The Power of Women in Travel

Women make up a majority of travelers and the lion’s share of the tourism workforce. As the travel industry rebuilds, it is time to put the so-called second sex first.

The Power of Women in Travel

Women hold a majority of the travel market shares across a number of categories.

Photos by Vonecia Carswell and Ricardo Gomez

The word “crisis” first gained popularity after floating from the lips of physicians Galen and Hippocrates, who used it to describe the difficulty of a doctor’s judgment and to mark that moment in an illness where a body swerves inexorably toward life or death. Krisis, in Ancient Greek, comes from the verb krinein, which means to sift, separate, judge, and decide. It knocks on the idea of keeping only what is worthwhile and discarding the rest. And so: after a world turned over, under, and around again by a devastating health crisis, what have we learned—and what will we keep—of our old ways?

At base, the question extends first to the deep cracks that widened into chasms under the unyielding thumb of this crisis: the inequalities across healthcare, workers’ rights, wages, borders, and who gets what protections, when. Ruminations about travel are minor in comparison, maybe, but essential nonetheless. Because human mobility is at the very core of tourism—board a plane, ride a train, drive a car, cross a border—and human mobility itself is a core element of spreading disease, the travel industry is inextricably braided with the successes and strifes of this pandemic.

Already, these strifes have very practically pulled the tourism industry asunder; 2020 was the worst year in its history. Around the world, international arrivals cratered 74 percent—a cool 1 billion fewer travelers than the year before—translating to an estimated loss of $1.3 trillion in export revenues, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Globally, that number meant a loss in an estimated 174 million jobs, per the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), an impact the London-based advisory forum called “devastating.”

Slowly, though, 2021 is looking up. Denmark is developing a digital passport proving vaccinations; travelers with vaccinations will be able to move freely between Israel and Greece. Betting big on domestic summer trips, United on February 12 unveiled three new routes to Hawaii. This anticipation of demand is not premature, but probable: U.S. households have saved $1.4 trillion in the first three quarters of 2020, about twice as much as in the same period of the prior year. Already, travel agents are reporting that 2021 bookings mirror prepandemic numbers.

In this period of tentative hope, there is also a sense of heightened responsibility. And as destinations creak open their doors to travelers once again, what we’ll keep from the wreckage is a worthwhile consideration. Never before has there been such an opportunity for the industry to reframe the balance of economic development with environmental sustainability, and to reimagine its place and its social impact on citizens and the communities that we travel in. But if the travel industry is intent on rebuilding from the ground up, then it must reconstruct with women, who—despite being a majority of travelers and comprising the lion’s share of the tourism workforce—are still largely treated as novelty and niche.

“If the feminine issue is so absurd, [it] is because the male’s arrogance made it ‘a discussion,’” wrote Simone de Beauvoir. “Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.”

Dr. Catheryn Khoo studies gender equality in travel at Australia’s largest tourism research institute.

Dr. Catheryn Khoo studies gender equality in travel at Australia’s largest tourism research institute.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi and courtesy of Catheryn Khoo

I. Bessie, Beth, Catheryn, Maggie

The earliest women travelers left home in search of some greater meaning, whether they were called by science or the Holy Spirit. One of the first records of such travel is from the 4th century, when a pilgrim named Egeria traveled from the Mediterranean to the Holy Land and, with the Bible as her guidebook, stopped at the Sea of Galilee, the site where Eliezer met Rebecca, and Mount Sinai. Egeria chronicled her travels in a letter to women peers back home, addressing the sprawling missive to her “dear ladies” and titling it Itinerarium Egeriae, or “Travels of Egeria.”

“Setting out thence we pursued our journey continuously through the land of Goshen, among vines that yield wine and vines that yield balsam, among orchards, highly cultivated fields and very pleasant gardens, our whole route lying along the bank of the river Nile among oft-recurring estates, which were once the homesteads of the children of Israel. And why should I say more?” she wrote.

Egeria did say more, but eventually, she returned home from the desert. Time unspooled. Egeria, however, remained an outlier, a chronicler of an experience women were not often permitted to have. (Historians suggest that women did travel, but given that it was discouraged, there is little record of it.) In the centuries that followed, women the world round largely remained under the rule of men, with lives “lived” in the minutes between their metronome-like tick of responsibilities: clean, cook, marry, wash, bear children, shop, care for the children. If you were a woman of means, your responsibilities were not that altogether different: study, socialize, marry, bear children.

