Indigenous Women & Tourism Planning: Lessons from Ecuador


How can indigenous women lead sustainability and gender equality in the tourism industry?

This was the question Veronica Santafe-Troncoso and Ayme Tanguila-Andy set out to explore in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism

Focusing on the Kichwa Napo Runa women in the Amazonia region of Ecuador, the authors studied women who were actively involved in the tourism industry in the region. For local women, tourism has become a means of improving their lives, especially with community-based tourism, which focuses on local participation and sustainable livelihoods. 

The authors, who both have a connection with indigenous communities – Tanguila-Andy is a Kichwa Napo Runa woman herself – offer some interesting insights into the experience of indigenous women in tourism.

Indigenous People and the Tourism Industry

At the outset, it is worth noting that the relationship between indigenous people and tourism can be a vexed one. On the one hand tourism can help to provide a livelihood while promoting indigenous culture. On the other, it can be exploitative and disrupt indigenous life. 

There may not be an easy solution to reconciling these contradictions. But the authors note that it has long been recognised that the relationship can be improved if the indigenous people are empowered and can play an active role in developing tourism.

While acknowledging that gender inequality is a broader problem in the tourism industry, the authors observe that the position of indigenous women is compounded by the fact that they may also need to deal with violence and discrimination. 

Their research highlights the importance for indigenous women to achieve recognition and visibility for their efforts in developing tourism. Their findings also support earlier work which showed that addressing gender inequality is a fundamental prerequirement towards sustainable tourism.

Framework: Intersectionality and Indigenous Planning

The authors lay out a clear conceptual framework for their study. Firstly, they discuss intersectional approaches to understanding the position of indigenous women – that is, assessing the multiple systems of potential control or subjugation such as race, ethnicity and age. Inequality can be multi-faceted and any effort to achieve gender equality requires addressing multiple elements. In addition, they also consider relationality – the interconnectedness between people. 

Image source – Alan de la Cruz, Unsplash

Secondly, the authors consider “indigenous planning” – the ability to make decisions about their place, and the collation, dissemination and applications of knowledge. In their view, a gender approach acknowledging that women may be subject to high levels of violence needs to inform the latter. Napo Runa women are subjected to twice as much physical, sexual and psychological abuse as non-indigenous women (Proamazonia, 2019) and this cannot be understated. 

One important feature which this research therefore draws out is that looking at indigenous experience is not the same as exploring the experience of indigenous women. Women typically face additional and different challenges to indigenous men.

The Role of Napo Runa Women in Tourism

In their research, the authors employed a qualitative case study approach, with a series of interviews across a relatively small sample size (21). This could arguably be seen as a positive in terms of the quality of the data collected and the insights gained as a result of the in depth and “iterative” approach to the interviews. 

The authors looked at three areas: the role of Napo Runa women in developing indigenous tourism, indigenous planning as a way to empower women, and intersectional and relationship aspects.

Invisible Work in Developing Indigenous Tourism

The main finding for the first of these was that the efforts of the women were very often not reflected in any official data so that they were essentially “invisible”. Remarkably, this was despite Napo Runa women featuring prominently in promotion campaigns. The authors posit that the omissions might have been because many Napo Runa women engage in informal economic activities, but it also might be due to biases in data collection. 

In any case, the lack of visibility is important. Indigenous women can be more vulnerable to violence and discrimination as a result of being invisible. If the work of indigenous women is not captured in official sources and data, then it’s hard to officially acknowledge this work and, importantly, associated risks, including personal safety. 

The authors also found that Napo Runa women were seen as knowledge keepers – a traditional role in the Napo Runa communities – and participants felt that this was important in making tourism more inclusive. 

Despite the official invisibility, participants noted there had been more demonstrations of leadership, especially from younger Napo Runa women. One community-based project, Sinchi Warmi – which translates as “strong women” – was entirely run by women and created opportunities for other women. The President of the largest indigenous tourism network (REDTURCON) was also a Napo Runa woman.

Indigenous Feminist Planning

In terms of indigenous planning, the authors found that the increasing involvement of Napo Runa women in tourism was a positive influence for sustainability. This was linked to leadership, often in the context of community-based initiatives. Two projects in particular were cited (Amupakin and Sindhi Warmi) as examples of indigenous feminist planning where Napo Runa women were developing practices to ensure that tourism would meet their needs and address their concerns (such as access to health services and family-work balance).

Intersectional and Relationship Aspects

Finally, the authors looked at the intersectional and relationship aspects. Gender, ethnicity, disability and age intersect and affect the lives of Napo Runa women. The authors recall how one participant described the triple discrimination faced by a disabled Napo Runa girl. 

In addition, there is a legacy of violence (which the authors refer to as a colonial legacy) which also needs to be addressed. This is highlighted as a tangible impediment in the lives of indigenous women and one which would need to be addressed to improve gender equality. 

The colonial legacy survives through patriarchy, with men continuing to abuse indigenous women. One participant recounted a story of a police officer who did not intervene when a man hit his wife because Napo Runa women were used to such “love”.

Recognising the Efforts of Indigenous Women

Although the authors worked with a small sample size, the research highlights two important areas for consideration. 

Firstly, in order to achieve the goal of gender equality in the context of indigenous women in tourism, their involvement needs to be recognised by the relevant authorities and officials. If indigenous women are operating “under the radar”, they are vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation. Importantly, without this recognition, it is also hard for indigenous women to articulate their views when it comes to developing local tourism. 

Secondly, an intersectional lens becomes important when evaluating the needs of indigenous women. It is necessary to take into account a number of factors, including age and ethnicity, when assessing the role indigenous women play in tourism. A multi-factor approach is therefore needed to ensure the impediments to the goal of gender equality can be adequately addressed.

Keep up with our latest tourism and gender insights on LinkedIn or sign up to our newsletter via the form below.

More Insights to Explore: