After seeing the same stereotypical photographs of female travelers circulating across social media platforms, photographer Alina Rudya vowed to set the record straight. Though Alina doesn’t hold anything against women who post the clichéd ’grams (e.g. the posed portraits of elegantly dressed goddesses sipping champagne on the beach), she was sick of that singular image representing all female travelers. The truth is: that’s not the only way that women travel.

So, to challenge that one-dimensional view of female travelers, Alina founded Bell Collective, an online community where professional female photographers share everything from candid portraits to drone images, landscape photos, and adventure shots — some whimsical, some moody, some photojournalistic, but all taken by women. The page also publishes original interviews with women who work in male-dominated professions, as commercial airline pilots, taxi drivers, brewers, and the like.

Feminism in the travel space: a woman marches in Berlin.
Photo by Alina Rudya
A woman pointing out a window on a train
Photo by Teymur Gahramanov

Despite the incredible impact that women are making in the travel space, sexism is still alive and well. Alina finds that she is often the only woman who’s invited on press trips, and on several occasions, male business executives have looked her in the eye and told her that they don’t like working with female travelers, believing that women are too “self-critical” and timid. These experiences only solidify the need for platforms like Bell Collective, and while Alina knows that it’s not easy to break down gender stereotypes, she also understands that we have to start somewhere. She wants young women to know that their voices matter in the travel industry, that their future careers and travel experiences aren’t limited to the Instagram-model version of globetrotting.

Alina’s mission and message speak to the importance of feminism in the travel space, a topic that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re looking at the way our industry treats women — and the significant impact that countless female travelers are currently making.

Photo by Patrick Pierre

Women in the travel space

You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) talk about travel without talking about women. After all, they play a vital role in keeping the industry alive.

Women constitute a large majority of the global tourism sector. Unfortunately, female employees are often highly concentrated in the industry’s lowest-paid and lowest-skilled jobs — but on the bright side, there are signs that the world is making slow, but steady, progress toward gender equity. To that end, entrepreneurial women have founded many new travel companies in recent years, including Nomad + Jules, Acanela Expeditions, Venture Patagonia, and Dame Traveler. With each female CEO bringing her unique vision into her work, these companies collectively diversify the industry and provide a new way of approaching travel.

But that’s not all: we haven’t even mentioned the vast influence that women wield as consumers in the travel space. According to some sources, nearly two-thirds of today’s travelers are women; what’s more, women make 85 percent of all travel purchasing decisions. With women hitting the road in such large numbers, the travel industry has to pay attention to their interests, passions, and goals.

A woman sitting on a train with her two kids
Photo by Vincent Guth

As you might expect, travel has become more democratic (and, yes, feminist) in recent years, and with any luck, those trends will continue. Women-only tours are becoming a mainstay, focusing on a variety of travel styles, from adventure to wellness. And in the past decade, female solo travel has become a hot topic, as more and more women venture alone to destinations from India to Italy. These female travelers are determined to see more of the world, even if they struggle with their physical or mental health; they understand and prepare for the risks, but they’re not letting anything stop them. Many of these solo travelers are even writing or vlogging about their experiences to help other women know what to expect when they embark on their own journeys.

No matter how you look at it, travel empowers women — it helps them become better decision-makers, more skillful problem-solvers, and more compassionate world citizens. And this process is a virtuous cycle, as women do their part to strengthen the travel community and turn it into a better, more holistic place.

A woman sitting in a wooden church
Photo by Ben White

Female perspectives on travel

It’s no secret that historical accounts often have a male bias. Women from all walks of life have played important roles throughout world history, but men have usually had greater opportunities to share their perspectives. The same holds true in the travel space, but luckily, the world is full of incredible stories of past and present female travelers — it’s just up to us to share them.

The good news is that the status quo is changing, and the modern era is giving more and more women the opportunity to talk about their journeys. Here are just a few of the many inspirational women who have contributed to this progress.

Jeanne Baret — the French peasant who became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe — is an early example of an influential female traveler. Jeanne lived during an age when the French Navy banned women from setting foot on its ships, but she disguised herself as a man and joined a major seafaring expedition anyway. On her way around the world, she made significant contributions to the field of botany, including the discovery of a colorful, flowering vine that she named bougainvillea, and proved that women have a place in travel.

More than a century later, American journalist Nellie Bly set a world record by traveling around the entire world in just 72 days. During those life-changing weeks, she met Jules Verne (the writer whose novel had inspired her travels), adopted a pet monkey, and made meaningful connections on several continents. Above all else, she reminded millions that women are smart, hardy, and independent, that they enjoy traveling and going on adventures and learning about life in faraway places.

