Meet the entrepreneurs

The tour operators run by women

At Responsible Travel, we are proud to support women who have founded and run vacation companies around the world. We interviewed several Managing Directors to find out more about the challenges they faced setting up their companies, what they feel is holding other women back – and why they believe in a bright future for women in tourism.
Manisha Pande is from the Indian Himalayan state of Uttarkhand. She began setting up Village Ways in 2005, to support communities who had become disadvantaged following the creation of a wildlife sanctuary on the edge of their villages. Village Ways now works with rural communities across India, as well as in Nepal and Ethiopia, in tourism, development, training, women’s empowerment and more.

Ridhi Patel is originally from Kolkata. Passionate about both volunteering and travel, she founded Volunteering Journeys in India to inspire more people to spend time in local communities and learn more about new cultures. Several of her projects employ only female staff, which can help to break down communication barriers with local communities.

Rita Marques set up ImpacTrip after backpacking in South East Asia, where she realised volunteering got her closer to local communities and culture. On her return home to Lisbon, Rita realised the opportunities for tourists to have a positive social and environmental impact didn’t exist in the same way. ImpacTrip, a certified B-Corp, now offers rewarding volunteer and cultural experiences for travelers in Portugal, Spain, Croatia, and Italy.

Jessica Brooks splits her time between Devon, UK and Mongolia. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Jess started Eternal Landscapes in 2010 and is passionate about nurturing and developing the talents of her local staff. She is proud that her team of local guides are all Mongolian women, and the company runs a free training programme for Mongolian women who want the opportunity to work in tourism.

Neha Arora grew up in India with two disabled parents. The challenges they faced traveling together as a family inspired her to start Planet Abled, a vacation company that has brought accessible travel to perhaps one of the least accessible countries in the world. Uniquely, her trips mix together people with and without disabilities – for her, disability is just another human feature.

Riitta Kiukas started Skafur Tour when she realised there was a gap in the market for arranging tailor-made vacations to her native Finland for small groups. Armed with a love of her country, and extensive project management and online marketing skills, Riitta now creates memorable, active vacations across the country. In doing so, she taps into her unique heritage that values nature for wellness and peace of mind.

A force for good

How women are creating positive change in tourism

Riitta Kiukas of Skafur Tour, says that tourism can help us understand the value of nature. Something that she believes can come from sharing her Finnish heritage with her guests:

“Finnish people have a unique relationship with nature. It is the source of inspiration and piece-of mind. It is said that “One hour in a forest daily keeps you happy.” I hope we can make people value nature more. We want every guest to experience silence and the beauty of nature like a local. To do that, service providers in Finland are all hand-picked local experts to ensure offer a two-way cultural experience. By making ecological choices in travel planning we can also influence the ecological impact of tourism. Therefore, we have created a selection of low carbon tours.”

Rita Marques at ImpacTrip connects travelers to established non-profit organisations to provide support for local conservation or social initiatives:

“Our job is not only to take care of the logistics of the programs but to connect travelers with really impactful projects locally. That's our most important role. We visit and curate each project we work with to make sure it makes sense for us to partner with them. What makes it special is that it's a genuine connection. The non-profits which welcome our travelers are not tourist agents, they are just happy to have extra hands to help them so it's a true match between what the traveler wants to learn and experience and what the non-profits need.”

Empowerment creates empowerment


One of the wonderful things about empowering women is that it creates a chain of benefits. Not only is a working woman better able to support and inspire their own children, but other women and girls in the community will look up to her – she leads by example. And in many cases, the women have gone on to create their own initiatives, which are much better equipped to deal with the difficulties women face in indigenous, conservative and/or rural communities, because they have experienced these difficulties themselves. Here are some examples of how women have gone on to support other women, getting a foothold in tourism and businesses in general.
Manisha Pande, founder of our supplier Village Ways, works in communities in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. By shifting timetables and familiarising themselves with the demands placed on local women, they have been able to ensure women are involved in training, meetings and working on tourism projects:
“In general in the hills, village life is quite tough, and the dependence of the family on the woman is much, much higher. She is working from morning to evening and she has a lot of dependent people in the family, including the children or even her elders. The challenge for Village Ways in terms of involving women is their availability. But what we have always tried to do is to make the trainings convenient for the village women.
"We hold trainings at the time when they are free, maybe encourage the committee to involve them in the work they can do within a few hours so that they can come and cook for example then go back and do their usual work. We have many such places in fishing villages in South India; the women come and cook the meal and then go back, then maybe come and meet the guests in the evening because they are not free during the day. The committee has adjusted the hours well so that it suits the women and they can be involved. It’s not that if they are not available we don’t involve them – let’s try and involve them in some way, and give them flexibility.”
Jess Brooks, from Eternal Landscapes, understands that local women need access to skills training to reach their potential.

