As we celebrate Tourism Month during September, Tourism Update is examining the tourism industry in South Africa across a series of articles with insight from industry experts.

Women in the tourism industry are continuing to break new ground. Tourism Update spoke with a number of women working in tourism about their role in the industry.

Gillian Saunders, Special Adviser to the Minister, says things in the industry have definitely progressed from when she started in the 1980s. “When I started working in the hospitality industry, there were no female general managers at hotels. It was a very male-dominated sector.” However, she notes that on a service level, hospitality and tourism are often dominated by women. “So we should ask, why it is that women are running the lower echelons of the industry but not featuring enough in management?” Saunders also notes that worldwide, the travel and tourism industry continues to be dominated by white males.

Jane Edge, Managing Director of Fair Trade Tourism agrees that top management is still male. “The travel industry is largely populated by women, but they are often not in decision-making or CEO positions, and tend to be viewed as supporters rather than leaders.”

However, despite this lack of representation, it is largely agreed that women in the industry bring vital characteristics to help grow tourism. Sonto Ndlovu, CEO of Limpopo Tourism, says: “Women can be very compassionate and understanding. This helps create connections, which in a person-based industry like tourism, is key. The face-to-face interactions we experience with tourists will always make their trip more memorable.” Edge adds that women bring an ability to listen and collaborate. “In difficult decisions, women will generally be the ones seeking consensus and collaboration to reach a commonly identified goal,” says Edge.

“In this industry, and especially in Africa, there needs to be diverse thinking. Having women involved in strategy means that the industry is embracing diverse thought and experiences,” explains Saunders. She also notes that in South Africa’s public sector and key tourism associations, women are better represented than in the private sector. Ndlovu also suggests that women are resilient, which, in an industry that fluctuates as much as tourism does, is a key characteristic. “Women who enter the industry will remain in tourism, despite the challenges, and they are able to see it through.”

As a young nation, South Africa’s focus on youth-driven initiatives is important, and even more important for young women who, according to Edge and Saunders, need role models in key positions that give them something to aspire to. “This industry is so often seen as a last resort for a career. It’s seen as the fallback option when something else didn’t work,” says Ndlovu. Edge agrees: “The tourism industry needs to be viewed as a serious and substantial economic sector, not just as a soft option for young women with no real career ambitions, and people in leadership positions need to be well remunerated.”

“Young women need to interact with the industry, from as early as high school level. The industry is about a lot more than just tour guiding and we have a responsibility to make sure young women know that,” says Ndlovu. Edge notes the huge potential for growth and contribution to the economy that tourism provides: “Young women should be encouraged to see the sector as providing a diverse and exciting opportunity to contribute to meaningful, inclusive growth in South Africa.”

Saunders believes that there needs to be a shift in the way the industry is portrayed. “We need to see it on the business pages as a driver of the economy. It must be side-by-side with other key sectors in South Africa for growth and opportunity. By showing the importance of tourism to the country, we might be able to change the perception that it is a fallback career.”