2022), ATTA’s Senior Manager of Research Heather Kelly and Switzerland Tourism’s Key Account Manager of Strategic Accounts Sarah Haselbacher will host the webinar Research Insights on Women in Adventure Travel to share key findings from the report, such as formal mechanisms to address practices of inclusion and gender equality, examples of successful women-focused campaigns, and recommendations on how to close the gender gap in adventure travel.