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Igniting tourism recovery: The role of women leaders in tourism

Prof Nellie Swart, CMP, Programme Leader: Executive Development Programme for Women in Tourism

Women leaders have the ability to empower aspiring entrepreneurs in tourism. This has been widely recognized in global reports, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN, 2015), the Global Report on Women in Tourism (UNWTO, 2019) and the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap (WEF, 2019). However, towards the end of women’s month and with the prospects of tourism month in September, many women in tourism stand with their back against the wall, as they are more vulnerable than before. Words such as ‘blood bath’ has been used to describe the impact of COVID19 on businesses and job losses in the tourism sector. In March 2020, it was estimated that around 70% of employees in the tourism sector are women and youth, many of these women are single mothers and the only bread winner for the family. In an effort to survive, many women moved back ‘home’, to their families in mostly rural areas, with the hope that the tourism recovery plan will give them another lifeline to employment.

Globally, tourism recovery is projected to be slow with the International Airport Transport Association (IATA) predicting air travel recovery by 2024 while in the United States hotel occupancy is expected to recover by 2023. In South Africa, new tourism related protocols were proposed, debated, and gazetted. The collaboration and resilience of the sector became evident through the establishment of bodies such as the Events Safety Council under the leadership of mostly women, while the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) initiated a number of engagements with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) in desperate efforts to save jobs and to protect livelihoods.

Before COVID-19, tourism was highlighted as a custodian of job creation, empowerment of women and poverty alleviation not only in South Africa, but across the African continent. Women in Tourism chapters were established across the country, and the transformation of the industry gained momentum. For a moment it seemed all the gains made over the past few years were lost, as the media widely reported on the closing of a number of tourism-related businesses.

So, where to from here?

History has taught us that many innovations and ground-breaking inventions were made during testing times. Many of these were made by women such as the invention of wireless transmission technology by Hedy Lamarr during World War II in 1941. More recently women leaders across the globe were praised for their handling of the pandemic, and in South Africa, the Minister of Tourism is also a woman.

Women in leadership positions are often criticised for not being as ‘tough’ as men, or as being held to higher standards. Yet women are often praised for their transformational leadership style through coaching and mentorship. These qualities are needed for the design and execution of a post pandemic tourism recovery strategy. Women leaders are known for their ability to motivate a team, they have empathy, good communication skills and encourage creative solutions to problems.

During the month of August, women in the industry started the #IAmTourism campaign. The purpose of this initiative is to acknowledge and celebrate, the number of women who had an impact on the industry. Women are known for their resilience, discipline, courage and survival skills, which are critical as we open the industry for travel. New opportunities will arise for women who have lost their jobs, and the reward will be more promising for the women entrepreneurs in tourism. While we anticipate the tourism recovery, women must empower themselves with a wider skill set and additional knowledge. To meet these needs the UNISA Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL) Executive Education (ExecEd@SBL) offers amongst other, the Executive Development Programme for Women in Tourism. This programme aims to equip women with critical knowledge and skills, not only to become managers in a tourism business, but also to be empowered as an entrepreneur.

Amongst the biggest challenges women face, are a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Many women think they are not good enough or worthy to become entrepreneurs, despite their academic qualifications. Research highlights cultural barriers and access to resources such as finance, as additional challenges to the empowerment of women leaders and entrepreneurs. Going forward we need the retrenched single mother with a post school qualification to be developed as an entrepreneur in her rural community. She needs to trust the knowledge she accumulated through her post school qualification and experience she has gained in the industry to start a small business, focusing on her core capabilities.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (2018) highlights that “Tourism has the potential to be the first step into formal economy for women who come from underserved communities”. Therefore, women in local communities must create co-operatives to ignite a tourism value chain. Collaborative initiatives amongst women have the potential to establish tourism villages, consisting of a bouquet of tourism products for domestic tourists to enjoy. Conventional leadership styles might not be appropriate under these new initiatives, as women often find comfort in their traditions, culture and heritage. There is an opportunity for women traditional leaders to support, mobilize and encourage women entrepreneurs in tourism. Through transformational leadership, our traditional leaders can mentor women entrepreneurs while they develop and expand their tourism products.

The Department of Tourism offers tourism capacity building programmes, where entrepreneurs are encouraged to join a local tourism organization (LTO). Special tourism business funding programmes are available through the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), where women entrepreneurs can borrow money at favourable interest rates. These are some of the initiatives to equip women in the transformation of the tourism economy.

Women entrepreneurs in tourism has an opportunity to develop and establish authentic and innovative tourism products. During this time of tourism recovery these tourism products can be refined by the domestic market and marketed to source markets as bucket list experiences.

By 2023 South Africa must have new and fresh tourism products aligned with world class experiences. We need be ready to welcome tourists to our shores when international travel restores to its previous levels. Therefore, we cannot afford to wait until travel has recovered, but use this time to groom our women as tourism entrepreneurs. Therefore #IAmTourism during a time where #WomenInTourism must be #TourismStrong as we prepare to #RestartTourism.

Applications for the EDP WiT open 15 September 2020.

Article submitted by: Prof Nellie Swart, CMP, Programme Leader: Executive Development Programme for Women in Tourism

Publish date: 2020/08/28