Women were largely barred from what is often considered the advent of modern-day Western travel: the first wave of the Grand Tour in the 17th century, described by a writer in 2008 in the New York Times as a period when “Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization.” With the Industrial Revolution a century later, economic oligarchs found themselves with more money and more ways to spend it, and travel became more affordable for the masses. Upper-class women were finally permitted a Grand Tour of their own, though they most typically required a chaperone in the form of a “spinster” aunt or relative. See it through the perspective of Lucy Honeychurch in E. M. Forster’s needling of conservative British society in his 1908 novel, A Room With a View:

“In her heart also there are springing up strange desires. She too is enamoured of heavy winds, and vast panoramas, and green expanses of the sea. She has marked the kingdom of this world, how full it is of wealth, and beauty, and war—a radiant crust, built around the central fires, spinning towards the receding heavens. Men, declaring that she inspires them to it, move joyfully over the surface, having the most delightful meetings with other men, happy, not because they are masculine, but because they are alive. Before the show breaks up she would like to drop the august title of the Eternal Woman, and go there as her transitory self.”

In the 18th century, women’s “transitory selfs” typically needed the permission and protection of men to travel solo: British writer Isabella Bird, the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, only began traveling after her wealthy father “gave her [£]100 and leave to stay away as long as it [unspecified ailment] lasted”; in 1776, French botanist Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a man named “Jean Baret” to board the Étoile and circumnavigate the globe by ship. (Though Beret was traveling with her partner, Philibert Commerson, her crewmates assaulted her when they discovered her true identity.)

Of women from the Americas, it would still be nearly a century until they were more frequently documented in travel history. “As I grew into womanhood, I began to indulge that longing [to travel] which will never leave me while I have health and vigour,” wrote Jamaican British travel nurse Mary Seacole, whose fame rivaled Florence Nightingale’s, in her seminal 1857 autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. Journalist Nellie Bly circled the world in 72 days 1889; Lilian Bland built her own plane in 1910; Bessie “Queen Bess” Coleman got her pilot’s license in 1921, making her the first Black woman and first Native American to do so. It wasn’t until 1925 that a U.S. woman received a passport in her “given”—not married—name. Women of color were even further disenfranchised.

In the past century, women travelers have risen steadily in number, mirroring shifting societal mores and increased self-empowerment. Dr. Catheryn Khoo, a professor and researcher who studies gender equality in tourism at the Griffith Institute for Tourism, Australia’s largest tourism research institute, says these changing expectations around women’s roles and responsibilities have led to a decline in travel guilt—something women continue to feel more acutely than men. “I remember speaking about women’s guilt [at a conference] and so many women came up to me after to share stories of how their guilt took away the quality of their travel experiences, and even the opportunity to travel,” says Khoo, who coauthored the UNTWO’s 2019 Global Report on Women in Tourism. “To free women of their guilt to travel makes a huge difference in their lives.”

Today, 56 percent of leisure travelers are women, and over the past five years, they have steadily held this majority stake. Women make close to 85 percent of all travel decisions: where to go, when to fly, where to stay, what to see. Of affluent travelers with annual incomes upwards of $250,000, women also account for 54 percent, according to MMGY Global, an advertising agency specializing in travel, tourism, and hospitality. In total, women represent 60 percent of the wealth in the United States, and they notch 58 percent of all online sales. Importantly, women also live longer than men and outnumber them in a crucial travel bracket—retirees—making them an investment that yields greater, and longer, returns.

Women make up a majority of travelers, and their share of the market only continues to grow.

Women make up a majority of travelers, and their share of the market only continues to grow.

Photo by Sydney Rae and courtesy Wild Women Expeditions

And women’s shares in the travel industry are only increasing. Black women are one of the fastest-growing travel groups, and in China, which has the world’s largest outbound travel market, women travel and spend significantly more while traveling than men. Although there are already four women solo travelers for every single male traveler, searches for “solo female travel” increased sixfold in the four years preceding the COVID pandemic, according to Google Trends, and Pinterest has seen a 350 percent increase in women “pinning” solo trips since 2014. (This, despite the fact that safety is second only to cost when it comes to women taking vacations.) As they take on more corporate leadership roles, women are also poised to continue their rise as business travelers, where—despite advertising that almost exclusively shows business travel as the “domain of suit and tie wearing, greying white men . . . who appear to be pondering the weighty matters of life,” according to Skift Research—they account for 47 percent of the pie. Still, research from the Global Business Travel Association found that only 18 percent of corporate travel policies “specifically address matters related to the safety needs of female business travelers.”

