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Women in Tourism: Isanka's Story

For two years we have been involved in the AITO Project Protect, as part of which we are working to give more women opportunities to work in the tourism industry in communities where they are underrepresented. Knowing how few female leaders we had throughout Asia, we focussed our project on understanding the reasons behind this and trying to improve opportunities for women wanting to work in the travel industry.

We started in Sri Lanka, where there is very little female representation in the tourism industry. As a result we trained our first female Explore Leader there, Isanka, last year. One year on, we caught up with her to get an insider look at the issues facing women in the tourism industry in Asia.

Why did you choose to take part in the tour leader training with Explore?

I’ve been working in the adventure market since 2010 but when I was approached for training with Explore I was so happy as they have a good reputation. Our ground team are known for treating their leaders very well and being very friendly. They also listen to our ideas and we can discuss anything with them.

During the Explore Leader training you were the only female in the group. Do you think this was positive or negative?

I’m very positive about that - I’m a person who likes to be different to the others. My first job was an assistant director in the film industry - it’s considered to be a very male profession and I was the first lady assistant director. I don’t feel uncomfortable but special whenever I’m the only female.

How have your friends and family responded to your job as a leader?

I’m the only child in my family. My father is an English teacher and my mother is a housewife. At first my parents objected to this job because tour leaders don’t have a good reputation in society, especially since the same term is used for the touts who sell to tourists. Once my parents understood the responsibilities they agreed but it took a while.

They also worry about my personal reputation, in case I’m exposed to drugs, alcohol or sexual harassment but I still maintain my own policies, but it's hard to make them understand this isn't something to worry about. I’m vegetarian, teetotal, non-smoker and I know where to draw the line when associating with men, so my parents are very confident in me. They know that I’m doing a different job but that a traditional woman lives inside me.

What is the response from the communities you visit during your trips? Do you think there are any barriers being a female leader compared with male leaders, or can it be a positive thing?

The response from communities is positive. They say it’s the first time they’ve seen a female guide but they think that a woman can understand them better and better communicate between them and the travellers. The barriers mainly come from male attitudes, but I take it as an opportunity to try to change their opinions. I think I’m successful.

What do you think are the barriers to more women in Sri Lanka becoming leaders?

The biggest barrier is staying outside the home, away from the family, as most parents keep their daughters safely at home until they’re married. After marriage, most women then have the responsibility of looking after the family etc. So a traditional woman can’t find the time for tour leading with her familial responsibilities.

Would you have any advice to other women who would like to become part of the tourism industry as a leader?

Be positive. Take the challenge. And maintain the values of a traditional Sri Lankan woman.

Responsible tourism and Explore

We work with many agents around the world who are equally as committed to combatting the issues of gender inequality and giving women who want to become tour leaders the chance to make that happen.

To find out more about responsible tourism and what we’re doing, take a look at our sustainability page.