Tourism for women's rights?

The prevailing oppressive and exploitative tourism industry cannot be allowed to take centrestage in the garb of protection and promotion of women's rights, says Albertina Almeida.

IN the dominant discourse by nation-states on gender concerns, tourism is touted as a medium for peace, women's empowerment, employment and economic advancement. It is also projected as providing agency to women. These claims sweep under the carpet the very commodification of whole peoples and of women that is taking place in the name of tourism.

The Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA), adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women convened by the United Nations in Beijing in 1995, provided an opening, albeit a narrow one, to put the gender scanner on the tourism industry. The BPFA specifically recognised violence against women as a critical area of concern, being an obstacle to the achievement of equality, development and peace, and noted the impacts of tourism by way of calling for the effective suppression of trafficking of women and girls for the sex trade within this critical area of concern. It invited the UN Commission on Human Rights' Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women to address within her mandate and as a matter of urgency the issue of sex tourism.

In her report to the Commission on Human Rights in 2000,1 the Special Rapporteur noted that poverty and unemployment increase opportunities for trafficking and breed forms such as sex tourism in addition to the established forms of trafficking, which are incompatible with the equal enjoyment of rights by women and with respect for their rights and dignity and put women at special risk of violence and abuse. The lack of rights afforded to women serves as the primary causative factor at the root of both women's migration and trafficking in women.

But within trafficking, sex tourism as such did not encounter a special scrutiny, obviously on the grounds that it was just a by-product of some tourism gone bad, or just some trafficking masquerading as tourism. The entire character and basis of the dominant tourism industry did not come under the Special Rapporteur's lens, even as 1995 already saw neoliberal politics and globalisation sweep Asian countries.

Implementation of the BPFA

Given that gender concerns on tourism were reduced to violence against women, one of 12 critical areas of concern within the BPFA, ironically, 20 years down the line when nation-states were called upon to take stock of the implementation of the BPFA, tourism was in fact reported by nation-states to be a booster for women in so far as the other critical areas of concern go. It was seen as a medium for boosting employment for women, a clean non-polluting industry, an industry that helps women break the glass ceiling.  There was not even a deeper look at the links between sex tourism and trafficking as a form of violence against women.

Countries presented reports taking stock of implementation of the BPFA during the 'Beijing+20' deliberations at the 59th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59) in March.2 A perusal of some of the reports from Asian countries, in terms of how they address trafficking and in terms of the role they see for tourism, is instructive in understanding where the problem lies and imagining a different perspective in action.

Take India's report, which brags about adopting a Code of Conduct for 'Safe and Honourable Tourism' to aid the prevention of prostitution, sex tourism and forms of sexual exploitation like assaults and molestation in tourism, to safeguard the safety of persons, including women and children. The Indian government got this Code 'voluntarily' signed by some leading stakeholders on World Tourism Day 2010. Peer through it and you will see that it is a retreat from India's own laws, which make it compulsory - not just voluntary - for stakeholders to comply with laws related to trafficking, sexual violence and representation in the media through sexually explicit images. Is this yet another example of corporate social responsibility that seeks to evade or dilute corporate legal responsibility?

The Philippines reported that with the support of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), it tried addressing credit constraints for small and medium enterprises, particularly in relation to problems of inadequate collateral and developing a winning business proposal that is acceptable for loan applications. The project also aimed to promote increased trade and investment through better provision of infrastructure and increased competitiveness of key industries such as tourism. There was no explanation for the basis of this collaborative project nor a status report of the project. This would naturally leave the reader seized with curiosity as to whether USAID, whose funding conditionalities include non-support for abortion, could at all appreciate the problems that trafficking of women for tourism brings about; whether USAID, whose economic policies attribute bad economics to merely corruption in the literal sense, would not overlook the displacement from land and livelihoods that dominant economic models cause.

