Analysis: What holds women back from taking a lead in the tourism sector in India?
While the travel and tourism industry in India presents accessible opportunities for women, it is shadowed by persistent disparities such as lower pay, safety issues, job security, access to finance, digital literacy, representation in decision-making bodies and gender based discrimination at the workplace. We speak to the women in the industry to understand the situation on ground.
The Indian tourism landscape is witnessing a major transformation in women-led development. Embodied in various initiatives, such as the recently ratified Goa Roadmap for Tourism within the G20 framework, women-led development has earned its place as one of the pivotal priorities driving the country’s sustainable growth agenda.
However, despite these strides, there remains significant ground to cover.
According to a UN World Tourism Organisation report, globally, women account for 54 per cent in the tourism space, compared to the 39 per cent female employment rate in the broader economy. Women are well represented in service and clerical level jobs but poorly represented at professional levels, it said.
The crux of the problem
While the travel and tourism industry in India presents accessible opportunities for women, it is shadowed by persistent disparities such as lower pay, safety issues, job security, access to finance, digital literacy, representation in decision-making bodies and gender based discrimination at the workplace.
Post pandemic, with a major shift in work dynamics, a big drop can be seen as priorities and work requirements changes noticeably across industry.
While women dominate the tourism workforce, they usually occupy lower-paying, lower-ranking positions and often contribute unpaid work in family-oriented tourism businesses.
“Women-led development is not something that can be achieved by mere lip-service,” said Vasudha Sondhi, MD, Outbound Marketing & State President at Uttarakhand Hospitality and Tourism Council at WICCI.
“The service industry requires a certain time commitment and most often people who work in this industry need to keep long hours,” said Sondhi.According to UNWTO research, the pandemic has badly hit women in tourism. Women, it said, faced more job losses, reduced hours, and increased caregiving duties compared to men. “Typically women balance between their home and work and that is already the first challenge in women taking on leadership roles,” Sondhi pointed out.
While there are no specific figures that have been recorded, a greater proportion of women are engaged in intermediate to junior roles across the travel and hospitality sector. “It suits women more to become entrepreneurs, because they can then manage their time and balance the many roles they play,” said Sondhi.
According to Jyoti Mayal, President of TAAI and Chairperson of THSC (Govt sector skill council) and Vice Chairperson of FAITH, the tourism sector presents abundant entrepreneurial prospects for women. “Women today are transforming the value chain with technology and diverse skill sets,” she said.
“Although women comprise more than half of tourism workers nationally, they are underrepresented in decision-making processes, and only a few hold high-level management positions, especially in the remote and underdeveloped areas of the region,” she added.
Empowering women necessitates providing opportunities and eliminating biases, she said.
Entrepreneurial elevation: overcoming challenges
A few years ago, around 2016, the Australia based company, Intrepid Travel, recognised a significant gender disparity within the company, especially in leadership roles. The company’s Managing Director – Asia, Natalie Kidd said that women, especially in Cambodia were notably underrepresented in travel and tourism, particularly in junior positions.
A few female leaders were struggling due to societal perceptions and treatment by suppliers. This prompted Intrepid to take action to better support them and their focus turned to India. The company realised that role models are essential, as they make leadership roles seem accessible to aspiring women.
“Currently, our Indian workforce consists of 70 per cent of women, which are supported by inspiring role models. One such trailblazer was our first female tour guide in South India, initially encouraged by her husband’s positive experience working with us. As part of our commitment to personal growth, several employees have advanced from local roles to global positions within the company,” Kidd shared.
Promoting gender equality, believes Kidd, requires collaboration between government and private sectors. “Businesses like ours must also integrate gender inclusivity throughout our supply chains and local communities, fostering empowerment and access,” she suggested.
Further, the statistics by a global association reveal that companies with 50 per cent female leadership not only drive change but also achieve greater profits. This trend is even more evident in travel, tourism and experts couldn’t agree more.
“For the tourism sector, the impact of greater gender equality and women’s empowerment would be highly beneficial, because diverse and gender-equitable organisations perform better,” said Mayal.
To take this momentum forward, she added that there is a need to skill the women at the grass root level for driving sustainable tourism.
Empowering through skill development
In her capacity at the Women Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (WICCI), Sondhi has led the establishment of village homestays to empower local residents, especially women with avenues for self-employment and implementing skill development initiatives.
“We’ve partnered with Saathiya as our knowledge collaborator. When we try to enroll girls or boys from villages in these training programs, we encounter significant skepticism about our intentions, especially since we offer the training free of charge (considering their financial limitations). Convincing them becomes a challenging endeavour,” she shared.
The women being trained here at the village level, while in their comfort zones, have achieved remarkable feats, revealed Sondhi. They are successfully running small home cafes, managing homestays, and overseeing various tasks including check-ins, housekeeping, payment handling, and cooking. They have received training in service, hygiene, cleanliness, guest interaction, and navigating challenges, she added.
Various other states like Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and more have embraced skill development as a powerful tool to train women in the tourism industry. In Kerala, UN Women, a United Nations organisation, partnered with the state to advance the Women-Friendly Tourism initiative initiated by the State government. An orientation programme for women, spanning two days, focused on an array of tourism activities where women took the lead.
Kerala’s Responsible Tourism Mission (RT Mission), responsible for implementing the ‘women-friendly tourism’ project, has set a target of involving 150,000 women from the State for a women friendly app project, supported by UN Women and also aims to establish 10,000 women-led ventures and generate 30,000 jobs in the tourism sector.
In Madhya Pradesh, women have taken up roles like forest guards, tiger safari gypsy drivers, and boat drivers in Omkareshwar, which have been appointed by the state’s tourism arm. Under the Safe Tourist Destination project for women, 10,000 women are being trained as frontline workers in the hospitality and tourism industry, according to the data provided by Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board.
Citing McKinsey’s Global Index listing most women-empowered states, Sondhi informed that Goa was one of the top three states. These statistics, she believed, are driven by factors like literacy as this makes women more vocal about their rights and equal opportunities.
The Goa Tourism Minister, Rohan Khaunte in his recent interaction with ETTravelWorld had emphasised the importance of women’s empowerment, underscored by the Goa Roadmap. Endeavours like the upcoming Homestay policy complement efforts to boost rural tourism and uplift local communities, particularly women, said Khaunte.
“Women-run homestays provide visitors not only accommodation but also deep cultural immersion and local cuisine. This policy is designed to support women entrepreneurs in the tourism sector, partnering with platforms like Airbnb to ensure quality experiences,” he shared.
According to Manisha Saxena, Director General at the Ministry of Tourism, a significant number of women are already receiving training through the PM Kaushal Vikas Yojana to effectively manage homestays and other tourism facilities.
“In several states, women self-help groups, as part of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, are being equipped and empowered to oversee wayside amenities and homestay clusters. This initiative contributes to enhancing safety for solo women travellers within the ecosystem,” she said.
Women’s involvement in policy shaping
Referring to TAAI president Mayal as one of the sole key decision makers in the Indian tourism fraternity, Sondhi lamented that the representation of women from the private sector in policy shaping remains quite limited. “The tourism ministry needs to actively look outside the associations’ or networkers to see who can make a difference or who is already making a difference but quietly.”
“These people need to be convinced to play a larger role nationally and internationally. In my interactions with decision-makers, I’ve noticed that while they may possess certain concepts to implement, their involvement often lacks depth and engagement,” she commented.