Can Women Really Make Travel Better? Yes, Say These Five Women Leaders

by | Sep 27, 2023

how can women make travel better
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Last updated on November 2nd, 2023

Featured image: Change can be overwhelming, but there are small steps we can all take together| Photo by Lolostock on Shuttershock

An invitation for women to take action

by Carolyn Ray, Editor

As travellers, we are guests in other countries, interacting with local communities and residents. Many of us form deep attachments with the places we visit, the friendships we build, and the connections we make. We also recognize that travel provides learning, self-discovery and sometimes, transformation. We know that our travel decisions have an impact on others and understand the opportunity that travel offers to help create a better world.

But how does change happen, and what is our role as women? Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to think about this. Just saying we need change isn’t enough.  We have be shown how to do it. On the occasion of World Tourism Day 2023, we invited five influential women travel leaders from our Women’s Travel Directory to share their thoughts on what needs to change in travel and how women can take action to make a difference, one step at a time.

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Tourism is ‘bouncing back’, but how?

In May, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “The start of the year has shown again tourism’s unique ability to bounce back. In many places, we are close to or even above pre-pandemic levels of arrivals.”

However, he noted, “…we must remain alert to challenges ranging from geopolitical insecurity, staffing shortages, and the potential impact of the cost-of-living crisis on tourism, and we must ensure tourism’s return delivers on its responsibilities as a solution to the climate emergency and as a driver of inclusive development.”

This month, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported that tourism has reached 80% to 95% of pre-pandemic levels. July 2023 was the busiest month in travel, with 145 million international travellers.

As we look at the increase in tourism numbers, it’s important to remember that tourism contributes one in four jobs worldwide. It is also recognized as a catalyst for positive change, a way to fund and protect cultural heritage and wildlife conservation, and to empower women. Tourism contributes to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Number 5: “To achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

UNWTO reports show that in most regions of the world, women make up the majority (54%) of the tourism workforce, but tend to be concentrated in the lowest paid and lowest status jobs in tourism, and perform a large amount of unpaid work in family tourism businesses. Certainly, something has to change, and women can play a role in making that happen.

UNWTO WOmen in travel world tourism day 2023
UNWTO is responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism geared towards the achievement of the universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). / Source: UNWTO

Five ways women can participate in making change happen

Women make 80 per cent of travel decisions and comprise two-thirds of all travellers. Our own research shows that 96 per cent of women over 50 make their own financial decisions and 51 per cent spend more than US$3,000 a week on travel. However, our impact as key influencers goes well beyond our role as travel consumers. With our wisdom, experience and spending power, women should be at the forefront of change, not behind it. As we look to the future, women must exercise our voices more emphatically and visibly. It’s not a new behaviour for us, but one that needs to be accentuated to sustain change, particularly when we consider the next generation.

For many women-led travel companies, the shift to action and advocacy has been years in the making. We invited five influential travel leaders from our Women’s Travel Directory to share their thoughts on what needs to change, how women can help, and the places in the world that actually need tourism. Meet the women behind Wild Women Expeditions, Uniworld, Swan Hellenic, Conservation VIP, and Rebecca Adventure Travel, who are passionate advocates for women’s empowerment and share how they are actively creating change in the travel industry through their businesses.

Jennifer Haddow, CEO, Wild Women Expeditions

What women can do: Ask for local female guides and porters

Wild Women Expeditions is the world’s largest women-owned adventure company, established in 1991. CEO Jennifer Haddow is focused on gender equality and supporting local women through employment, training and other opportunities. In many countries, women guides don’t often have the same access to career opportunities that men have, due to education, language, cultural traditions, discrimination or sexual harassment.

“All of our trips support the empowerment of local female guides, porters and businesses wherever possible, and we’re particularly proud to create opportunities for women in countries where there have historically been many barriers to women in this, and other types of work,” Haddow says. “Wild Women supports local women where they have typically struggled to have equal rights in Peru, Egypt, Tanzania, Jordan, India and Nepal. We were one of the first to champion female guides and porters on the Inca Trail in Peru, and we have women guides in Morocco who were the first in their villages to become employed as a tour guide. We will continue to promote and empower women guides all around the world.”

In Morocco, Wild Women has created two new itineraries for Morocco that support local women through creating employment and other opportunities that highlight the work and lives of local women.

“This is especially important in countries like Morocco, where women have typically been on the sidelines of tourism, employment, politics and even daily life,” Haddow says. “With the recent devastating earthquake in Morocco, income from tourism will be essential in helping local communities rebuild their lives.”