The Philippines Commission for Women is stated to have adopted a policy for economic empowerment of women through gender-responsive ecotourism. What does that mean? Tourists/locals warned against sexual harassment? Women in leadership positions in tourist enterprises? But what about the base of the dominant ecotourism industry which fails to address the structural issues of inequality and is founded on disregard for communities already marginalised by caste and class, who are compelled to either live controlled lives or exit these ecotourism spots? The policy of enjoining the Tourism Promotion Board to make the tourism marketing campaigns gender-sensitive, seems to be the lone lantern illuminating the trajectory of the tourism industry for women's rights.

Malaysia also flagged tourism skills acquired by women as worthy of incubation under the Single Mother Skills Incubation Programme, to encourage generation of income based on these skills, without even considering the structural character of the tourism industry today that is increasingly condominium-ising various tourism products, where independent small and medium entrepreneurs have no chance to survive being swallowed by mega-tourism in the era of global corporate capital. So a tiny shack is not acceptable and may be accompanied by the attendant insecurities of yearly allotment, apart from various other hurdles placed by starred tourist resorts which see them as obstacles to good business in their own restaurants. The overall suppressive trend of dispensing with small businesses and glamorising brand names is simply not addressed. What needs to change is 'the playing field upon which commerce has continued to play the game over the past 200 years', as the World Union of Small and Medium Enterprises expressed in its statement circulated at CSW59.3

The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007 enacted by Malaysia made the salutary provision of not prosecuting trafficked victims for illegal entry with fraudulent documents. But this would by no means address the issue of forced prostitution within the ambit of the tourism industry, a prostitution that is forced by economic circumstances. Malaysia's report itself acknowledges that it has set up a National Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants, headed by the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Home Affairs, in order to make Malaysia internationally accredited as being free of illegal activities in connection with human trafficking and smuggling of migrants. The language of women's rights took a backseat.

Nepal's review is even more disturbing. The report brazenly stated that Nepal wished to upgrade itself from Tier Two to Tier One under the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, hence merely pitching for a better place under the UN sun, without at all trying to redress the prevailing circumstances that drive women to become victims of trafficking, which the UN Special Rapporteur has well documented. So attention is focused on the symptoms rather than the disease in recognising trafficking of young girls and women in the domestic sex industry operating under the ambit of the entertainment sector. Ire is channelled towards proposing bans on this domestic industry under moralist garb, rather than improvement of the working conditions of women in the entertainment or hospitality industry as a whole, or a scrutiny of the entertainment industry managed by the dominant transnational and domestic players.

Kyrgyzstan's review offers some attempt at structural redressal by making a beginning towards establishing a system of indicators on trafficking significant for improving gender statistics. It would help to know whether these indicators were developed through participatory processes. Contrast the state's report with the statement of the Forum of Women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan circulated at CSW59. It makes a clear reference to economic losses of women leading to dramatic migration of rural women, who become subjected to discrimination on many grounds abroad. Forced migration for rural women to entertainment industries, even to other Asian countries which exploit, is so visible! State policy changes should be accompanied by means of implementation, including adequate finances, should involve regular result-based accountability from all development actors, and should be based on local women's needs, the Forum of Women's NGOs has demanded.

The review from Japan acknowledged that child prostitution is committed by Japanese nationals abroad, that it furthers trafficking in persons in the countries concerned, and that efforts were made to raise awareness of potential perpetrators through posters and distribution of leaflets at travel agencies and passport centres in Japan. The report however failed to look at systemic issues, which is probably what prompted the New Japan Women's Association to point out that increasing poverty, that is feminisation of poverty, is to be attributed to the financial circle's neoliberal strategy backed by government policies. This it saw as 'increasing low-paid and unstable non-regular workers with no rights, while adversely revising the social security system to deepen poverty and to widen the gap between rich and poor'. The Association called upon its government not to lift regulations on the use of temporary agency workers, 'which will undermine the very basis for working women to be self-reliant'. It also asserted the need for implementation, stating that agreements and commitments are just not enough.

Post-2015 development agenda

Several of the statements taking stock of the implementation of the BPFA have reiterated in different words that the critical financial situation of developing countries and deepening inequalities between countries have made the achievement of the BPFA and the Millennium Development Goals unreachable. The International Muslim Women's Union, for instance, called upon the international community to support the developing countries by working to relieve debts and lift sanctions, so as to enable them to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the post-2015 development agenda. Already at CSW58, an expert group report had clearly indicted the prevailing neoliberal economic model as incapable of supporting gender-equitable sustainable development.