“Women’s travel is not a cute little segment of the market—it’s almost the entire market,” says Beth Santos, founder and CEO of Wanderful, a membership-based women’s travel community that has grown to 45,000 members since Santos founded the group in 2008. “And every time we go on a trip, we spend hundreds, thousands of dollars. There are not many other industries where every time you engage with that industry you drop that much money. The industry needs to start looking at it that way and seeing the real buying power of women.” So why is it not?

Ask a cynic, and their lazy take is that women’s interests and issues are seen as secondary in travel because that’s the way the world is. To them, criticizing this facet of travel is akin to a farmer blaming an egg for its chicken problem: Gender inequality is rife in the industry because gender inequality is rife in the world, where 2.5 billion women and girls live in countries with at least one discriminatory law, where nearly half a billion women and girls age 15 years and over are illiterate, and where 80 percent of women-owned businesses with credit needs are underserved—equivalent to a $1.7 trillion financing gap—according to the United Nations. All that even without considering the ways in which maternal health and parental leave policies undercut women’s advancement.

Sure. Maybe? But, says Santos, we should still fix the symptoms where we can. We should still pay attention to the issues within an industry. We should still commit to making progress, whether it’s in messaging and marketing to women or it’s ensuring more women are in charge of that very messaging and marketing. Besides, she wonders: What if travel could be the success story?

Santos is not swinging and striking out—she’s striking close to a truth. Though there are gulfs in opportunity, financing, and salaries between men and women across virtually every industry, that gap is smaller in travel: 54 percent of all employees in tourism are women, compared to 39 percent in the broader economy. Women in tourism earn 14.7 percent less than their male counterparts, but that difference is 16.8 percent on average.

Women may make up a large proportion of the formal tourism workforce, but they are primarily represented in service and clerical jobs that are dominated by informality, high staff turnover, long working hours, subcontracting, and seasonal variations in employment. (In family tourism businesses, women perform the largest amount of unpaid work.)

Yet compared to other industries, travel and tourism has the most potential for growth: According to the United Nations, the industry has been proven to provide women with more opportunities for empowerment, landing the sector what the U.N. calls “increased responsibility” for the advancement of women. In large part, this opportunity is owing to a confluence of factors; the advent of the sharing economy, for one, has allowed the everywoman to become an entrepreneur. (Airbnb, where women constitute nearly 56 percent of hosts and have earned $32 billion since the company was launched in 2008, is an example.)

Part of this potential can also be chalked up to flexibility. Within the tourism industry, there’s less emphasis on formal education and training and more on personal and hospitality skills. Entrepreneurship doesn’t always require heavy startup capital, and women are able to support themselves and in turn, hire more women, whom they are statistically more likely to support. The thinking: Empowerment leads to empowerment leads to empowerment. Says Maggie Duncan Simbeye, one of Tanzania’s six women guides and the only Tanzanian woman to own and operate her own tour company: “I love this job because it gives you a voice. In the middle of men, I can speak, which is not typical in my country. Why can I speak? Because I have a share, and I know what I’m talking about.”

There is also an economic incentive for investing in women. Research from the International Monetary Fund shows that if women’s employment equaled men’s, economies would be “more resilient.” Twelve trillion U.S. dollars in annual GDP could be added if all countries simply matched their best-in-region country in progress toward gender parity, according to a 2017 report from the World Bank. Not all countries have to be Iceland, which has been the top gender-equal country for 11 consecutive years, per the World Economic Forum—they just need to be better.

In many ways, Simbeye’s story is a real-world example of this case for gender parity, and of Santos’s belief in the power of the dollar: by more carefully considering where and how they spend their money, travelers can affect the change they wish to see from the bottom. Because if you do get there, to her trip in Tanzania, Simbeye says, you’ll realize she’s paying it forward and not resting idly by. You’ll see how she is hiring other women, and learn more about how her nonprofit, Dare Women’s Foundation, informs the way she thinks about women in travel and vice versa. In time, there will probably be a moment when you find yourself around the campfire, watching the clouds, moon, and stars. “We talk and share ideas, but we don’t just talk and do nothing once we leave,” Simbeye says. “Just watch.”

