Tourism is no holiday for solo female travellers

In the wake of International Women’s Day and the unstoppable momentum behind global movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, new research from Griffith University has highlighted the many challenges still faced by solo female travellers around the world.

Dr Elaine Yang, of the Griffith Business School’s Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management, undertook a study for her PhD research investigating risk perceptions for solo female travellers.

Dr Yang says that although her study focused on the rising and under-researched Asian market, her findings have broad implications for the sorts of unwelcome and worrying behaviour still faced by women who travel alone.

According to a recent TripAdvisor survey, in 2015, 74% of women globally were interested in travelling alone. In Australia and South-east Asia, the figures are even higher – 81% and 79% respectively.

“My study resonates with campaigns such as #MeToo and #viajosolo – which means ‘I travel alone’ – as well as United Nations sustainable development goals for gender equality and women’s empowerment,” she said.

“My Asian participants experienced sexual harassment and discrimination when travelling alone. They were mistaken as sex workers or offered sexual advances by Airbnb owners, tuk-tuk drivers, hotel workers and others.”

Dr Yang says that the breadth of gender-related risks includes street harassment, catcalling, stalking and unwanted gazes regardless of age, appearance or marital status.

“On top of that, some participants experienced racial discrimination where they were verbally abused by locals at several destinations,” she said.

In navigating these experiences, Dr Yang’s participants revealed a variety of risk-mitigation behaviours, including carrying pepper spray, a whistle, Swiss Army knife or fake wedding band.

Several tourism operators are also taking steps to combat such incidents, including all-women walking tours and the development of destination-based apps to better inform travellers about potential risks.

Some hotels have even begun providing all-female floors, but Dr Yang believes this initiative “is only creating a safety bubble and has a limited effect on the safety concerns of female travellers that go beyond the hotel wall”.

Despite the risks posed for solo women abroad, Dr Yang says that her study nonetheless harbours some positive news.

“My research reveals the agency of Asian solo female travellers in negotiating access to the gendered and racialised tourism space, and how individual empowerment leads to microsocial transformations,” she said.

“However, there is evidently an urgent need for the tourism industry at large to change how tourism experiences are conceived, designed and delivered to make them safer and friendlier for women around the world.”