Focus Areas

The invisibility of women’s labour in tourism and the impact of COVID-19

Women also participate in the tourism economy as vendors, artisans, and more, but the nature of this work is completely dependent on the volume of tourist footfall.
This article was first published by The NEWS MINUTE as part of a series of articles on the impacts of COVID-19 on the unorganised sector in tourism.
Coronavirus Tourism I Saturday, April 25, 2020 - 13:29

The tourism industry is human resource-intensive and involves various actors, enterprises and establishments working together in the value chain. COVID-19 being a global pandemic has completely disrupted this value chain, especially affecting people in the lower rungs. There are predictions that even when the pandemic ends, it could take up to 10 months for the industry to recover globally and about 50 million jobs are expected to be lost. 

A large part of the tourism industry depends on the people working in the unorganised sector in India. 95% of India’s working women are employed in the unorganised sector and therefore are affected more in such a crisis. 

The plight of women workers in tourism

There are different layers of workers within the tourism industry, ranging from dhaba waiters to tour guides, auto-rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers, hotel staff, homestay owners and helpers, restaurant managers, and such other service providers. However, women are mostly found in the segments which fall under contractual and casual work which is often confined to stereotypical gender roles such as cooking, cleaning and caregiving. This limits the available work and employment opportunities for women in tourism. Women also participate in the tourism economy as vendors, artisans, and are part of the tourism supply chain when they are in traditional occupations of agriculture and fishing. However, the nature of this work is highly precarious and completely dependent on the volume of tourist footfall. 

The impact of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has been unprecedented, leaving women workers in a grave situation. 

Take the case of Priya*, cleaning staff at a hotel in Bodhgaya. Bodhgaya is a bustling pilgrimage spot that sees a lot of international tourists throughout the year. However, since the beginning of February, Bodhgaya has witnessed dwindling tourist footfalls and is now a desolate town. Priya was laid off from her job as soon as there was a dip in tourism due to COVID-19 travel advisories, much before the lockdown was announced in India. Priya doesn't have enough food at home to sustain her family, and for now, is surviving on meals of only rice that is left in the house. She doesn't have any income as her son who is a rickshaw driver also has been at home because of the lockdown. She is worried about how she will procure food and essentials for her children and family. Like Priya, many women are struggling to survive in this crisis situation as they often do not have power over the resources. 

Similarly, in Puri, Odisha, Sushila* was laid off in the second week of March from the hotel she was working at, after it shut. Puri is a beach town in Odisha that sees lakhs of tourists every year. However, when tourism took a hit, Sushila was laid off, and was not even given the salary for the month. This has left her borrowing money in exchange for her assets. Her husband, who is a fisherman and used to sell his catch to the local hotels and restaurants, also has no income in current times. Sushila is concerned about how she will run her household when there's no income, especially at a time when the groceries and other essentials have become more expensive because of the lockdown. She is also worried about the future, as she is expecting it will take almost three months for tourism in Puri to get back on track. 

As women workers have very limited opportunities for work in the tourism industry, it can be reasonably expected that Priya and Sushila will find it harder than the men in the family to get back to earning an income once tourism picks up.  

Contractual workers left in the lurch

In case of contractual workers, where there are third parties and agencies who supply women workers into the various departments of the accommodation units, workers often have fragile, and, in some cases, distant relationships with their employers because of the outsourcing of these jobs. Therefore, particularly in situations like these, the employer finds it easy to withhold salary or even lay them off without prior notice because of the nature of the contractual employment. The workers also are confused as to whom to demand their rights from in these situations. 

On March 25, the Government of India issued an order under the National Disaster Management Act (2005) to effectively implement the lockdown order and to mitigate the economic hardship of the migrant workers. It directed the state governments and the Union Territories (SGs/UTs) to issue orders, compulsorily requiring all the employers in the industrial sector, shops and commercial establishments to pay wages to their workers at their workplaces without any deduction due to lockdown. 

However, it was a case of too little too late as many women in tourism had already been laid off. Additionally, the nature of employment being confined to casual and contractual employment leaves the industry with very little accountability to workers. There is also a lack of collective voices for women workers in tourism, and women end up being pushed to the periphery, without having a channel to make demands or have their voices heard. Therefore, the Ministry of Tourism/India Tourism and Labour Department should have mechanisms to monitor the attrition rate of workers so that the above order is well implemented.

