When people speak of tourism as a “force for good,” what does it look like through the eyes and lives of individuals who work in the tourism industry? There are an estimated 103 million people directly employed in the tourism industry. But who are the faces behind these numbers?
One afternoon Dan and I found ourselves huddled over a small kerosene stove admiring the occasional pop of spices from a pool of hot oil in a weathered copper pan. We were traveling through India and opted to take a cooking class in the popular Rajasthani city of Udaipur.
Shashi Sanadhya, a local woman then in her late 30s, hovered above us to make sure we didn’t allow the spices to burn. She taught these cooking classes right from the kitchen of the small two-room apartment she shared with her two sons. Her story is of a woman who worked her way from being a destitute Brahmin widow to being the very example of the transformational power of tourism in action.
With Shashi, we got our lesson not only in how to make curries and chapatis, but also in the way tourism can open up work opportunities that can change a person’s life.
One in eleven jobs around the world is connected to tourism — that’s substantial. Yet ironically and unfortunately, the human dimension of tourism — and the economic and social impact the tourism industry has on the lives of the people working in it — often gets overlooked. It’s easy to get lost in the statistics.
So what are the stories of the people behind these numbers? What impact does working in the tourism industry have on their lives?
Here are a handful of those stories, the faces of tourism.
Shashi in Udaipur, India: From Underemployed Widow to Tourism Entrepreneur
Almost ten years prior to our meeting, Shashi’s husband died, leaving her alone to care for two young boys. As was the mourning custom for a Brahmin caste widow, she was forbidden to leave her house or do any work for one full year. However, her own parents had already died and her in-laws didn’t wish to take responsibility for her family, so she was forced to find ways to earn money to support her two young sons.
At first, she survived by doing laundry for tourists staying in guesthouses in the neighborhood. She’d send her sons to collect and deliver the laundry before dawn so no one would see them.
After her official mourning period ended, Shashi would occasionally greet tourists who were on their way to the restaurant upstairs from her apartment. She became friends with a few of them, and would invite them in for tea and snacks. One day, a tourist from Ireland said, “You are an amazing cook. You should teach cooking classes to tourists.”
A business idea was born. With the help of other tourists, she created flyers advertising an Indian cooking class. Slowly, word got out.
Years later, when we met Shashi, her cooking class business thrived. On most days she teaches two classes a day and hires other women in the neighborhood to help with preparation and cleaning. With what she earns from her business, she is able to care for and send her sons to private schools, something she hadn’t imagined possible just a few years earlier.
Working in the tourism industry not only provided Shashi an income that supported her and her family, but it also boosted her courage and equipped her with the confidence to operate against the tide of societal norms. She wished to be a role model for her sons and others in the community — a role model of what women entrepreneurs, even those who have been widowed, could do in India.
Sven in Zollverein, Germany: From Coal Mine to UNESCO Status
When we met Sven Hilling at Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex outside of Essen, a city in the Ruhr region of Germany, a downpour had just yielded to clear skies. He looked up and noted, “Decades ago no one would have believed that you would be able to see blue sky like this here. This area was considered a place for coalmines, heavy industry, and pollution. There wasn’t any tourism in this area then. There was no reason for it then. But that’s all changed.”
Sven runs a local Ruhr area tour company. He remembers the difficult transition and economic hardship that ensued when the coal mine closed in 1986. Many people, long dependent on the mines for the livelihoods, took their families and moved away.
Fortunately, local planners had a vision when the mines closed: to keep the coalmine and its 19th and 20th century industrial center components intact and transform the complex into a place for cultural events and tourism. In 2001, the recognition of Zollverein Industrial Complex as a UNESCO World Heritage Site elevated its status and attracted even more tourists.
When asked about his work in tourism, Sven told us: “One of the great benefits with my current work is that I am in contact with visitors from all over the world. It’s a lot of fun. I get to be outside in nature. And I like to be self-employed, so that I can control my time myself.”
Then he pointed to a house not too far from Zollverein’s main entrance and continued, “There’s an older couple who lives there and runs a small bed and breakfast. His family worked in the coalmines; that was his life, too. When the mines closed, he never could have imagined he’d be able to earn even more money by working in tourism than in the coal mine.”
Merima in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Work Opportunities for Young People
During our recent visit to Sarajevo we met Merima Dervisbegovic, a guide with Sarajevo Walking Tours. On a damp early November morning, we set out from the National Opera to explore the city through her eyes and experience. As we followed her, she told stories not only of the broader history of Sarajevo, but also of her own experience living through the Balkan War, hiding in cellars and choosing the times of day to walk to school when snipers might be sleeping.
Her story concluded with the continued economic and social challenges that face the country today. “Unemployment is still a huge problem for us, especially for young people where it’s estimated at around 65%. For someone like me under the age of 30 who has higher education, it feels impossible to get a full-time job. For the last year I’m working as a guide and in tourism to earn some money and improve my English,” she offered with an honest look to the future.
At the moment, work connected to tourism constitutes almost 11% (nearly 114,000 jobs) of the total employment in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Merima can imagine that number increasing, especially for young people: “Right now summer is the only season when young people can make some extra money, because at that time we have a lot of tourists. Restaurants and coffee shops are open all night and need servers. A lot more tour guides are working because there are so many people visiting Sarajevo. If tourism in Sarajevo would develop more, naturally there would be more jobs.”
“It’s hard to say what I would be doing if I didn’t have this job. In a few words I would be a walking cliché — a struggling artist,” she laughed.
Jean Cyril in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: From Earthquake Recovery to Job Creation
“If someone wants to help Haiti and invest in the country and its people, they should travel here. Then, they should tell others about what they experience to encourage them to do the same.”
We were speaking with Jean Cyril Pressoir, founder of Tour Haiti, in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince just prior to the fifth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake that struck the country and killed over 200,000 people. At the time, the effects of the earthquake pushed the country into even further political, economic and environmental turmoil.
Tourism is finally returning to Haiti. Jean Cyril has seen his tour company through it all over the last decade — the good and the bad — to, hopefully, see the good again. He advocates for a community-based tourism approach that focuses on engagement and connection with Haiti’s culture and people.
When asked about what he feels are his accomplishments with his tour company, he remarked: “What I’m really proud of is that over the years my work and my company has been able to support more families. At the beginning we were just two, three people. We barely got by. Now, Tour Haiti employs over a dozen people and I can see how my employees’ kids are able to go to private schools and they have better homes. This is what motivates me.”
Over the next few weeks we’ll be discussing other topics that fall under this series of “Tourism as a Force for Good.” Stay tuned for the next article that addresses the impact tourism can have on local communities.