Women are ‘uniquely positioned to lead the fight for sustainability’, says Aradhana Khowala, founder and CEO of Aptamind Partners, and chair of Saudi’s Red Sea Global tourism development company.
Tell us about the work you do at Aptamind Partners.
“I founded my consultancy, Aptamind Partners, with the aim of improving three key pillars within the international travel and tourism industry – sustainability, community empowerment, and diversity and inclusion. With a vision to create industry-wide change, we work with political stakeholders, emerging destinations and public and private sector firms around the world to implement ESG [environmental, sustainability and governance] strategies that will not only drive economic growth, but actively result in positive outcomes for the local communities affected by or reliant on tourism.
“Underpinning our advisory work is the belief that tourism can be a force for good that actively removes inequalities, improves working conditions, decarbonises and makes the world better. I am certain that the most profitable businesses of the future, including those operating within tourism, will be the ones who are solving the world’s biggest challenges – such as achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.”
What does your role as chair of Red Sea Global‘s advisory board entail?
“As a member of Red Sea Global’s (RSG) Advisory Board, I offer guidance to the company’s leadership team as they work to develop two ambitious regenerative tourism destinations, the Red Sea and Amaala [in Saudi Arabia]. The board is made up of world-renowned and multi-national industry experts including real estate developers, engineering professionals, environmental specialists, experience designers, wellness consultants and project finance experts. Together, we use our expertise to help RSG achieve its ambition to set new international standards in responsible development.”
Why did women in tourism suffer disproportionately from job losses, furlough and redundancy during the pandemic?
“When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the entire travel and tourism industry went into sharp decline, with furlough and redundancies widespread as a result of lockdowns and travel restrictions. Women disproportionately bared the brunt of the sector grinding to a halt. There are a few reasons for this…
“For one, the global shutdown created an unprecedented caregiving crisis and women fell back into their traditional roles. Secondly, job losses predominantly hit junior and mid-management roles where women over-indexed. Third, nearly 80 per cent of the sector is small medium and micro enterprises which are owned and run by women, and they did not have the same access to the financial support or furlough schemes in the informal employment system.
“Yet tourism has proven to be a resilient industry. By the end of 2023, it is expected to bounce back to just 5 per cent shy of its peak GDP contribution in 2019. With this growth, women have re-entered the sector and once again make up over half of the global tourism workforce, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (March 2023). And while there is now a higher proportion of women in leadership, there is still more to be done to ensure they have the same opportunities as men.”
“The World Bank ranked Saudi Arabia as the top economy for the most progress toward gender equality.”
What does gender inequality in tourism look like in 2023?
“Having recently carried out research on gender equality within the travel, tourism and hospitality industry, my team at Aptamind Partners found that only 7 per cent of the top jobs within the sector are currently held by women. The data shows that while there is gender balance in the overall workforce, there is a critical need for programs to address the substantial imbalance across leadership roles and support women with career advancement.”
How can tourism become more gender equitable? And what can travel companies and tourism boards do to support women in tourism?
“Equity in its truest form cannot be achieved in isolation. All key players within an organisation, from leadership to middle management, must work together to create an open dialogue and build a response to support women at all levels. As a first step, companies should carry out internal reviews that will provide them with the data needed to identify their key challenges, ahead of developing and rolling out solutions.
“It is crucial for companies and tourism boards to commit to a set of goals that will foster equity. If you are serious about gender diversity, we need to acknowledge that it can only happen by design, not by default. We need to proactively design a culture of intention by treating gender diversity as if your business survival depends on it. Only then will the playing field be level.”
What does it mean to make “genuine commitments to equality”?
“Gender parity specifically has never been higher on the agenda for many companies and great strides have also been made but sometimes, good intentions are not good enough. Because, we need not only a change in numbers but also a change in mindset, change in the associated behaviour and in corporate cultures to ensure true gender parity.
“Genuine commitments to equality require transparency, acknowledgement of existing imbalances and inequalities, as well as the implementation of frameworks to address existing issues. Effective policies must be implemented to increase equality in the workplace, such as better disclosure of diversity, equity and inclusivity reporting, introducing specialist training courses, and incentivising progress. Companies must also hold themselves to account by consistently measuring progress and reporting key outcomes and next steps.”
“Never has there been a more promising, more optimistic time to be a woman in Saudi Arabia, as opportunities are replacing barriers and cultural limitations are giving way to social transformation.”
