The rise and impact of women entrepreneurs in travel and tourism

The rise and impact of women entrepreneurs in travel and tourism

Globally, the surge in the number of women spearheading start-up roles in travel and tourism is not just noteworthy; it’s revolutionary. Over the past few years, there’s been an unmistakable uptick in female-led initiatives that are infusing new life into the industry.

This trend signifies more than just an increase in numbers, but a paradigm shift in leadership styles and business approaches. Women are not just filling positions; they’re carving out new paths, championing innovative ideas, and reimagining the travel experience, and interestingly, tech-focused start-ups are dominating.

For example, Caryn Seidman Becker has transformed the travel experience through her pioneering company CLEAR, which uses biometric technology to provide travellers with a smooth and secure passage through airports, stadiums, and various venues. Becker’s commitment to improving customer experiences has set new standards for identity verification and security within the travel industry.

Other examples include Julie Grieve, the founder and CEO of Criton, an award-winning guest engagement and integrations platform for the hospitality sector. Criton simplifies digital transformation by creating a branded guest app, which integrates all of the hotel’s guest-facing technology. It is so successful that Nonius, a vendor of digital tools for hospitality companies, acquired Criton in 2022. Businesswoman Nikki Gibson, meanwhile, has leveraged her 25 years in hospitality to set up SWURF, an innovative work surfing app connecting the new remote workforce with welcoming work spaces in the hospitality sector. These are just a few of a swathe of global examples.

Leisure Travel Group reports that around 33% of travel companies are female-owned, while International Women’s Day research indicates that female entrepreneurs excel in identifying market gaps, innovating products, and leveraging technology in their businesses.

And, in a sector where purchasing decisions are often influenced by women, the lack of female representation in decision-making roles isn’t just an oversight; it’s a missed opportunity for growth and profitability, which World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) President and CEO, Julia Simpson, highlighted at July’s Women Deliver Global Conference in Kigali, Rwanda: “It is proven that companies that have 50% women in their leadership make more money. This makes even more sense in travel and tourism where women make the buying decisions on where to go on holiday,” she said. “Putting women centre stage in travel and tourism will ensure a better future for the sector and the global economy.”

The Middle East opportunity

In the GCC region, a robust entrepreneurial culture has fuelled a surge in start-up businesses led by women, averaging at 40.9% of the total, according to World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) 2022 Global Gender Gap report. Countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia have emerged as trailblazers in championing female empowerment in government and business, including the start-up scene.

Supported by a robust ecosystem, female entrepreneurship in the UAE grew 68% in 2022, according to WEF, while a recent survey by Nama Women Advancement in partnership with the UN Women’s Empowerment Section reveals there were more than 25,000 female entrepreneurs working on 50,000 business projects worth at least AED60 billion (US$16.34 billion) last year.

In Saudi Arabia where Vision 2030 goals include creating more than one million jobs for women, a series of reforms are empowering women to play a major role in the future development of the country’s economy. Women now comprise 37% of the kingdom’s workforce and are seizing every opportunity to run their own business, which has led to a female entrepreneur boom.

A recent LinkedIn article noted how Saudi Arabia issued 139,754 new commercial licenses to women in 2021, according to the Kingdom’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. This represented a 112% increase in commercial registrations issued for women entrepreneurs compared to 2015, marking one of the largest growth rates globally.

Following significant investment in women’s training, Saudi women account for 40% of digital entrepreneurs, while official figures reveal 45% of SMEs in the kingdom are now led by Saudi women.

“Whether it’s in tourism or technology, there are many sectors that are attractive to women and we are seeing more women take on the entrepreneurial role,” said Marriam Mossalli, a Saudi lifestyle editor, journalist and founder of communications agency Niche Arabia, speaking to Arab News.

“Women-owned companies in the kingdom have increased by 60% in the past two years.”

Female tech start-ups take the lead

Supporting women in travel and tourism start-ups is not just about funding and resources, but also recognising and addressing the unique challenges they face, and organisations like the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) play a vital role in this arena.

The UNWTO’s global report on tourism found that more than 54% of people employed in the tourism are women, while in the Arab world, women represent 8% of the regional tourist workforce.

Digging deeper, the report highlighted that 34% of tech-focused start-ups in Arab region were founded by women.

Based on these findings, in March 2023, the UNWTO launched a competition to find the most innovative tech-driven travel and tourism start-ups, managed by women in markets including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Spanning four categories – social impact, tourism and travel experiences, future technology and community – the competition attracted 143 applicants, with the winners announced at September’s World Tourism Day in Riyadh.

The winner of the social impact category was Saudi national Nouf Al-Hazmi, CEO of Plastus Biotech, which specialises in making PHA biodegradable bioplastic by re-purposing organic waste, aligned to the kingdom’s circular carbon economy goal for 2030 and the carbon neutrality agreement of 2060.

The tourism and travel experience category was won by Kirti Chandel, chief product officer at SparkleHaze, who created an enterprise-based, artificial intelligence assistant speaker named Woo-Hoo as an in-room voice assistant for hospitality.

“We are boosting green hospitality,” she said, “moving away from all the different devices that are used in hotels to combine them into one single form factor and also, we are digitising your compendium menu. So, all the paper that is there within the room is gone.”

The future tech category was won by Serbian national Zeljana Babic, CEO of Xenios Academy, an AI-powered training programme designed to help hospitality businesses boost revenue by investing in employee training, while the events and community winner was Menna Ayad, CEO of Fosha, an AI-powered app for booking personalised experiences in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Untapping the potential

According to UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, “tourism start-ups have the power and agility to transform the sector in line with the Sustainable Development Goals” and they are also “leading the way in advancing women empowerment, in the Middle East and globally”.

With travel booming again, set to return to at least 90% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023, according to the UNWTO, coupled with multiple initiatives in place to boost female contribution to industry growth, the future is bright for women entrepreneurs in travel and tourism.

The Middle East will be at the forefront of this trend given its commitment to championing female empowerment and leadership; fast-tracking the development of the start-up eco-system; and  earmarking travel and tourism as key driver of economic diversification for growth.

In fact, there has never been a better time to be a female entrepreneur in travel and tourism; long may it continue.

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