In a recent despatch for The Experientialist®, we told the story of the women who are beating a different path in a wild (literally), unmapped zone of sisterhood, while also discussing how International Women’s Day (IWD) can sometimes give rise to performative feminism. Keen to ensure that championing women in travel is an ongoing thing, not just for one day, but every day, we continue to commit to content that celebrates the achievements of brilliant female leaders in travel.
At OutThere, we fully support and celebrate all women and the important visibility of their achievements that IWD brings, particularly with this year’s powerful theme of ‘Embrace Equity’.
But if there’s one thing that we’ve learnt from the LGBTQ+ movement and Pride, it’s that an ongoing conversation has to continue and endure long after the PR and marketing folk pat themselves on the back and mark it in their diaries for next year. There is still so much more to be done for women and those who identify as women – now more than ever, especially with the bigoted political lean to the right in some American States and elsewhere – to create a more gender-diverse world and combat the challenging inequalities that still exist.
Plus, when we talk about equality and empowerment, we need to consider the intersectional identities of women; and understand that not everyone is travelling on the same journey. Different women start from different lines, they live their lives in different cultural contexts, geographies and socio-structural systems.
Oftentimes, we find that the pedestalled women in travel are white. Of course, we recognise that in order to raise the capital needed to create great travel experiences or to be at the top of the game in the corporate arena in tourism, these women generally have to come from some position of privilege.
It is not something that is exclusive to the travel industry. While as a whole, women experience substantial differences in pay, hours and representation as compared to men, it is the women of colour who have the lowest probabilities of being the top earners and in the best roles.
So, aligned with our mission to deliver far more diversity, discovery and discernment in luxury travel, we showcase some women of colour in travel that we have either had the pleasure of meeting recently or whose stories have really inspired us.
Acha Dechen, Tibet Highland Tours
Dechen is a native of the Sangri country of Tibet, part of a nomadic community that lives in its powerful, natural landscape of snow-strewn mountains, verdant grasslands and untamed waterways.
From the moment Tibet opened to tourism, she saw an opportunity for local women to be engaged in the then-fledgling travel industry. With there being a lack of English-speaking guides (with the added challenge of a social structure that only really meant that the sons of rich or noble families could afford to study), she secured a government scholarship to further her knowledge in guiding, guide training and the English language. While that may sound easy enough to most people, the selection process was extremely competitive and for Dechen to get to school meant an eleven-day journey covering some 2,000km, a testament to her sheer determination.
After over a decade of working to build her knowledge of hospitality with just handfuls of intrepid, international travellers, she set up her own business in 2003, making Tibet Highland Tours the first ever tour operator in the region owned by a woman. Since then, she has built an expert squad of other female guides and empowered many others to go on to develop their own tourism businesses.
Chamintha Jayasinghe, Ayu in the Wild
A passionate Sri Lankan, Chaminta was the awardee of OutThere’s inaugural ‘Insider Award’ for the personalised access that her tour operator Ayu in the Wild gives to independent, individual, experiential travellers looking to get under the skin and experience the true diversity of the Teardrop Isle, through the eyes of locals.
We all know that Sri Lanka hasn’t had the best of luck socio-politically in recent years, but with boundless tenacity and a deep love for her country, she continues to take guests by the hand to genuinely show them what makes it so magnificent, magical and marvellous.
She also does it all in a truly personal way, having explored and experienced every single inch of it herself, building the company from the ground up, in a land where the sky’s the limit.
She also set up The Sustainable Travel Sri Lanka Initiative, collaborating with future-forward thinkers who have developed sustainable projects that are connected to tourism. In addition to this, Chamintha also fundraises for regenerative ideas that are yet to be realised, through creating immersive philanthropic journeys that allow travellers to ‘pay-it-forward’.
Florence Kagiso, Chobe Game Lodge
In Botswana, being a ranger or guide in the Chobe National Park has long been a male-dominated job. Even applying or training for a career in the bush can be challenging, not just socially because of the local community’s traditional expectations, but also because it is can be quite a physical, arduous and sometimes dangerous career.
But Florence wasn’t deterred and today she is a beacon for other women in travel across Botswana, particularly in the safari industry, many of whom she has mentored and encouraged to get their foot in the door and rise into positions of leadership. She heads up a celebrated team of women safari leaders – known throughout the continent as ‘Chobe’s Angels’ – who take travellers out wildlife spotting on all-electric boats and safari vehicles in the national park. Following in Florence’s footsteps, there are now around eighty female guides at Chobe.
