Tourism as a Driver for Promoting Gender Equality? A case Study of Participation of Women in the Tourism Labour market in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Research by Thomas Gomes and Adam Blake
When this photo was taken at Cox’s Bazar, it was late in 2009, I was on a road trip around Bangladesh and a resort in Cox’s Bazar offered a few days of tranquillity against the backdrop of its vast seafront. Indeed, as records go, it can boast about having the longest uninterrupted natural beach in the world. Back then, I remember seeing the foundations being laid – literally – in anticipation of a burgeoning tourist sector, with a number of building sites where hotels and resorts would come to stand. This was of course before the area became synonymous with the largest refugee camp in the world, housing an estimated 1.24 million Rohingyas from Myanmar in makeshift, overcrowded camps in squalid living conditions. And yet, Cox’s Bazar remains one of Bangladesh’s main tourist attractions. Partly, this is because the camps, which are close to the border with Myanmar, are about an hour away from the popular beaches. There is also the fact that Cox’s Bazar is the only such attraction in the country and so continues to garner interest.
In their research on gender and tourism in the region, Gomes and Blake (2020) focus on the experience of local workers and whether this promotes gender equality in the region. Here, I additionally note the impact of the arrival of the Muslim Rohingya, who have been settling along the coastline since August 2017 as they fled from the genocidal persecution by Myanmar’s military regime.
As a South Asian tourist hotspot, the location can help provide a sense of the gender biases that exist in the tourism industry in Bangladesh and, more broadly, can provide insights into how tourism affects gender in the developing world. However, as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) ramps up its efforts to provide support services against gender-based violence in the area, it is difficult to ignore refugee experiences – a short drive away from the resorts and restaurants as well as the workplace for women, who are also affected, albeit to a lesser extent, by the gendered treatment they are subjected to. In addition, the presence of a large neighbouring refugee population can generate frictions in the local economy by virtue of having a new pool of cheap labour. There are a number of reports of tensions between Rohingyas and locals, with the latter concerned for their jobs (e.g. Ahasan (2022), Siddiqi (2022)). This only further highlights the work that is needed in the region to not only improve the tourism sector but also address the injustices that women and girls face.
According to the World Economic Forum Report on Gender Gap in 2017, Bangladesh was ranked first in gender equality in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, above larger economies including India and China (WEF, 2017). The tourism industry in particular is often promoted as a shining beacon, providing opportunity for women to achieve a level of financial and social independence which can help towards tackling the broader issues of poverty in developing countries (Ashley & Goodwin, 2007; UNWTO 2010). But a closer look at the gender-based constraints faced by local women paints a different picture. Gomes and Blake (2020) conducted research specifically focused on women working in tourism in Cox’s Bazar. Their interviewees raised a number of concerns, such as safe transport for women, fear of sexual harassment and lack of childcare facilities, which counterbalances the benefits of employment. This points to the need for a more nuanced understanding of the challenges faced by women working in tourism.
The aim of their paper is to examine the extent to which there is a gender gap in the tourism industry in Bangladesh. Gomes and Blake systematically set out the existing literature and then move on to primary research before concluding with their findings. The paper provides an overview of the existing literature which examines the relationship between tourism, gender and poverty in poorer countries. It also reviews literature relating to gender disparity in Bangladeshi society at a wider political and economic level as well as a brief overview of literature relating to the socio-cultural barriers impacting the female labour market. This gives the paper a contextual framework to the field research carried out and is informative of research to date as well as identifying gaps that deserve further examination.
The primary research carried out is through a mixed method approach of both quantitative and qualitative means. The quantitative method employs a structured questionnaire with closed questions and is focused on two components of the tourism industry: hotels and restaurants. Gomes and Blake state that sampling was conducted based on ‘ad hoc and convenience techniques’ which comprised of 20 hotels and 22 restaurants, and the research was conducted in the low season in Cox’s Bazar (although the paper does not consider seasonality). The quantitative research indicates that the female labour market participation in the hotel and restaurant sector was significantly lower than male participation rates. The research also indicates that the higher end hotels employed a greater percentage of women, but still significantly less than the number of men and that even when women were employed, they were usually confined to ‘back room’ rolls such as cleaning and laundry.
Although the quantitative method is useful in the sense it gives us facts and figures to support the thesis, it is the qualitative element of this research which is most insightful. The responses given in recorded video interviews express a desire by women to work in the tourism industry but highlights that the necessary skills training and qualifications are not readily accessible. The practical problems that the women also spoke about, such as the lack of childcare and safe transport, meant that they were unable to work and were therefore limited to staying at home. A number of women also said social norms stigmatised women who worked in close contact with men as well as sexual harassment. Prevailing social and cultural attitudes also meant that some interviewees had to seek permission before looking for work as the traditional view is that men should be the main providers.
The key finding of this research therefore does not support the claim that tourism promotes gender equality and calls into question the argument put forward by United Nations World Tourism Organisation that tourism supports women’s economic empowerment in developing countries (2010). Gomes and Blake’s research in Cox’s Bazar shows the cultural and social impediments which women have to overcome in order to achieve economic and social equality.
The Bangladesh government has ambitions of developing tourism as a ‘thrust sector’ and Cox’s Bazar could well be its crowning jewel. But there is a caveat to this. Gender needs to be put at the centre of policy making for the development of the domestic tourism industry. Given the responses of the interviewees, addressing existing gender inequalities together with education and vocational training for women should be a priority if Bangladesh is to succeed in developing this sector of the economy. It is a lesson too for other countries looking to focus on tourism as a way to improve their economies. Additionally, the presence of the Rohingya refugees in the region has substantively altered the dynamics of the domestic tourist economy and is a further challenge to the cause of gender inequality in Cox’s Bazar.
Ahasan, N. (2022), ‘5 years on, Rohingyas in Bangladesh face hostility and dwindling aid’. Available at https://www.devex.com/news/5-years-on-rohingyas-in-bangladesh-face-hostility-and-dwindling-aid-103860
Ashley, C., Boyd, C. & Goodwin, H. (2001). Pro-poor tourism: Putting poverty at the heart of the tourism agenda documentation. Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London.
Lewis, D. (2018), ‘The view from Cox’s Bazar: assessing the impact of the Rohingya crisis on Bangladesh’. Available at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2018/04/11/the-view-from-coxs-bazar-assessing-the-impact-of-the-rohingya-crisis-on-bangladesh/
Gomes, T., and Blake, A. (2020), ‘Tourism as a Driver for Promoting Gender Equality? A Case Study of Participation of Women in the Tourism Labour Market in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Issues, 2(2), pp.178-189.
Islam, M.T. (2020), ‘Rohingya Massive Exodus into Cox’s Bazar Grows Security Concern: Impacts over Tourism of Bangladesh’. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344795048_Rohingya_Massive_Exodus_into_Cox’s_Bazar_Grows_Security_Concern_Impacts_over_Tourism_Industry_of_Bangladesh
Siddiqi, B. (2022), ‘Challenges and dilemmas of social cohesion between the Rohingya and host communities in Bangladesh’. Available at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fhumd.2022.944601/full.
United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2011). Global report on women in tourism 2010. Madrid: UNWTO. Available on: (http://ethics.unwto.org/content/global-report-womentourism-2010).
World Economic Forum (WEF) (2017). The global gender gap report. (https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2017).
Photo image, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – taken by Yasmin Begum