Sustainable tourism: a route to women’s empowerment, or a stagnation of progress? The contradictory relationship between sustainability and SDG#5 in Turkish tourism

As part of the tourism development of the Cappadocia region, hot air balloon rides form a key touristic attraction in Goreme.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a group of 17 global aims which embody a commitment by United Nations member states to address global issues such as poverty, health and gender equality. Notwithstanding, new research conducted by one of Equality in Tourism’s own Associates, Professor Hazel Tucker (The Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2020), considers the contradictions which arise through sustainable development in tourism, which can at once promote both change and continuance of women’s unequal status and treatment in the sector.

These paradoxes are explored through the case of Goreme, a small town in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, which has been historically conservative. Tucker observed how the industry has affected the rights of the women and girls in the town.

The research affirms that women’s rights have been advanced through tourism development. It has provided more women the opportunity to work, normalizing their participation in public life. This has in turn shifted attitudes about women’s roles being dominantly within the private, domestic sphere of housework and childcare. The cultural exchanges that spontaneously generate in tourism scenarios has also widened women and girls’ ambitions, as while this central region of Turkey has low rates of progression to education for girls, Goreme is above the regional average. These gains demonstrate the potential of sustainable tourism to reconstruct the gender playbook.

However, the effects are not straightforward, as sustainable tourism has also stagnated the advancement of women’s rights. An unintended bi-product is the de-valuing of local women’s work in the agricultural industry. The development of the tourism economy in the town has led to those not involved in tourism, such as female agricultural workers, becoming relatively impoverished. This speaks to the way that sustainability and tourism can simultaneously champion and constrain women, in a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ effect. As feminists, we must always ensure that our actions promote the interests of the most marginalised women in our communities.

What is particularly interesting is how the development of sustainable tourism has incentivised the sustainment of an older, more traditional Goreme culture. This is one which engages tourists by cultivating a nostalgic fantasy by harking back to the ‘old Turkey’. Paradoxically, an impetus is created for women to re-enact more traditional female archetypes, by for example hosting cooking workshops, or creating handicrafts to sell as souvenirs. The double-edged sword of sustainable tourism is on full display here, as whilst women benefit in terms of their social and financial independence, in doing so they reaffirm very traditional gender roles!

Ultimately, Tucker’s research demonstrates some important lessons for all those working to advance global gender equality. Whilst SDG#5 is a worthy pursuit for feminists to aspire to, we must also be aware of how our activities may indirectly affect all women in every context.


Tucker, H. 2020. Gendering sustainability’s contradictions: between change and continuity. Journal of Sustainable Tourism. 22(8). 1-18. DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2020.1839902

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