Invisibilisation of women workers in homestays

Apart from the women employed in hotels as housekeeping and kitchen staff, a large number of women workers are part of the homestay industry in different tourism destinations like Hampi, Khajuraho, Himachal Goa, Coorg, Jaipur, Uttarakhand etc. 

Often, women are the anchoring force behind a homestay through their involvement in cooking, cleaning, taking care of guests and providing hospitality in the homestay. Though they share a large part of the burden of running a homestay, their labour is seen to only be part of their role as caregivers and not as workers bringing an economic contribution through their labour. Women rarely get financial control over the income that a homestay makes. 

Therefore, their work ends up being invisibilised. 

Homestays in many states such as Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, are registered under the Ministry of Tourism (MoT) and the Labour Department. The tourism department has projected these homestays in its web portal and calculates the income generated from them. In the absence of any income from tourism, these homestays have taken a huge hit. 

Yet, they have not received any support from the departments. Some homestays which are also social enterprises, have had the foresight to build internal mechanisms to support homestay workers through crisis situations. They have engaged with the local socio-political issues of the people like access to land rights, sustaining customary land and farming practices encouraging people's participation in Van Panchayats and converged the homestay models with diverse traditional economic activities like agriculture, horticulture, fishing, kitchen gardens etc., which has enabled pooling in of financial resources. The vulnerabilities of the women workers in the homestays always existed, but if their labour was recognised by the tourism department, they would be counted in the relief packages announced by the State Department of  Tourism. 

Relief measures need a gender lens

To mitigate some of the hardship being faced by workers, the government in various states has engaged in providing relief measures. However, there is a lack of gender lens to relief measures. 

It is observed that the compensation and relief is being offered by the welfare department to the people who have been registered under various government schemes. Unfortunately, a lot of migrant workers, particularly women, in the tourism industry are mostly seasonal so they do not feature in the dashboards of the labour department or even the tourism industry records. 

There is an immediate need to address this in the case of migrant women workers as they are finding it difficult to access the relief services. There are records being maintained by local organisations in Khajuraho, Goa, Himachal of the migrant labourers who have not been able to reach out to the local government for relief. These organisations have started helplines and relief camps in collaboration with local governments for migrants to reach out to them who are stuck in these locations.

The Self Help Groups (SHGs) or the women in the unorganised sector of the tourism industry who have lost their employment in this period are being encouraged to contribute to the relief services through making masks, sanitisers etc. This has given some opportunities to women to tide over the current crisis. But, what would be important is to ensure that these women continue to be in the public sphere and participate in the tourism industry. There is a need to include women in the planning processes of how to come out of this crisis. In many ways women’s groups can be federated in terms of services - those who are in organic farming, fishing, husbandry, community kitchens, kitchen gardens, women working on health, craftswomen, the women guides and many other tourism services. Federations can aid in building up models for start-ups and business chains that allow for more participation of women in the tourism sector. 

In the developing world, 60% of women (in non-agricultural work) work in the informal sector. Much of this is linked directly and indirectly to tourism. Remodelling of tourism initiatives post COVID-19 in convergence with the state governments should happen ensuring participation of various sections of the workforce which is the backbone of the industry. The tourism industry and the state governments will have to continue to encourage new ways of building capacities of the workforce to have robust tourism models. This would ensure that unorganised women workers like Sushila and Priya and many other women in the tourism industry as well as the supply chain are recognised for their labour. 

EQUATIONS (Equitable Tourism Options) is a research, campaign and advocacy organisation. We study the social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts of tourism on local communities. We believe that tourism should be non-exploitative, equitable and sustainable. A question that has been central to our work and directs much of it is ‘Who Really Benefits from Tourism?’  For more information on the article, please contact

To know more about tourism issues and it socio-economic impact, please visit 

Siddhi Pendhke is a Programme Coordinator at EQUATIONS; Durang Bosu Mullick is a Senior Programme Associate at EQUATIONS.…