“As part of our philosophy, we don’t outsource the logistics of our trips to those already working the tourism circuit. Instead, we want to show that everyone has great potential and so we invest – nurturing our own local operations and providing long-term employment opportunities to those often overlooked by other companies and supporting them in their aim to be the best they can be. This includes our free training programme for Mongolian women who want the opportunity to work in tourism – we’re proud that all of our guides are Mongolian women.”

A positive future


Ridhi Patel believes that the internet, mobile phones and other technologies will revolutionise women’s access to work, particularly for mothers: “These sorts of factors are going to make it easier for more and more women to be a part of a growing trend of women entrepreneurs because they can have a baby and work from home and run an online business. There is nothing like it. The technological advances are definitely going to play a huge part in women becoming part of something big. It’s not India-specific; it’s worldwide; more and more women are becoming independent and entrepreneurial, and this is only going to grow more with technology and with the means of working from anywhere. A lot of women are getting inspired by that, and it’s kind of a revolution happening now, more than ever. It’s a myth that women can’t achieve and this or that. The myth is always going to exist, but there are a lot of achievements out there. It’s good to have more and more people talking about this.”
Manisha Pande, from Village Ways, noticed women in India using their initiative to make the most of the options presented to them through tourism:

“We always need porters to carry luggage from one village to another; they are mostly people from the local village. Initially men were getting involved, but at one point I went to one of the villages saw that women were also going uphill and they were carrying the luggage of one of our guest parties who were staying there. It was so interesting because they carried the luggage to the roadhead, and on the way back they carried a bale of hay back to the village. They were going up the hill to bring the food or something from the forest anyway, so while they were walking uphill they carried the guests’ luggage, and when they came back they carried the hay or firewood. I spoke to them and they said, it’s really nice for us because we walk up the hills anyway and now the benefit is that we are also getting some income out of this. We leave the luggage at the roadhead and we come back and bring the firewood. The best part for me at that time was that they had moved away from the social taboo [of village women working with tourists], and that kind of barrier between them and the guests was slowly going away.”

Women taking off

Driving the future of tourism

Neha Arora dreams of a truly inclusive world, open to all. She believes by championing inclusive travel, where people with and without disabilities travel together, Planet Abled is on track to make it happen:

“My ultimate vision is that there are no barriers in tourism and the whole Planet is open for everyone to travel. Inclusion is in the DNA and every type of traveler has equitable access to travel experiences. Travelers with disabilities act as inclusion ambassadors to the destinations they visit. They raise awareness among their hosts and remote communities that one can still live a fulfilling and fun life with a disability, they have a career, have money to spend, and are equitable customers. The non disabled also experience traveling in an inclusive group, breaking their hesitations and apprehensions around disabled people. So both the hosts and the travelers actually enrich each other creating a force of good for an inclusive society.

For Jess Brooks at Eternal Landscapes, the future lies in continuing to empower the local communities that form the heart and soul of her Mongolia tours:

“Our tours don’t follow the typical stereotypes of a tour company – we have nothing to do with ‘big groups’ or ‘must-sees.’ Instead, Mongolia’s landscapes and the broader context within which Mongolians live their lives within those landscapes runs central to all of our tours - making connections with Mongolia’s diversity of people, places and culture. We are looking to start a guide school in Ulaanbaatar for Mongolian women whereby women from all social situations including those without an academic background can work towards a certification scheme allowing them to work as tour guides for any company.”

A sample of success

What can be achieved when women are empowered

Manisha Pande, Village Ways: “In one of the villages where we were working, people were migrating to towns and there were very few families left. The forestry department had said that they were now happy to leave the village and be compensated for leaving the village. When we started working there the women were the most enterprising as they were the most keen to stay in the village. They didn’t want to leave. So that was where we had our first women guides and one of the ladies recently went up to the city to do hospitality training. She was able to travel outside the village for four or five days to do this training.
"The initial reluctance to participate has become freedom, and they want to be exposed to new things, new ideas, they feel a lot of confidence and they feel very happy that they can now help their children better. A mother – if she is confident and educated and knows the right things –that can definitely positively influence her children as well. There is a huge difference in terms of how they have been involved. Originally there was a reluctance to share their own ideas with the men of the villages, and now they are very free to do that. We have discussions every two months, we have a committee meeting, and you can feel that there is now a difference in how they share their views and traditions.”
Neha Arora, Planet Abled: “Many of our customers never thought they could travel to certain destinations because of the perception of societal stigmas and lack of information about accessibility. But when they trusted us and took the leap they felt, if we can do this perhaps we can do something else too which we thought was never possible. We have had a wheelchair user, who after taking their first vacation with us went back and started to learn how to drive a car which earlier they thought was not possible for them. We have had a blind person gifting himself a solo trip on his birthday, and after he went home he started learning guitar, saying if he could break that one barrier, perhaps he should try this too.”
Photo credits: [Top box: Vicki Brown] [Helpdesk box: Volunteering Journeys] [Manisha Pande - Himalayan foothills: Find Your Feet] [Ridhi quote: Sirensongs] [Manisha Pande bottom quote: DFID - UK Department for International Development]
Written by Vicki Brown
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