FLORENCE, Italy — This month, Italy’s tourism season kicks into high gear. Florence, which receives more than 16 million tourists a year, is one of many cities to be marred by mass travel.
In the famously picturesque Piazza della Signoria, groups plod through the cobblestoned square, shepherded by flag-waving guides. Vendors peddle selfie-sticks in broken Italian. They peer, disoriented, through the teeming crowds.
But for all its bad points, tourism — which provides one out of every 11 jobs globally — remains one of the largest employers of women worldwide.
“Women play a crucial role in the tourism sector and they can directly benefit from it,” said Issa Torres, the director of global programs at Sustainable Travel International, a nongovernmental organization. Women account for the majority of the sector’s workforce and are twice as likely as men to be employers in the industry, compared with other fields.
In parts of Latin America, three times as many women are employers in tourism than men. Throughout Africa, one out of every three tourism ministers is a woman, and one out of every five worldwide.
But mass travel is associated with gas-guzzling cruise ships and legions of rowdy, sun-kissed visitors. It has become an obvious punching bag, known for its environmental and cultural ills: around the world, tourism has heavily contributed to cultural homogenization and the erosion of local traditions. International travel accounts for 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
For women to reap the rewards of long-term roles in the industry, the cultural and environmental damage caused by unregulated travel needs to be addressed, say tourism experts.
In May, a group of such people convened in Florence’s packed centro storico to debate an increasingly urgent conservation agenda. A conference convened by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), a nonprofit network aiming to conserve cultural heritage sites, took a hard look at the risks associated with mass travel.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” said Peter DeBrine, a senior program officer at the Unesco World Heritage Center, which relies on Icomos as an advisory body. “There’s no corner of the world where tourism doesn’t exist yet.”
Tourism is a behemoth, growing every day. Its numbers have led local populations in places like Barcelona — a city of only 1.6 million residents that receives 32 million tourists a year — to conduct street protests. In a first for Europe, the city banned the opening of new hotels.
When I arrived at my Florence Airbnb before the conference, I gushed to the property manager, Miriam, about the neighborhood, with its sidewalk cafes, pedestrian streets and views of the Duomo. Miriam told me that she lived on the outskirts of the city.
It is “not so nice,” she confided. Like many, if not most local residents, she gets around by bus.
Yet tourism is considered an economy booster (it contributes 9 percent of the global GDP), especially for women who work in the industry. Tourism jobs can be flexible, with room for entrepreneurship and leadership roles, including in many eco-tourism ventures.
Siddharth Village, an eco-tourism organization in Orissa, India, for example, works with tribal women to promote indigenous agriculture through its rural homestays. In the Mulala village of Tanzania, eight women have formed the Agape Women’s Group, which offers more sustainable alternatives, such as tours with local breadmakers, to the standard safari fare.
As in many other industries, however, women must break the glass ceiling in tourism. “They are still poorly represented at professional levels,” Torres said. “Stronger efforts are needed to empower them and overcome the gender equality gap.” Many positions held by women are either low-wage or unpaid, while chief executives are overwhelmingly male.
Tourism has also helped entrench growing divisions between the haves and the have-nots: visitors — even well-meaning ones — drive up prices and rents. The wealth that they generate tends not to be evenly distributed, if it reaches locals at all.
Like tourist revenues, tourism itself is unevenly distributed, concentrated around a few overloaded must-sees. “Tourists ‘do’ places and rarely get the chance to stand in awe and wonder,” Anna Pollock, a consultant in sustainable tourism, wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian.
This is the Disney effect, argued Sue Millar, the president of Icomos, in her conference address in Florence.
Certain settings put on an extended performance: heritage sites turn into staged and “pristine environments,” populated largely by tourists. Real people live outside of them, off-stage. Cultures become commodities, and destinations even more salable.
Mass travel has shown little sign of slackening: a record-breaking one billion people traveled across international borders in 2012 (up from 25 million in 1950). By 2030, that figure will almost double.
Michael A. Di Giovine, an anthropologist and a presenter at the Icomos conference, called tourism both a “blessing and a curse.” Sustainable tourism should be about use, not preservation, he said, and it should privilege the lived experience of local residents. If conservation policies align with the international human-rights agenda, then travel could become a driver for meaningful change.
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Ariel Sophia Bardi is a writer, researcher and photographer whose work looks at space and power in the Middle East and South Asia. She also works as a consultant in humanitarian and international development sectors. She has an M.A. from the University of Paris and a Ph.D. from Yale University. More of her work can be seen at www.arielsophiabardi.com.