With breathtaking landscapes, mesmerizing archaeological sites, and profuse and exuberant heritage, Pakistan is indeed one of the best tourist destinations in the world. Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the global economy and plays a vital role in boosting the economy. Tourism not only promotes the natural and scenic beauty of a country, but also promotes culture and heritage of the local populace. It provides the local community with economic opportunities, workforce participation and presents a unique opportunity to bridge the economic and financial gap that help in reducing unemployment rates, economic instability and helps raise the living standard of the local population.
Globally, the women workforce is forward-looking in the tourism sector but they are not yet able to mark their presence well. According to a report published by United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO): “Majority of women work in the least paid, lowest-skilled sectors of the industry and carry out a large amount of unpaid work in family tourism.” Moreover, women are discouraged to work outside their homes in a society like ours due to multiple religious and cultural norms. In this regard, cottage industry, small-scale businesses and women-owned businesses are playing a vital role in economic growth and have provided opportunities for women to work from home. According to International Labor Organization (ILO) approximately 65% of Pakistani women earn their livelihood through cottage industry. These women are experts in making handicrafts, e.g., candles, Ajrak, rugs, caps, bangles, crochet work, carpets, musical instruments, straw products, wood carvings and things alike. Tourists take these handicrafts as souvenirs from Pakistan to their home countries as decoration pieces.
Tourism has a direct impact on Pakistan’s GDP and so the government has always been highly optimistic about the amount of revenue tourism industry can earn for Pakistan and so steps have been taken to promote tourism in the country. Revised visa policies are a step forward in this direction that allow visitors from 50 countries to receive visa on arrival and 175 countries access to electronic-visa/e-visa. These visa regimes are placed in order to minimize barriers for tourists and to attract them. Pakistan has further taken an initiative by suggesting that members of Central Asia Regional Economic Corporation (CAREC) should look into a single-visa facility option for foreigners, which allows them to visit historical places in one go. This is a valid suggestion to strengthen the bond among the member countries and it will be source of knowledge particularly vis-à-vis tourism. The proposal, however, is yet being looked into but the drive of our leadership for promotion of tourism in South Asia needs to be appreciated. Such initiatives are a step forward in the right direction to help uplift the economy, particularly, women-owned small-scale businesses.
However, improving the tourism industry of Pakistan will only be beneficial if small-scale cottage industries are given full support, otherwise the dividends that can be reaped from tourism will only be a portion of what we can hope to achieve. As a nation, we need to look at ways that can help small-scale businesses grow. Providing latest machinery is one such example. Communities can further encourage women by creating a safe work place environment and provide training to less educated women. Provincial governments can organize workshops and training programs to promote more opportunities for locals and encourage women to pursue different careers, e.g., tour guides or tour company operators.
Other than cottage industry, there are examples where women are running small hotels’ restaurants and home-based-guesthouses serve the tourists with local, homemade cuisines. This not only is a way to add to the per capita income of these households but this setup is also not heavy on pockets of tourists as compared to five star hotels and restaurants that have a monopoly in tourist destinations due to scarcity of resources. Moreover, such establishments can give tourists the local experience that eventually promotes tourism.
Role of women is not limited to food and cottage industry but there are few examples where women-owned travel companies are doing a remarkable job in breaking gender stereotypes. In a culture where women do not feel safe in travelling alone, these tour companies are arranging trips and tours solely for women. Promoting such businesses can not only increase women’s participation in tourism industry but also help increase income from this sector by tapping nearly half the public of Pakistan who can afford but cannot travel alone because of the cultural and religious norms.
Nowadays, social media is gaining momentum as many travel vloggers use YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to promote their visits around the globe. Use of internet and these applications for social media marketing is crucial for the survival of any business including tourist-related ventures. However, many women in rural areas with the most attractive tourist spots lack the facility of mobiles, internet and above all education to operate social media. These women need to be educated in the use of social media and digital space to advertise their skills, businesses and services as this can provide them a platform to depict the true image of Pakistan as well as giving them a healthy income. Provincial governments should provide opportunities to women to learn how to use social media marketing applications to advertise their business. To improve the status of women, it is important to stress women’s participation in tertiary education and to provide support for female entrepreneurs in the tourism industry, it is vital to ensure that training and education is free of gender bias.
Tourism websites should have all the information regarding the prices of hotels, resorts, transportation, etc. These websites should also advertise women-owned establishments as well as souvenir shops, etc.
Providing financial assistance to women-owned businesses is another key to unlock women’s participation in the tourism industry. Women face multiple challenges that limit them from receiving a loan from financial institutions. This information is not based on an opinion but has been reported by the State Bank of Pakistan. In the past five years, only 3% of small and medium-enterprise loans were reported to have been disbursed to women compared to 97% that were availed by men. Even in the case of micro financing, women make up only 19% of the loans. Advocacy is essential in order to provide ease for businesses owned by female entrepreneurs. This culture will not change overnight. Business chambers and other female organizations should join hands in order to organize national mobilization programs for female entrepreneurs in all sectors, especially tourism.
There is also a dire need to develop platforms for women-owned businesses that focus on ecotourism and networking opportunities. Building a robust system for women with advisors and mentors will help them come forward and succeed as entrepreneurs.
Steps need to be taken to mitigate barriers that halt growth of women-owned businesses. Some of these are:
- Helping women in making connections to the international market and educating them about e-marketing is a key that can allow them to grow and this can result in new job opportunities as well as overall economic growth and improved lifestyles.
- Reducing electricity rates for small production units will encourage small-scale businesses to register, which will improve the GDP of the country.
- Adoption of techniques for optimum utilization of resources should be taught to produce best quality products, which are high in demand. Moreover, packaging to match international standards needs to be implemented to compete on international forums.
- Lastly, spreading awareness through Small & Medium Enterprise Development Authority (SMEDA) is essential to promote growth of small-scale women-owned businesses.
Tourism alone cannot help boost the cottage industry; however, it plays a significant role in helping businesses grow. We need to deal with different socio-economic problems, i.e., gender inequality, lack of opportunities for women, lack of education and absence of credit facilities. All these issues give rise to financial instability and restrict economic growth. For this, we need to remove different hurdles that stop women from participating in the economy.