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How women in tourism are scaling new heights

When asked to share her insights on the dynamic inroads women have been making in the tourism sector, Wahida Parker, managing director of the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company (TMACC), says one thing is certain: "How far we have come."
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Image source: Gallo/Getty

"There’s currently a move towards more women seeking opportunities within the industry, and my take is that it’s a natural fit. Without stereotyping, women have a nurturing quality that can prove a phenomenal advantage in offering tourists an experience that leaves them with a lasting and highly valued memory," says Parker.

Tourists, essentially, want an experience that is wholesome, authentic and talks to environmental and corporate sustainability. On this note, Parker believes there has been a natural aggregation of women into tour guiding, for example – they can earn a satisfactory income, but within the context of managing their varied personal and family responsibilities, she enthuses.

The research being undertaken, such as the latest Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, shows a pleasing amount of support for such local small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs). This support includes the availability of finance, training and development programmes aimed at and designed for women, in a region (sub-Saharan Africa) with the world’s highest rate of women entrepreneurs.

However, input from Sabine Lehmann, founder and chairperson of the African Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions (AAVEA) and CEO at Curiositas, a specialist attractions and tourism futures consulting company, is that while she has noticed women occupying a large proportion of tourism roles – including senior roles – it is nevertheless surprising that the majority of executive, MD, and CEO roles are still filled by men. This implies that more can and should still be done.

"Tourism is an industry in which a diversity of knowledge, race, gender and generational experience is required. So, if you want to offer that diversity of thought and experience to your visitors, it makes sense to include both women and men at all levels of the industry," she suggests.

"You gotta be brave, you gotta be bold."

The ability to lead complex teams is often what gets you through the door at a high-level interview, says Parker.

"Instead of specialising in HR or finance, for example, I made the call to equip myself with enough skills and experience over a much broader spectrum, so that I could manage multi-disciplinary teams of people. Your qualification will get you halfway there, but the rest of it is about being bold," she enthuses.

"I changed my direction away from law and set my sights on corporates taking their social responsibility and sustainability issues seriously. In this arena, I found that I could achieve exactly what I had set out to do through the ambit of law, but within the world of business. It’s not impossible, then, to reinvent yourself. And if you can tune into the vibrations that the Mother City has to offer, then you have a very certain career in tourism," she advises.

Two-pronged approach


The CEO of Cape Town Tourism (CTT), Enver Duminy, believes women are strong and independent in their own right and are certainly leading tourism forward during these challenging times.

"CTT has always led this charge," he says, "when you look at our leadership team over the years, I am the anomaly as a male CEO because my predecessors have all been amazing female leaders on whose shoulders I can stand today.

"When you look at our board over the years, we have had female chairpersons and our board composition is currently predominantly female (with 60 representation), which sets our direction for the recovery of the industry and is steering the tourism ship. And when I look across the organisation as a whole, I am pleased to report that my team is composed of 80% women – which gives us the ability to do more with less and to fly," he enthuses.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left many businesses insolvent and many people jobless. Rebuilding the economy with women and those with disabilities, in mind, could be the ideal opportunity to bring about true empowerment in our country. But, according to Parker, we need to balance out what can be done for women with what women can do for themselves in this vibrant industry.

"Many of the women who find themselves in top tourism positions have worked their way up through an organisation’s ranks because their talent was recognised early on. And there’s also been a movement away from the thinking that the only worthwhile careers to have are those within medicine, law, engineering and accounting.

"As our society evolves, we are seeing many jobs just disappearing. But the one thing we’re always going to need is people to showcase our beautiful city – robotics cannot take over the interpersonal, face-to-face, human element within tourism that has so much power to serve and bring pleasure."

Lehmann agrees, citing two female executives who have played a meaningful role in the industry thus far.

"Mpume Mabuse, CEO of Joburg-based Downtown Music Hub (and a board member at AAVEA) has significant insights to offer as far as visitor use of attractions is concerned. She takes a preservational approach that touches on utilisation of resources, leveraging talent and skills to enable job creation and sustainable business. Dawn Robertson, CE of Constitution Hill, is also deserving of a mention for her strategic thinking on how to open up an attraction so that everyone has access to what it can contribute from a cultural and heritage perspective."

According to Parker, the human element within tourism, specifically, makes it the perfect industry in which to make a career investment as it is likely to be resilient to the extensive technological changes related to 4IR that we are currently experiencing.

“When more women are bold enough to step up to the plate and take risks – such as in developing and marketing local products and services that provide much-needed job opportunities for others – we will progress and thrive as we should,” she concludes.

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