Learn more about Wild Women Expeditions here.

The Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant. Established in 2012, the center trains local women, allowing them to gain work experience in the preparation of traditional and international food.  Photos by: Julie-Anne Davies, Wild Women Expeditions, taken February 2022

Patrizia Iantorno, Chief Commercial Officer, Swan Hellenic

What women can do: Choose sustainable travel experiences

Known as the creator of cultural expeditions, Swan Hellenic is an established, well-respected owner-operated heritage brand with more than seven decades of expertise in undiscovered destinations. In 2020, Swan Hellenic relaunched with three purpose-built ships that hold under 200 guests and are technologically advanced, with minimal impact on the environment.

“A lot of places are still untouched, and local communities are so welcoming and honored to share their traditions, so you can really get a glimpse into the real culture as a traveler,” says Patrizia Iantorno, Chief Commercial Officer, Swan Hellenic. “Tourism still needs to be developed, as many travelers don’t have these destinations on their radar, even though they have the potential to offer such rich cultural experiences. Putting the planet and sustainability as a key priority for them will be fundamental in the development as a tourism destination.”

Iantorno recommends Africa as a less-travelled place but also one where women can make a difference advocating for sustainability projects to help local communities to become more sustainable, not just to improve local communities’ impact on the planet and preservation of their local resources, but also to become a more sustainable destination for travelers.

“Some African countries, such as Namibia and South Africa, are more advanced and they already have multiple projects running, such as plastic management and recycling,” she says.  “Some other countries, such as Ghana and Senegal, are still in the process and have a long way to go. West African countries have a huge potential from a touristic point of view because there is still so much to be discovered.”

Learn more about Swan Hellenic here.

swan hellenic no single supplement with JourneyWoman
Swan Hellenic brand new ships use diesel electric hybrid propulsion, are battery-ready, which allows for emission-free silent sailing, and use dynamic anchoring GPS to avoid anchoring in fragile environments. / Photo credit Swan Hellenic

Chris Braunlich, Board Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Conservation Volunteers International Program

What women can do: Participate in volunteer travel

Established in 2007, Conservation Volunteers International Program (VIP) is an environmental non-profit supports public lands and channels the enthusiasm of travelers into activities which benefit the places they want to visit, including Alaska, Yosemite, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.

“National Parks around the world are in great need of advocacy,” says Braunlich. “These public lands encompass some of the most extraordinary and precious outdoor environments on our planet. They feed our souls with their magnificent vistas, fresh air, night skies clear enough to see the stars, and the opportunity to hear the sounds of nature. They protect forests, waterways, flora and fauna, all of which are important in our effort to mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity. Yet, national parks often do not have the staff or funds to protect their resources because they rely primarily on government funding for support. Especially in countries where other public services such as education and health care are also severely strained from limited resources, public lands do not get the financial support necessary to protect their environment from visitors who love them to death.”

For meaningful and fulfilling travel, Braunlich recommends traveling with an organization whose focus is volunteering.

“Travel which is focused on volunteering helps both the environment and the local community,” she says. “It leads to the sense of satisfaction from participating in important projects and learning new skills or discovering strengths and talents, and you will return home knowing you did your part to help sustain the environment and the local community. Becoming involved in protecting a destination and meeting and supporting local people in a more meaningful way, beyond the more typical vendor/customer relationship, builds a longer-term connection to the destination.”

Learn more about Conservation VIP here.

Ellen Bettridge, President & CEO, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

What women can do: Look for itineraries that include women entrepreneurs

Uniworld features distinctive destination-inspired ships with an average capacity of 120 guests with truly all-inclusive itineraries in Europe, Vietnam and Cambodia, India, Peru and Egypt—a total of 17 rivers in 26 countries worldwide.

“Outside of North America and Europe, there are a number of destinations that remain saddled with inequality and oppressive gender norms,” says Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld President & CEO. “At Uniworld, we work to curate itineraries that highlight the best of these destinations, ensuring safety and comfort for female travellers, be they solo or in groups,” says Bettridge. “Our advocacy efforts are intertwined with education, and our itineraries in Egypt, South America, and Asia are built to educate guests on the beauty of these local cultures, engaging them in ‘Make Travel Matter’ experiences that support women.”

On Uniworld’s ‘Splendors of Egypt & The Nile’ trip, guests can experience the Iraq Al-Amir Women’s Cooperative, which aims to help local women become financially independent. Offered on the Jordan Extension of the itinerary, this experience sees Uniworld guests learn from the women of the Cooperative, creating soap and greeting cards from recycled paper – the profits of which directly benefit the women of Iraq Al-Amir. Over home-cooked traditional Jordanian lunches with the women, travelers have the chance to not only support the women’s livelihoods but better understand their culture and history.