Grace Leo, The Relais Retreats
Grace is the very definition of a world citizen, hailing from Hong Kong and yet somewhat of a Parisian at heart. She greets us with a knowing look and opens the conversation in Cantonese the first time we meet and she showcases her latest venture.
A visionary hotelier and hospitality consultant, Grace has opened properties and strategically led prestigious projects worldwide from the Caribbean to Asia, Europe and North Africa. She was responsible for the transformation of what is now London’s Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square.
Today, she continues her illustrious career in consultancy, but now looks after her own baby, The Relais Retreats, a portfolio that currently includes the boutique The Relais Henley set in a historic inn on the River Thames just outside London and a seafront escape, The Relais Cooden Beach in Bexhill-on-Sea. She attributes her somewhat eclectic choice of property locations near water to her Chinese roots – the ‘Shui’ in Feng Shui meaning water, which symbolises incoming prosperity, health and wisdom.
Larissa Hale, The Queensland Indigenous Women Ranger’s Network
In Queensland, Australia, only 20% of indigenous rangers are women, but over the last four years, Larissa Hale has helped build the next generation of female rangers. The programme has now trained more than sixty women in travel, encouraging a new approach to custodianship and conservation that’s all about passed-down, generational knowledge matched with modern technology to help monitor changes in the precious biosphere that is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Larissa is from the Yuku Baja Muliku community, the traditional custodians of the land in North Queensland that borders two of Australia’s world heritage areas, the Wet Tropical Rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef. Her mission is to help balance sustainable and comprehensive conservation management while welcoming travellers to this environmentally significant region; all while championing Aboriginal Peoples to strive towards economic independence.
Mansi Vagt, Fairmont
A self-billed travel addict, Mansi has risen in the ranks in sales and marketing for luxury hospitality brands to become Accor-owned Fairmont’s Global Vice President and Brand Leader, driving global brand strategy to create relevant, 21st-century momentum for the brand’s portfolio of 80 hotels in close to 30 countries worldwide.
When we met, she demonstrated a passion for diversity and inclusion and is an advocate for OutThere’s mission. Mansi is all about championing diverse talent for the brand, both from a staff perspective when it comes to mentoring and development, but also in the hotels’ activities and experiences.
For example, she has spearheaded Center Stage, a new three-year program that gives diverse, emerging artists and genres studio time at the infamous Abbey Road in London and other recording studios worldwide, coupled with suite accommodation – to help them incubate and inspire their ideas – at a number of specially selected Fairmont Hotels.
Morticia Godiva, The Black Trans Travel Fund
Morticia is the Operations Director of the Black Trans Travel Fund and works alongside founder Devlin Michael Lowe. The collective is transgender-led, rooted in self-advocacy and mutual aid for Black transgender women globally. The organisation provides travel support alongside networking and establishes pathways to safety, opportunity and success.
The fund also does grassroots work including providing monetary support for those who require ground transportation so they can access their self-determined, safest transport options where they feel least likely to experience any verbal harassment or physical harm.
They also fund TSA Pre-Check applications to reduce the challenges that transgender women have getting through airport security where dysphoria-inducing situations and gender-based harassment from airport staff are still rife.
Their latest initiative is a passport sponsorship programme that helps Black transgender women in need of financial and legal support to get or renew a passport.
Stephanie Chung, Wheels Up
Stephanie is ‘Wheels Up Global Ambassador’ for the private aviation company. In 2018, she made history as the first African American woman (and person) to ever serve as the president of one.
Having spent some 30 years in the aviation sector – not one traditionally known as a level playing field for women – she is doubling down on diversity and inclusion, expanding her brand (and the industry’s) outreach to women, BIPOC and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as continuing to excel in her everyday job and navigating her company through pandemic times.
Having spent most of her career being the only person of colour, let alone the only woman, in the room, she is intent on it never happening to others and moreover creating a world where everyone feels like they belong on a private aircraft.
Her drive and determination are impressive, but she is also a delight to be around, always ready to enthral and entertain with dazzling anecdotes, provide gems of motivational advice and use her platform wherever possible, to uplift others.