First Officer Gabrielle Harding, a pilot for United, puts on her uniform. In the U.S., just 7 percent of pilots are women.

First Officer Gabrielle Harding, a pilot for United, puts on her uniform. In the U.S., just 7 percent of pilots are women.

Photo by Hello Lightbulb and courtesy of United Airlines

II. Stephanie, Samantha, Kelly, Kim

Our earliest impressions of the world and how we fit begin forming before we are even aware of it. It is often said that seeing is believing, but fittingly, that is only half the idiom: In its entirety, the quote from the 17th century reads, “Seeing is believing, but feeling is the truth.” Much as seeing something inspires us to believe it is possible, the saying suggests, experiencing that possibility is the mark of real change.

But if experience is the mark of true progress, then girls and women are left wanting in the travel industry, where representation remains discouraging across some of its most visible segments. Consider: Despite women’s majority stake as travelers, in the cruise industry worldwide, just 5.4 percent of officers are women, and women account for just 2 percent of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers, per Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

Representation in air travel isn’t much better. Decades after Amelia Earhart said, “My ambition is to have this wonderful gift produce practical results for the future of commercial flying and for the women who may want to fly tomorrow’s planes”—and despite steady global growth in air traffic demand prepandemic and impending pilot shortages—women make up just 5 percent of pilots worldwide and 7 percent of pilots in the United States, where the “highly masculine image of aviation” pervades. (To randomly meet a woman pilot in the U.S. today, you’d have to shake hands with some 5,000 women.) The numbers are even more dismal for diversity: fewer than 1 percent of airline pilots in the United States are Black women, according to Sisters of the Skies (SOS), a professional organization of Black women pilots founded in 2018.

“A parent comes up to me and she says, ‘You a pilot?’ and I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ And she said, ‘They let us be pilots?’ And that really was something,” Stephanie Johnson, Delta’s first Black woman captain, told AFAR writer Syreeta McFadden in 2020. “The parents don’t know what the opportunities are, because they didn’t grow up with opportunities. And so it was even more important, that ‘OK, this has just got to be my life because I can open people’s eyes.’”

There has been progress in diversifying air travel, primarily due to member-focused organizations like the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), the Ninety-Nines, Women in Aviation International (WAI), and the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWP), all of which focus heavily on education and mentorship and provide millions of dollars in scholarships. The industry has slowly responded with commitments of its own: Aeromexico, American Airlines, AirAsia, CityJet, and easyJet in 2019 began collaborating with flight training provider CAE to offer one full scholarship to a woman, per carrier; United provides scholarships and holds an annual global Girls in Aviation Day. Alaska Airlines, which has four Black female pilots, pledged in February 2019 to quadruple its African American women pilots by 2025. (It is the only airline to publicly commit to increasing this demographic.) Cruising, too, has signaled its own investment, with CLIA making its 2019 theme “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community.” “Elevating women to leadership positions in the cruise industry makes good business sense,” Kelly Craighead, the third woman CEO of CLIA, said of its ongoing work in 2019.

But just what else companies do to elevate women in the wake of the pandemic remains to be seen. It is not enough to celebrate women one day a year and issue ambiguous commitments to empowerment, say advocates for growth. If the travel industry is to truly rebuild better than before, then those with the power to effect change must make public pledges to actionable items. Instead of offering just one full scholarship to a woman, why not give two or 20? Instead of simply acknowledging that having women in leadership positions is a benefit, why not follow in the footsteps of Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, who raised the ratio of women to men on the bridge of Celebrity ships from 3 percent to 20 percent in just 18 months? And when that’s done, ask again: How can we do better?

Travel TV host Samantha Brown, shown here with Helen Brink, who leads cemetery tours in Bath, New York.

Travel TV host Samantha Brown, shown here with Helen Brink, who leads cemetery tours in Bath, New York.

Photo by Juniper Photon and courtesy of Samantha Brown

Much of what we learn about travel and its myriad possibilities for employment and enjoyment also happens before an actual trip: through photography and film, and on websites and in print products. One of the biggest means of consumption is television, where women in 2019–2020 comprised 30 percent of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography on broadcast programs, 31 percent on cable programs, and 35 percent on streaming programs. Travel television specifically has long been bogged down by numbers trotted out by mostly male television executives, who use them to posit that onscreen women hosts don’t perform as well with viewers. As a result, women can be hard to find.