The political declaration by nation-states at CSW594 emphasised that 'the full and effective implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is essential for achieving the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals and for tackling the critical remaining challenges through a transformative and comprehensive approach in the post-2015 development agenda, including through the sustainable development goal on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, as proposed by the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals in its report, which shall be the main basis for integrating sustainable development goals into the post-2015 development agenda, while recognising that other inputs will also be considered, in the intergovernmental negotiation process at the sixty-ninth session of the General Assembly, and also through the integration of a gender perspective into the post-2015 development agenda'.

Women the world over have been declaring they do not want empty promises that the governments will later say are not implementable or will not or cannot hold themselves accountable for. The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, in its statement, reiterated the importance of transforming the macroeconomic environment and of a commitment to 'international trade, finance and investment arrangements that support and complement national efforts to develop sustainably and equitably'. The conclusion of the deliberations at CSW59 with only a resolve to fully implement the BPFA, but no accountability for non-compliance and no redressal of the problems of macroeconomic policies that proactively enable women's rights violations, is disconcerting in great measure.

With the Beijing+20 deliberations concluded and with the final stamp on the post-2015 development agenda, it is necessary to look at how tourism is being positioned vis-a-vis the post-2015 agenda. A presentation made by David Randle,5 CEO of the WHALE Center on Sustainable Tourism Development, as part of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) delegation to the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which is the main UN platform on sustainable development, holds portents of what is to come and to be justified in the name of sustainable development. It is worth examining in order to highlight what a manicured projection and implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the post-2015 agenda can look like and mean, particularly for women.

Unravelling tourism claims

To start with, tourism has been justified as an industry that can offer means of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, as it contributes to 9% of the world's gross domestic product (GDP). It is projected as one of the strongest drivers of world trade and prosperity and hence possessing wealth-creating power to alleviate poverty. What is not said is that GDP is a measure of 'economic growth' that is about the gross value of goods and services produced for the market. It does not consider who the profits from these goods and services go to - the proportion that goes to the women who run small and medium tourism enterprises, for instance - therefore leaving the foundation of inequality and injustice intact.

Randle also said tourism can end hunger by better feeding the world's hungry through promoting sustainable agriculture so that 50% of all food is sourced locally and waste is diverted to the poor, used for compost for farmers or as an energy source. An example that was given to illustrate this was of the Walt Disney World theme park, which was said to provide 704,845 pounds of food to feed the hungry in three different Florida counties. Randle also said Disney produces about 11,000 tons of compost each year, most of which is given to farmers. There are no figures, however, to check the inflation that tourism in an unequal world causes, which hikes up prices of the staple food of host communities and takes it off their plates, or leaves the women who are saddled with home budgeting shouldering the burden of juggling scarce real money for various basic necessities. As for the contribution to compost, it would have to be measured against the loss of composting potential due to occupation and consumption of huge tracts of land by such massive tourism projects. 

The point is also sought to be made that the tourism industry requires a healthy environment to succeed and that the industry will find it in its best interests to assist people to reconnect with nature and inspire them to take action to protect the Earth. Tourism resorts and destinations do indeed require healthy environments to attract visitors. But the massive tourism enterprise kills the very nature goose that lays the golden environment, by consuming it beyond its carrying capacity. And when the environment is killed, it simply moves to greener pastures, literally and figuratively, casting on women a triple burden of gender, poverty and displacement from livelihoods. The healthy lifestyle practices that tourism is said to promote, by way of exercise, stress management and safety, may be necessary and affordable for the leisure-seeking tourists, not the women from the host communities on whom the burden of organising that leisure is substantially cast.

Another argument sought to be advanced on the side of sustainable development through tourism is that tourism, if developed sustainably, brings improved water and sanitation to a local area. It is said that 'tourism, unlike other businesses, has incentive to provide safe water and sanitation to both attract visitors and encourage them to return', but what this claim hides is that this is about safe water and sanitation for tourists, often at the cost of lowering groundwater tables and diverting finances away from sustainable water infrastructure for the locals, driving women to walk long distances to fetch water.

