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.

Samrawit Moges founded Travel Ethiopia in 1994, having worked in tourism since 1981. Women’s empowerment is a huge focus for her, and as well as the tour operator she has set up a lodge in the remote Afar region. Working closely with elders from the local Afar community who she employs at the lodge, she has been able to mimimise practices such as early marriage and FGM.

Annie Young worked with a conservation NGO before founding Ecocircuitos Panama in 1999. She believes that conservation applies just as much to local culture as it does to the environment. Working with different indigenous communities across her home country of Panama, she has tried to shift the perception of Panama as a destination for shopping, into one of rich culture, where tourism supports these communities.

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.

The challenges

what are the obstacles that women face?

Setting up a business is never easy – but as a woman, and particularly in a developing country 10 or 20 years ago – there are even more obstacles to overcome. Two of our entrepreneurs reflected on the early stages of their careers.
Samrawit Moges, Travel Ethiopia: “At that time [in the 1990s] I did not have sufficient vehicles, and the challenges I faced renting a vehicle from the male drivers were extremely discouraging. The way they talk to you, the way they uttered unnecessarily words – it was extremely challenging. And at the same time, when I took my clients out, when I spoke to them in the hotels, I was perceived differently. If a man goes to any place to discuss with foreign men that’s ok. That’s ok for the man. But for me, when I went out for dinner to discuss things with my clients, I was not perceived as a business person. I was perceived as a prostitute. They assumed that my relationship with the foreigners was not a business relationship because I am a woman.”
Annie Young, Ecocircuitos Panama: “It was really challenging. When I started [in 1999] it was a boys’ club, there were a few companies that were doing what I wanted to do and all those companies were managed by guys. And when I first started I was approached by the owners by two of those companies telling me – why don’t you come and work with us instead of starting your own company? I said I could be a business for you to work with – but they said no, no, no, we don’t want a woman business partner, I want you to work with me, but I don’t want a business partner who is a woman. That shocked me. Then I wanted to have a loan from the bank because I wanted to be able to invest in kayaks and buy my own equipment, and it was really difficult to have the loan because I was a woman. So I had to have my brother and my father – even they do not work in the company any more – being able to sign so I could have that loan, because I had them in my company. It’s a macho country, Panama.”

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.”
Samrawit Moges, from Travel Ethiopia, understands that women need access to finance – and a unique initiative in Ethiopia is offering just that: “One of the most important things in our sector is communication and public speaking, and that has encouraged many of my people. The culture forces you to be shy, but we are not shy any more. The women entrepreneurs now are amazing – I mean amazing. Women are creative, you know. With a very small amount of money, the kind of business they create is extraordinary. And right now in Ethiopia we have a female bank, established by women. This bank is also assists many women in getting loans, getting their business proposals written and much more. So what I can do – I give loans to a woman in collaboration with the bank. And once that woman is established, I will get back my money. So we are trying to help each other.”

A positive future


Annie Young reflects on the social changes that have occurred since she founded her business in 1999: “In our line of work in tourism, the area that Ecocircuitos Panama works in [with local communities], there are still not so many women. But today they do have more help; there are more international organisations and companies like Responsible Travel supporting these efforts. For us, we don’t want to be the only tour operator that works with those communities. We wish there were ten other operators working with those communities so they would have more benefits on a regular basis. That is the issue for some communities. They want to do tourism, they have a beautiful product but they cannot depend on only one tour operator because the niche is too small.”
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.”

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.”
Photo credits: [Top box: Vicki Brown] [Samrawit Moges quote 1: DFID - UK Department for International Development] [Helpdesk box: Volunteering Journeys] [Manisha Pande - Himalayan foothills: Find Your Feet] [Samrawit Moges quote 2: DFID - UK Department for International Development] [Ridhi quote: Sirensongs] [Manisha Pande bottom quote: DFID - UK Department for International Development]
Written by Vicki Brown
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