In 2017, Samantha Brown left the Travel Channel, where she had for years been its lone marquee woman travel host. (Though the channel currently counts women-led shows like Mysterious Islands with travel journalist Kellee Edwards and Alaska 1,000 Ways with Inupiaq bush pilot Ariel Tweto among its programming, its bread and butter is action, adventure, and supernatural series like Mountain Monsters, Hotel Paranormal, and Mysteries at the Museum.) Netflix, though it has more diversity in its male travel and food television show hosts, can pretty much only proffer Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, in the way of women-hosted travel content; Hulu found similar success at the nexus of food and travel with Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation, which debuted in June 2020. But like their travel peers and pioneers decades ago—those Nellie Blys, those Bessie Colemans—these women remain the exception, and not the rule.

Rifle through television programming and it’s clear that men are at the helm of a majority of travel and travel-adjacent shows. Chicken or the egg again, who knows. “Are the hosts men because the viewers are men, or are the viewers men because there’s not anything actually realistic about travel on these travel shows?” one woman quipped to me. She’s not alone in this thinking: A 2017 study from the Geena Davis Institute in Gender Media found that 66 percent of women surveyed in the U.S. and U.K. said they have actively switched off TV shows if they felt they were negatively stereotyping women.

But saying men don’t like women travel hosts is too “basic,” says Brown, who now produces and headlines her own show on PBS, Samantha Brown’s Places to Love. (Unlike with cable networks, Brown also has to raise her own funds.) Instead, Brown attributes most of it to faulty perception: to the ideas that only men watch shows at night, when most travel television programming appears, and that women watch the shows men want to watch. Regardless, Brown says, enough with the pondering. Representation of all kinds must improve.

“When a woman sees me traveling somewhere, she knows right away, that’s a safe place to be. It informs a certain audience,” she says. “But in that same respect, as a white woman, I can’t really inform a woman of color how she’s going to be perceived. So that’s why we need even more diversity.”

Says Kim Haas, PBS’s only Black woman travel host as well as the executive producer and creator of Afro-Latino Travels with Kim Haas: “A comment I hear often centers around how glad people are to see an African American hosting a travel show. Black people have been so hungry and ready to see someone who looks like them in the travel television sector.”

For Brown and Haas, the next steps are not only necessary to make the travel industry stronger but also something of a no-brainer: Put more women on television, and commit to giving them time to build their audience. The world is watching.

Katie Briscoe is the first woman president of MMGY Global, an advertising agency specializing in travel, tourism, and hospitality.

Katie Briscoe is the first woman president of MMGY Global, an advertising agency specializing in travel, tourism, and hospitality.

Photo by Annie Spratt and courtesy of MMGY Global

III. Mmamoloko, Elisabeth, Natalie, Katie

It is no coincidence that many of the decisions made about programming, scholarships, marketing, and diversity of and for women get made in places where women are largely absent: at executive levels. Of course, gender as a metric is inherently flawed, because gender in itself is no sort of monolith. Despite stereotypes of women in power, studies show that gender has no bearing on personality, cognition, or leadership abilities, and the differences that “do exist” reflect social expectations and not biology, according to the American Psychological Association. (The only consistent differences between men and women, across multiple studies: “Compared with women, men could throw farther, were more physically aggressive, masturbated more, and held more positive attitudes about sex in uncommitted relationships.”) But if “women” in statistics tell a story, then it is worth learning what we can from that story.

In the public sector, one of the highest rungs on the ladder is a Minister of Tourism post, the head of an apex body responsible for marketing one country to another. Around the world, just one in five tourism ministers is a woman. (Women’s “most commonly held portfolios” in the government are family, children, youth, elderly, and disability affairs.) In general, countries with a female tourism minister score higher on the Global Gender Gap Index political empowerment scale than those with a male tourism minister, reports the UNWTO.

Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has been South Africa’s Minister of Tourism since May 2019; in December 2017, Elisabeth Köstinger became Austria’s first woman Minister for Agriculture and Tourism, and in January 2020, with her role expanded, she was sworn in as Minister for Agriculture, Regions, and Tourism. Köstinger has made gender equality a priority, saying, “Equal pay for equal work must be a matter of course in the 21st century.” Other countries with women at the helm of tourism are Ecuador (Rosi Prado de Holguín, since December 2018), Israel (Orit Farkash-Hacohen, October 2020), Bulgaria (Nikolina Angelkova, May 2017), Mali (Nina Walet Intallou, July 2016), and Malaysia (Nancy Shukri, May 2020). Crucially, however, none of these women are in permanent positions, and so it is all the more important that gender equality be embedded and codified into law; that importance be placed on “institutionalizing a gender perspective in tourism through gender mainstreaming” rather than leaving it up to the ministers, magistrates, presidents, and CEOs, who change with the wind.