When the industry speaks of using affordable and reliable energy, it completely masks the subsidies for electricity to hotels including starred hotels, which come at the cost of raising the rates for electricity consumption by the common person, again casting on women the burden of juggling the dwindling household budget.

The goal of reducing inequality within and between countries and promoting gender equality is made to seem achievable through such means as signing of codes of ethics and token awards for women artisans. This completely misses the point about structural inequalities which was the basis of this strong demand in the first place.

A myth surrounding tourism is about the jobs it generates and the driver that it is for economic growth. It is not that tourism cannot create jobs and drive economic growth, but that has to happen by reviewing the indicators of growth as well as assessing what kind of jobs it creates, and marginalised sections, including women, must be involved in envisioning that tourism.

The tourism industry has been portrayed as having demonstrated the capability to change production and consumption patterns, with targets of reducing waste in landfills to zero. This again is possible and desirable, but will they seriously work on these targets? Studies on non-gradable waste generation and disposal suggest otherwise. Even sewage treatment plants are known to be switched on by starred resorts only when inspecting officials are about to land on site - all for the sake of reaping higher profits by saving on the operation of such plants. The consequences for health are borne by the host communities and again an excruciating burden is felt by women, who suffer both because they are traditionally involved with healthcare work and also because the best of healthcare and healthcare service providers is now being diverted towards medical tourism.

The tourism industry is also perceived as having an inbuilt feature that promotes world peace and cultural understanding. Mark Twain seems to come to its aid through his quote, 'Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.' 'Tourism can help create better understanding of different cultures and traditions and at times engage in track II diplomacy,' David Randle asserts.

Contrast this with E Bernstein and E Shih's article,6 where they conclude that 'reality tours' also serve to confirm 'what participants have already learned to feel and to believe prior to travelling, perhaps because commercially packaged tours, by their very nature, must resist political complexity, in order to appeal to a dedicated market niche of consumers'. You have a distorted picture of what tourism can do unless and until its structural base is interrogated. How can peace be fostered so simplistically between peoples who are divided along the lines of class, caste, gender, and where there exists discrimination on grounds of disability, age and sexual orientation?

An opportunity

Randle himself says every crisis is a danger and an opportunity. Indeed. So may we seize the opportunity of the post-2015 agenda of Sustainable Development Goals and targets to bring them down to the earth on which they are located?

As the International Alliance of Women has pointed out in its statement at CSW59, a post-2015 framework must ensure that the international financial system works to advance gender equality, women's empowerment and women's rights. A critical challenge concerning the implementation of Beijing+20 has been the ongoing financial, economic and social crisis which has affected most regions of the world and has had particularly adverse effects for women by, for instance, directing attention away from gender equality objectives towards seemingly pressing policy imperatives such as establishing austerity measures.

At the very least, implementation of the post-2015 development agenda must contextualise the targets for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals set. The responsibility for implementation by developed countries, transnational actors and dominant local actors cannot be the same as that cast on individuals on the margins and on local communities.

The prevalently oppressive and exploitative tourism industry cannot be allowed to take centrestage in the garb of protection and promotion of women's rights, and of the post-2015 agenda of Sustainable Development Goals.7                                            

Albertina Almeida is a lawyer, researcher and human rights activist based in Goa, India.



1     UN Commission on Human Rights,'Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Radhika Coomaraswamy, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1997/44. Addendum: Report on the mission to Haiti', 27 January 2000, E/CN.4/2000/68/ Add.3, available at:

2     All the country reports can be accessed from preparations#National

3     All the NGO statements circulated at CSW59 can be accessed from




6     Elizabeth Bernstein and Elena Shih, 'The Erotics of Authenticity: Sex Trafficking and "Reality Tourism" in Thailand', Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall 2014, pp. 430-460.

7     Albertina Almeida and Anita Pleumarom, 'The uncertainties for women in tourism',

*Third World Resurgence No. 301/302, September/October 2015, pp 22-25