Why gender should be at the forefront of the Travel Foundation’s call to put communities at the centre of recovery from COVID-19.

EiT Trustee Angela Kalisch expands on a recent op-ed piece by Jeremy Sampson of The Travel Foundation, elaborating on the organisation’s intention to firmly place communities at the heart of the recovery process from COVID-19.

The tourism industry has been catapulted into a global emergency by COVID-19. After decades of stable growth, only temporarily interrupted by incidents of terrorism, pandemics or natural catastrophes, it has now come to a complete standstill. Millions have already lost their jobs and their livelihoods, no more so than the people eking out an existence at the margins of society. This global pandemic is a health and economic disaster which will bring poverty and hardship to many communities, especially those who have come to depend on tourism to increase their quality of life and choice of opportunity in the absence of other economic options. Tourism, notwithstanding its potential for degeneration, has been a life line for many people in local, especially rural, communities, who have benefitted from the emerging awareness of sustainable and responsible tourism in the form of cultural, community-based or agro tourism. On the other hand, where communities have had to resist the ravages of tourism – think land grab, pollution and natural resource depletion – communities may breathe a sigh of relief, grateful for some respite. Either way, severe economic poverty and austerity will be a reality for many communities for some time to come, particularly in poorer countries.

Many of us in the sustainable/responsible tourism field have been working to put communities at the centre of the sustainable tourism debate for about three decades. Let’s for instance remember Tourism Concern’s strapline in the 1990’s of ‘Putting People in the Picture’. Their archive is still available on the Travindy website, for those who are interested.

It is therefore encouraging that Jeremy Sampson, Chief Executive of The Travel Foundation, recently published a LinkedIn post elaborating the organisation’s intention to firmly place communities at the heart of the recovery process from COVID-19.

Of course the term ‘community’ embraces a multitude of meanings. There is a huge bank of research and knowledge, at academic, practitioner and activist levels, to inform how the focus on communities in the recovery process from this lethal virus might create a more ethical, responsible and sustainable tourism future.

One could debate which systemic, structural and transformative changes in the global socio-economic spheres are needed to truly bring this about. But what can hardly be refuted is the need for putting gender equality at the heart of any recovery, including in tourism, and in communities.

Before COVID-19, tourism offered huge possibilities for women’s empowerment wherever the industry was willing to recognise the importance of the ethical and economic imperative of gender equality. The majority of the labour force in tourism consists of women, yet they are regrettably over-represented in so-called ‘unskilled’ and low paid jobs. Women tend to be exploited as a key force in the economic growth in tourism because they work hard, are paid less than men and, all too often, bear the brunt of unpaid care work and domestic duties at home. Women are involved in microbusinesses and SMEs, in many cases informally, which, apart from discriminatory laws, prevents them from gaining access to finance. In developing economies informal work makes up 70 percent of women’s employment, and informal jobs are the first to disappear in times of economic uncertainty. They struggle to be included in decision-making processes due to their domestic responsibilities, compounded by social and cultural constraints; not to mention the exploitative practices in some tourism destinations, leading to objectification, sexual abuse, human trafficking and slavery.

Research shows that women’s empowerment, apart from the individual, social and economic benefits to women, can create healthier, more cohesive communities. It thereby also contributes to community resilience in times of crisis. So, putting gender equality at the heart of recovery of communities as part of a diversity strategy, which accepts the reality of intersectionality, is imperative. For this to happen, a gender lens needs to be trained on all policy making and action planning.

This should include (prepare yourself, this is a long list):

… and whatever else is deemed necessary in different local contexts.

A truly transformational community recovery strategy for sustainable or regenerative tourism is not just about increasing representation of women in certain areas, but also about a different vision of society, which is generated by the empowerment of women and girls.

Equality in Tourism is ready to collaborate on that.