“As we look to the future and continue to innovate our offerings, we hope that travelers will continue to prioritize eco-conscious and sustainable travel experiences,” says Uniworld’s Bettebridge. “This is a mission extremely important to us at Uniworld, and we take pride in the strides forward we have made, especially through our ‘How We Tread Right’ strategy, which includes goals such as eliminating over 60 types of single-use plastics and achieving net zero by 2050. We’ve also implemented Leanpath food waste reduction systems across our entire fleet with the goal to reduce overall food waste by 50% by 2025. It’s important to us, and we hope it remains important to them.”

Learn more about Uniworld here.

Women's Travel Directory CHAT

Rebecca Braak, CEO, Rebecca Adventure Travel

What women can do: Seek community-based travel

With an all-female staff, Rebecca Adventure Travel was founded in 2007 to provide sustainable and immersive travel experiences to destinations like Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and the Galapagos Islands.

“One practical piece of advice for making travel more meaningful and fulfilling is to actively engage with the local communities and environment,” says Braak. “Rather than being a passive observer, seek opportunities to connect with locals and immerse yourself in their culture, traditions, and daily life. Participate in community-based activities, support local businesses, and learn about the environmental conservation efforts taking place in the region. This not only enriches your travel experience; it also contributes positively to the local economy and ecosystem, aligning with the principles of sustainable and regenerative travel. By fostering meaningful connections with both people and nature, your journey becomes not just a vacation, but a transformative and purposeful adventure.”

Within Ecuador, Braak recommends Otavalo, near Quito, for its unique blend of indigenous culture, vibrant markets, and stunning natural beauty.

“The Indigenous community in this region is deeply committed to preserving their ancestral traditions, including the incredible hand embroidery and weaving skills passed down through generations,” she says. “Supporting the workshops operated by these skilled indigenous households not only benefits them economically but also ensures the continuity of these beautiful customs. Furthermore, it fosters cross-cultural exchange, offering advantages to both tourists and the local community. Additionally, responsible tourism is a pivotal aspect of what makes Rebecca Adventure Travel special, guaranteeing the sustainable development of these destinations while preserving their rich heritage and pristine environments. In sum, Otavalo stands out as a hidden gem among the exceptional choices offered by Rebecca Adventure Travel.”

Learn more about Rebecca Adventure Travel here.

Rebecca with an Indigenous women in Otavalo Market, Ecuador / Photo credit Rebecca Braak

Listen to Rebecca’s interview on Soul of Travel Podcast, presented by JourneyWoman

Change starts with us

The pandemic has given the travel services industry an opportunity to demonstrate a deep commitment to women. And it’s given women, the primary decision-makers in travel, a vital role in redesigning the future of travel with a new lens, new expectations and new outcomes.

At JourneyWoman, we are committed to being a catalyst in this space – a platform for women’s voices to be heard, and a connector between these key decision-makers and the industry whose survival will depend on them. Now more than ever, we believe there is an even greater need for us to learn, teach and ACT – instead of sitting on the sidelines, women can play an important role as advocates and role models, simply through our own actions.  There’s no question women will lead the way into the future.

What else do we need to act on? Share your thoughts below in the comments. Let’s do this!


Note: World Tourism Day is an initiative of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which is responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism geared towards the achievement of the universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The theme of this year’s WTD is “Tourism and Green Investments”.


More on Women in Travel

As the CEO and Editor of JourneyWoman, Carolyn is a passionate advocate for women's travel and living the life of your dreams. She leads JourneyWoman's team of writers and chairs the JourneyWoman Women's Advisory Council and Women's Speaker's Bureau. She has been featured in the New York Times, Toronto Star and Zoomer as a solo travel expert, and speaks at women's travel conferences around the world. In March 2023, she was named one of the most influential women in travel by TravelPulse and was the recipient of a SATW travel writing award in September 2023. She is the chair of the Canadian chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), a member Women's Travel Leaders and a Herald for the Transformational Travel Council (TTC). Sometimes she sleeps. A bit.

1 Comment

  1. Britt K

    I love this – both the fact that you shared these situations but also the focus on how we, as women, do have the power to make a difference! We have been talking about building out a skoolie conversion and planning a Canada/US road trip in the future. If we do that, volunteering to assist at nature-focused areas like National Parks will definitely be on our list! It’s a great way to help while enjoying being outdoors, which is something that is so important to us!


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