As a case study in intentional change, many insiders point to Intrepid, which was founded in 1989 and is today the world’s largest B Corp adventure travel company, with annual revenue of 397 million AUD (US$308 million). In 2017, after noticing that a majority of its on-the-ground tour leaders were men, the company implemented a plan for regional managers in countries like Cambodia, India, and Morocco to speak in schools and local communities and to lobby governments to help change perceptions of women in tourism. Intrepid pledged to double its women leaders by 2020; they hit the target six months early, in 2019, jumping from 154 to 342.

Intrepid Travel offers women-only tours in countries like Iran, shown here.

Intrepid Travel offers women-only tours in countries like Iran, shown here.

Photo by Sergei Gulenok and courtesy of Intrepid Travel

There are other commitments: To better address unconscious bias, Intrepid requires that the ratio of men and women present at every job interview is equal. The company invests in mentoring and women’s leadership programs, it is a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact—a framework “used to align a company’s operations and strategies with universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption”—and it is internally obsessive about gender metrics and salary differences, which it shares in its public reports. Today, Intrepid’s board of directors is 40 percent women, and its Global Leadership Team is split 50-50. “Supporting women in all areas of our business—from tour leaders to executives and board members—has made Intrepid Travel a better business,” says Natalie Kidd, Intrepid Travel’s Chief People and Purpose Officer.

Intrepid and the adventure travel industry may be out ahead of the pack—on average, boards of adventure companies comprise 38 percent women compared to mainstream tourism and Fortune 500 companies, where 11 percent of board members are women, according to the Adventure Travel and Trade Association (ATTA)—but there have been other shifts. Hilton Worldwide has a public Women in Leadership strategy, which helps build a talent pipeline of women leaders, with key initiatives including a women’s leadership development program and a women’s mentoring program. Marriott International, where women account for 55 percent of its U.S. workforce and 41 percent of executive officers, offers paid maternity leave, adoption assistance, and infertility coverage and has its own Emerging Leader Program and women’s networking groups. The facilitation of such relationships is crucial: According to research highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, women in executive roles need an inner circle of close women contacts to reach the highest echelons of companies, “despite having similar qualifications to men including education and work experience.”

Some mandates for modifications in the industry come from even higher up. In 2008, Norway passed a law requiring companies to reserve at least 40 percent of director seats for women; Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the U.K., and the Netherlands followed suit. Though there have been no measurable substantive changes in decisions, 10 years on, a February 2020 report from travel market researcher Phocuswright found that of 22,000 companies surveyed, those with more gender-diverse leadership overwhelmingly drove higher profits.

Of course, that is not to say women are the only ones who can—and should—effect change, says Katie Briscoe, the first woman president of MMGY Global; it’s about an overall accurate representation of the world. But women do need to be at the table, and there’s no time like the present.

“I think until you hold yourself accountable for diverse perspectives, it’s easy to just keep doing things the same way,” says Briscoe. “In some ways, what has come out of the pandemic are some really valuable learnings about what this industry can be.”

Black women are one of the fastest-growing travel groups.

Black women are one of the fastest-growing travel groups.

Photo by Wu Yi and courtesy of Nomadness

IV. Evita, Annette, Jaylyn, Eyitemi

The pandemic has created unprecedented levels of hardship, but it is no secret that that hardship has not been felt equally. In the U.S., more than 5.4 million women have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, nearly 1 million jobs more than men. The net of these losses has fallen most to women of color, many of whom worked in the travel and tourism industry and had been on the ascent, both in participation in the workforce and in rising pay. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this outcome was in many ways inevitable, the result of policies that do not address systemic inequalities or create a safety net and of lawmakers and CEOs declining to assign value and support to those who have been the backbone of the industry. “I want women to get back into the workforce if that is what they desire,” says Briscoe. “But then I think, OK, what if women return to these roles and something [catastrophic] happens again and there’s still no backup or assistance?”

