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IIn recent weeks, South Africa has reverberated with the remarkable achievements of its women in sports, from the Proteas securing the sixth spot at the Netball World Cup 2023 in Cape Town to Banyana Banyana's impressive journey to the last sixteen in the ongoing FIFA Women's World Cup.  This vibrant spirit of women's significance transcends the confines of sports fields, resonating across diverse facets of society, even casting its empowering glow upon the realm of Tourism.


A survey by South African Tourism found that women are significant contributors to the tourism sector, making up 51% of the workforce, 45% of ownership, and the majority having served the industry for decades.

In fact, 39% of women in tourism have over 20 years of experience, and 37% report higher earnings than in other industries.

Despite some challenges, 84% of women in tourism would recommend a career in the sector.

Conducted among 364 women actively engaged in the tourism sector, the dipstick survey revealed a critical gap in South Africa's approach. A glaring revelation from this study underscores the absence of a comprehensive database capturing the women workforce within the tourism realm. This absence significantly constrains the nation's ability to comprehensively monitor and evaluate women's advancement and challenges in the sector, thereby hindering a truly representative understanding of their journey.

Study results

Delving deeper into the study results, the South African Tourism Women in Tourism survey sought to capture the specific experiences of women within the tourism sector. While the initial data presents an optimistic view, a detailed analysis uncovers a nuanced understanding of the respondents’ geographical distribution.

Most of these women originate from the country's key economic centres, with 35% from Gauteng, and 34% from the Western Cape.

The survey provides a varied perspective on women's roles within the industry. The demographics breakdown illustrates that half of the respondents, or 50%, fell within the age bracket of 36 to 50. Meanwhile, 25% were aged between 51 and 60. Financially, 15% earned less than R10,000 per month, while the majority, comprising 37%, earned between R10,000 and R30,000 monthly.

Women are the tourism sector have a wealth of experience

The tourism sector stands out for its extensive experience base. 39% of respondents boasted over two decades in the industry, and approximately 70% possessed more than ten years of experience. Notably, a substantial percentage held higher education qualifications, half possessing degrees or post-graduate qualifications. Conversely, less than 4% consisted of students or interns.

But there are challenges…

Despite the strides, challenges abound. The survey uncovers the multifaceted difficulties women encounter in the tourism sector. These span from disturbing experiences of bullying, racism, and discrimination—whether grounded in gender, age, or both—to more systemic issues. Respondents grapple with subpar pay, extended working hours, and limited financial rewards, with the profession’s demands being exceptionally taxing for mothers.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has further strained the sector, exacerbating work-life balance struggles. Of concern is that the survey also flags that women perceive their remuneration as not aligning with international benchmarks, find their upward mobility restricted, and lament a perceived shortfall in governmental backing for tourism-focused small enterprises.

Based on the feedback and insights collected, the survey suggests a range of recommendations, from advocating for equal representation in senior roles to emphasising work-life balance.

The survey emphasises the importance of women holding authoritative positions across all ages and races. Their presence in decision-making roles is critical for instigating positive change. As articulated by one respondent, the challenge many face is “Not being taken seriously in the boardroom.” This hints at the necessity of robust policies ensuring women aren’t left isolated in leadership positions.

What about the next generation of women?

Critically important is to promote awareness among young girls about the myriad opportunities in the tourism sector. Embed tourism in academic curricula, ensuring students understand its breadth and depth. One respondent lamented, “There’s a lack of local travel-specific and internationally accredited education, especially in niche sectors like MICE.”

The issue of financial support must be addressed. Make available financial tools and resources tailored for women in tourism. This should include grants, loans, and initiatives to nurture women’s entrepreneurship. The sentiment expressed by one of the respondents was clear: “Access to development funds is almost impossible for Small, Medium, and Micro Enterprises.”

Respondents said that policies supporting work-life balance are pivotal in an industry known for demanding hours. This includes flexible hours, comprehensive maternity leave, and childcare provisions. One respondent mentioned, “To progress, men must adopt a work-life balance. Encouraging male employees to be involved in family time can significantly aid women’s advancement.”

Importance of gender equality

Women are calling for campaigns and initiatives that emphasise the importance of gender equality in tourism. The sector is responsive; on May 9, 2023, at Africa’s Travel Indaba held in Durban, over 100 tourism stakeholders signed the Inclusivity Pledge. The pledge was signed by tourism stakeholders, including government officials, tourism businesses, and non-governmental organisations. They are all dedicated to promoting diversity, ensuring equal opportunity and combating discrimination. The industry is uniting to create an inclusive environment where every visitor, irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, can enjoy their stay.

There's a strong demand to establish platforms promoting mentorship and funding women-led businesses. Such initiatives nurture a culture of camaraderie and support. As one respondent aptly said, “Pairing women professionals with experienced mentors can unlock numerous growth avenues.”

Equally pressing is the need to actively promote and share narratives of women making commendable contributions to the tourism sector. One participant said, “We need to uplift young women by highlighting the achievements of those who’ve paved the way in tourism.”

Given the current circumstances, an increasingly strong urge emerges to embrace data-driven insights. It is imperative to enhance data collection methods, a pivotal step in monitoring advancements and identifying areas for enhancement. By harnessing precise data, we can sculpt policies grounded in substantial evidence, reinforcing the principles of transparency and accountability. To comprehensively gauge the role of women in the tourism sector, it is essential to establish a national database that holistically represents women across all tiers of the industry.

Women in Tourism Programme

The recent survey underscores the significance of the Women in Tourism (WiT) Programme. Established in 2013, WiT hasn’t just been symbolic but a catalyst for change within South Africa’s tourism sector.

With Respect, Recognition, Representation, and Reward principles, WiT provides a platform where diverse women converge, united by shared aspirations. These principles have driven a transformative agenda, amplifying the role of women in tourism.

The programme’s focus on networking, reducing barriers, and aligning with similar organisations only accentuates its impact, shaping a brighter, more inclusive future.

The findings emphasise women’s indispensable role in South Africa’s tourism sector. As the nation forges ahead, its women stand at the forefront, exemplifying this year’s Women’s Month theme: “Accelerating socio-economic opportunities for the empowerment of women.”

More Women Employed = Bigger Profits

During her address at the “Women Deliver Global Conference” in Kigali in July 2023, Julia Simpson, WTTC President & CEO, said: “It is proven that companies that have 50% women in their leadership make more money. This makes even more sense in travel and tourism where women make the buying decisions on where to go on holiday. ‘It also makes good sense to employ women in senior roles; why would you exclude access to 50% of global talent.  

The opportunity

In 2023, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) projects that tourism will contribute 6.8% to the nation's economy. This substantial figure underscores tourism's immense role in crafting inspirational career pathways for young women. Beyond the mere economic impact, it offers a vast arena for nurturing diversity within the sector and South Africa. This offers a profound opportunity to reshape the sector, fostering women's ownership of enterprises and amplifying their influential presence in the boardroom. Indeed, the trajectory of South Africa's tourism sector can only be authentically altered when it is steered with the empowerment and leadership of women at its core.


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