A woman walking in the desert
Photo by Henry Gillis

Fast forward to today, and Ukrainian photographer Alina Rudya is honoring this feminist legacy by advocating for the unique insights that women contribute to the world of travel storytelling. Her findings have increased awareness surrounding a female’s place in the industry, showcasing that female documentary photographers take more time to get to know their subjects and understand the issues they’re covering. Beyond that, Alina has discovered that women often cover more ground-breaking stories, either because they’re allowed to go places men can’t access or because they pursue previously untapped ideas about issues that women are facing around the world. These creative pursuits are just part of what makes platforms like Bell Collective so impactful.

Of course, the list of the modern world’s most celebrated travelers is still predominantly masculine: Bill Bryson, Jon Krakauer, Anthony Bourdain, Pico Iyer, Rick Steves. But that’s beginning to shift, as women like Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “Eat, Pray, Love”) and Cheryl Strayed (author of “Wild”) publish captivating, attention-grabbing, best-selling travel stories. In fact, in 2018, when the New York Times first sent a journalist to every destination on its yearly list of 52 Places to Go, a woman named Jada Yuan became the planet’s most famous solo traveler. And entire publications are now throwing their support behind female explorers, offering resources that didn’t exist just a few years ago. For example, Unearth Women, a quarterly travel magazine, is producing feminist city guides and profiling influential women from around the globe, and Condé Nast Traveler even has an entire series dedicated to Women Who Travel.

Since women share unique insights, see the potential in untold stories, and connect with their readers in more emotional ways, female voices deserve greater amplification in the travel space. And when we listen to their voices, the entire industry changes for the better — making space for more passion projects, placing a greater emphasis on meaningful connection, becoming a little more compassionate.

A woman hanging out of an open train car
Photo by JK

Sexism in the travel space

Despite all of these encouraging trends and positive signs, writer Pam Mandel recently noted several ways that the travel industry is still perpetuating sexism. For example, when marketers target a female audience, they often overemphasize hotel spa treatments, overuse the color pink, or only publish images of thin, young, white women. Obviously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering massages or opting for cotton-candy hues, but advertisers are mistaken if they believe that’s all that women look for when they travel, or that those are the only type of women who wish to see more of the world.

Perhaps the most perplexing trend of all, Mandel mentioned, is the fact that men often speak at conferences and industry events about what women want when they travel. And, unsurprisingly, the male speakers often get it wrong.

“I want experiences that make me feel great, that make me feel smarter, stronger, more interesting,” Mandel wrote. “I want to interact with people who are beautiful because they are interesting, not the inverse.”

A woman sitting in a cave in the snow
Photo by Eric Nopanen

In many cases, travel-related sexism hits closer to home, too. It’s common to hear people urge the women they know not to take solo trips or go backpacking, citing reasons of safety, practicality, and convention. These warnings aren’t a systemic form of sexism, per se, but they are damaging, as hearing such cautions over and over can hurt women’s self-perception. Think of it this way: no one would dream of offering this unsolicited advice to male travelers, so they shouldn’t share it with women, either, who do know the risks and absolutely deserve the freedom to make their own decisions.

On top of everything else, women of color, disabled women, and members of the LGBTQ community also have to worry about racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia when they travel. These forms of prejudice are omnipresent, and they make it even harder — and more dangerous — for large subsets of women to explore the world around them. (But we’ll stop there, as intersectionality in the travel space is an incredibly important topic that we’ll discuss in greater detail on another day.)

A woman sitting on top of a limestone deposit
Photo by Zach Fackrell

Feminism in the travel space

So, why does feminism matter in the travel space? Really, it’s because feminism matters everywhere. But if you’re looking for a more specific, travel-centric answer, we’ll leave you with this.

Women constitute many of the employees in the travel industry. They run their own tour operating companies, curate travel platforms, and orchestrate nonprofit work that supports communities around the world. They share inspiring stories from their personal journeys. They bring their values and strengths — things like vulnerability, empathy, and honesty — to new places and allow their experiences to help them grow.

As if those reasons weren’t enough, there’s also the fact that feminism and travel share core values. Feminism validates women’s right to make their own decisions, and it encourages the people around them to engage in empathy. It helps women lead their own lives and asks that others support (or at least respect) them as they do so.

And when you think about it, doesn’t travel support the same things? Aren’t travelers supposed to find themselves on the road, grow more comfortable in their skin, and become more confident in their decision-making? Don’t our wanderings teach that there’s beauty in every culture and that every lifestyle is valid, so long as the individual in question is trying to live well?

Photo by Rachel Gulotta

In short, all travelers should be feminists because travel teaches us that all people matter.

Women are smart, capable, compassionate, and adventurous. They want to make the world a happier, safer, and more fulfilling place for future generations of women and minorities. Those are beautiful characteristics and extraordinary objectives — and it’s going to take a healthy dose of feminism in every single traveler to make them a reality.

If you’re left wondering how you can better support the female travel community, the answer is simple: listen to women’s plans, experiences, and insights; help them find travel opportunities that fit their goals and interests; and seek out and share their work.

For more female travel inspiration, click here.

Header image by Roya Ann Miller