To Briscoe and others in the industry, the urgency to return to travel as it was should not be squandered at the expense of real change and disruption. If anything, it is the reform that should have a sense of exigence. Says Evita Robinson, who in 2011 founded Nomadness, an online community for travelers of color that comprises 26,000 members, 78 percent of them women: “We need to get out of this mind frame that creating change is something that needs to take a long time. As a society, we are beyond the scope of incremental change. We need to start breaking shit.”

For starters, say those interviewed for this story, gender constraints should be identified and action taken at all levels of the industry. Wages and benefits should be made equal. Workplace protections should be systematized. Women should be given training opportunities with a focus on segments and jobs with fewer women, and women should move into positions of responsibility and leadership. Even in countries with cultural constraints, there can be gains by supporting female entrepreneurs in gaining access to finance and information and by increasing women-led businesses in supply chains and distributors. These actions are not just good for business, but important to the public, too: Today, 79 percent of consumer purchase preference is based on social responsibility, inclusivity, and environmental impact.

At an industry level, women are already working to pull each other up where they can: The Women in Travel—BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) Program, which launched in 2018 with customized training sessions and mentoring services, in March 2020 introduced a three-year plan to address women’s racial inequality in the industry. That same year, in April, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association created a Women in Business group, and in December 2020, 20 women executives from companies like Expedia, Conrad, Duetto, and Universal founded Women in Travel Thrive to reduce the effect that COVID-19 has had on women’s career progression, facilitating a “Day of Impact” and inviting women to participate in mentor/mentee sessions. There are thousands-strong private Facebook groups for women pilots, cruise ship employees, and those in hospitality.

As with Nomadness and Wanderful, women travelers are creating more communities of their own and coming together to rally for rights and representation. Many initiatives launched around the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016 and for years have been building momentum: The bilingual resource Latinas Who Travel was created in 2016 for travelers to ask questions and share tips, and after a series of conversations about feeling marginalized by mainstream travel resources, Portland-based colleagues Serita Wesley, Rebecca Russell, Farin Nikdel, Vivian Zhang, and Becca Ramos founded the digital platform On She Goes in May 2017 to empower women and nonbinary people of color to travel “more confidently, adventurously, and more often.” That same year, Annette Richmond inaugurated Fat Girls Traveling, a body-positive, social media–driven community today with nearly 13,000 Facebook members and 38,000 Instagram followers; and Jaylyn Gough launched Native Women’s Wilderness, an online platform where indigenous women and nonbinary people can connect. Individually and in sum, they are stepping in where mainstream media has fallen short and telling the stories women travelers really want. The message: Get better or get left behind.

Damesly offers tours for women who want to build a certain skill, like photography.

Damesly offers tours for women who want to build a certain skill, like photography.

Photo by Fabio Santaniello and courtesy of Kelly Lewis

The upswing in women-focused tours and offerings is also a sign of sea change, say advocates. Although companies like environment-focused Wild Women (founded in 1981) and AdventureWomen (1982) have been around for decades, in the past six years, there has been a 230 percent increase in travel companies dedicated to women-only clientele. For a majority, it’s about paying it forward.

In 2016, Kelly Lewis—the woman behind Go! Girl Guides and the annual Women’s Travel Fest—and Alyson Kilday created Damesly, a tour company with a focus on staying in women-owned hotels, eating in women-owned restaurants, and working with women-owned suppliers and women-owned businesses. Girls Trip Tours, launched in July 2018 by Eyitemi Popo, hosts women-only trips to Africa where Black travelers connect on the ground with high-profile businesswomen and local industry leaders. Every retreat incorporates a few days of mentoring with girls ages 12–18 local to the country, and every experience booked with Girls Trip Tours educates a girl for a year. Says Popo, who is also the founder of Ayiba magazine: “I wanted to build an ecosystem for women who are seeking to travel Africa intentionally, give of themselves meaningfully, and continue to grow in everything they do. Our presence [there] speaks to our intention, and our intention is to be a living example, a blueprint, an embodiment of a dream realized. We show up as representations of what is possible for the girls we mentor.”

Not everyone will start a company or community or become a CEO, but on a day-to-day level, as travelers, we can support, empower, and truly see women in the industry. Much of what is required will ring familiar: We can research, book, and get back out there, but we must do it better than before, mindful of booking women-owned businesses and supporting travel companies that see gender equality as an incalculable investment and not an inconvenient box to be ticked. Perhaps above all, we must remember Santos’s challenge: That if our dollar equals a vote, then what are we voting for?

>> Next: Women Who Are Helping Us Explore the World in a Better Way

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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