tourism in southeast asiaTourism in south Asia generated approximately USD 103.8bn or 4.8% of the region’s total GDP in 2011. While this may seem significant, the relative contribution of the tourism industry to its national economies is currently lower in this region than in other parts of Asia[1]. In response, some governments have created elaborate strategies to attract more tourists, and encourage the ones who are already there to increase their spending. These attempts range from Bhutan’s “happiness is a place” campaign (capitalizing on the government’s well-known use of the “gross national happiness” index in designing policy) to India, Nepal and Pakistan promoting the World Wildlife Fund’s “Green Hiker” campaign which offers ecotourism packages in the Himalayas.

However, all of these carefully-designed plans to draw tourists by the hordes have the same critical failing: they ignore women. None of the official tourism development strategies for these countries have the objective of increasing the appeal specifically for women, either those traveling on their own, with friends or with family.

Given that women are earning more and waiting longer to get married and have children, combined with more permissible societal attitudes towards the types of activities that women can engage in independently, it should come as no surprise that women are not only traveling more (both for leisure and business), but also more often on their own[2]. And these phenomena are not just limited to the West: the number of solo Japanese female travelers has also increased in recent years [3]. It is worth noting that even with families, research has shown that it is women who are often the key decision-makers in selecting the families’ vacation destinations[4].

In light of this information, it is nothing short of astonishing that tourism development ministries in south Asia have tended to lump all travelers together into one giant potential market when designing their policies. Sometimes, they have segmented this market by income levels or occupation[5] but almost never, it seems, by the critical gender variable. While grouping all women as one homogenous category may not seem like very intelligent 'targeting', any woman who has traveled unaccompanied by a man can tell you (and research has shown[6]) that she has some minimum criteria when planning trips. These factors, shared by most women, are generally less important for men; fear of attack or sexual harassment are high on the list, as are the local prevailing attitudes towards the social (in)appropriateness of women traveling alone. Women’s perception of receiving an unfavorable reception when traveling solo is especially strong for certain non-Western nations[7] and forms a major constraint for them in deciding where to go, how long to stay, and what types of activities to undertake.

While it may be difficult to change these kinds of attitudes, steps can be taken to make women feel safer and more welcome when visiting a country, be it with friends, parents, partners, children, or on their own. Research has shown that this can be done in fairly straightforward ways, such as designing marketing campaigns and offering tour packages that cater to female travellers[8]. Government-approved homestays (where tourists stay in a private residence with a local family) could also be promoted as an excellent way for women to discover places and meet local people in a manner that is both safe and contributes more directly to the local economy than staying in a large resort. A few forums designed for women to exchange travel stories, share tips and connect with other female travellers are already available[9], but more specialized platforms that focus on a single country or region would also be welcome. In addition to online platforms, workshops that prepare and educate women for the social and cultural practices of their travel destinations could also be offered in key geographic markets.

Of course, it is impossible to change cultural norms overnight so unaccompanied women, whether local or foreign, may not become an ordinary sight quickly in south Asia. However, if these governments really view tourism as “one of the key sectors propelling…economic growth” as Sri Lanka, for example, claims[10], then they cannot afford not to invest in the female traveler market any longer.


[1] World Travel & Tourism Council 2011 South Asia Economic Impact Report. Accessible at

[2] Wilson, E & Little, DE. A ‘relative escape’? The impact of constraints on women who travel solo, Tourism Review International, 2005, no. 9, pp. 155-175.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Smith, VL. Women the taste-makers in tourism, Annals of Tourism Research, no. 6(1), January–March 1979, pp. 49-60.

[5] See for example, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Strategy 2011-2016. Accessible at

[6] Wilson, E & Little, DE. A ‘relative escape’? The impact of constraints on women who travel solo, Tourism Review International, 2005, no. 9, pp. 155-175.

[7] This perception is especially strong with respect to Hindu or Muslim countries. Wilson, E & Little, DE. A ‘relative escape’? The impact of constraints on women who travel solo, Tourism Review International, 2005, no. 9, pp. 155-175.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See for example, or

[10] Sri Lanka Tourism Development Strategy 2011-2016, p. 2. Accessible at

(Photo © DR)