What do women’s rights in Saudi Arabia look like today? (Saudi ranks very low for gender equality globally.)
“As part of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a series of social reforms to modernise the country and promote greater equality and opportunity for its citizens, which has significantly fuelled its economic growth. One major area of reform has been women’s empowerment, which has created societal change for women. By lifting restrictions on women and promoting greater equality and opportunity, the government has helped to expand the workforce and increase productivity.
“The immense scale of these changes and their unprecedented pace are both noteworthy. The impact is clearly evident in the domestic landscape, including a positive impact on various sectors of the economy, particularly education, healthcare, tourism, technology, renewable energy, and small and medium-sized enterprises.
“In Saudi Arabia, there has also been an undeniable shift in recent years – especially in terms of hiring practices. Vision 2030, which aims to increase female participation in the workforce throughout the Kingdom, has been instrumental in driving change and creating more job opportunities for women. In fact, the Kingdom met its target of achieving 30 per cent female labor force participation almost ten years ahead of schedule.
“As of last year, 37 per cent of women are in work. There has also been a decline in female unemployment rates from 33 per cent in 2017, to 10 per cent in 2022. The reforms have also led to rising female incomes, a declining gender pay gap and high growth in dual-income households fuelled by more women becoming financially independent. As a result, in its 2020 Women, Business and the Law Report, the World Bank ranked Saudi Arabia as the top economy for the most progress toward gender equality.”
What does the future of gender equality in tourism look like in Saudi Arabia?
“Never has there been a more promising, more optimistic time to be a woman in Saudi Arabia, as opportunities are replacing barriers and cultural limitations are giving way to social transformation. Women comprise 60 percent of the nation’s university graduates — even in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The participation rate of females in the tech sector was 28 per cent in 2021, above the European average of 17.5 per cent. Also, 16 per cent of all startup founders in Saudi Arabia are women, while they constitute 14 per cent of the startups in the Middle East and North Africa.
“These changes would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Today some women are CEOs, bankers, soldiers, athletes, ambassadors, hijab-wearing supermodels, firefighters, ballerinas, commercial pilots, race car drivers, scientists and Uber drivers. And when women have their full voice, power and influence in society, they will change things differently because women have a different lens on culture.
“We know that there is a clear business case for gender diversity as well as diverse leadership teams. Organisations that fail to take this on board are set to lose out. This is being kept front of mind in Saudi Arabia, particularly in relation to tourism. The Kingdom has launched a host of initiatives set to benefit both men and women currently working or looking to break into the industry.
“For instance, it has launched a human capital development strategy, which aims to attract more Saudi nationals to the sector. And with over 80 per cent of young Saudis believing that a career in tourism and hospitality will give them the salary and resources they expect to sustain themselves, gender equality in tourism is well placed to substantially improve.”
“Saudi Arabia brought equal pay into law for men and women in 2018.”
What jobs will women be able to do?
“Women can and do hold the same jobs as their male counterparts. At Red Sea Global, for instance, women are playing a key role in every single department, from master planning to construction, from scientific research to developing the guest experiences.”
Will they be able to do everything men do and earn the same salaries?
“Saudi Arabia brought equal pay into law for men and women in 2018. RSG not only adheres to this because it’s a legal requirement, but because it places equal value on the contributions of all staff, regardless of gender, and strive to be an inclusive employer and a socially responsible company.”
What is Red Sea Global doing to create a working environment where everyone is equally recognised across all levels?
“RSG’s commitment to gender equality is reflected in its corporate policies and practices. It scrutinises and assesses job postings for every level to ensure that gender neutral language is used, so as not to discourage women from applying. As well as this, the company ensures that at least one female candidate is on the shortlist of individuals being considered for each role. True diversity and inclusion is not only about gender and in that context. It was an especially special moment when Red Sea Global committed to develop fully accessible destinations.
“To drive this leading commitment to accessible tourism, RSG will now require all its employees, consultants and partners to follow the UN-backed standard, ISO 21902 – Accessible Tourism for All, throughout their work. The objective is to ensure guests enjoy RSG destinations with equity and dignity through the delivery of spaces, products and services, irrespective of physical or cognitive ability. This initiative will extend to all aspects of RSG’s ecosystem, further benefitting employees, local communities and partners.”
“The ambition is to grow tourism’s share of GDP to the Kingdom from 3 per cent to 10 per cent.”
What initiatives is RSG launching to empower women in tourism?
“While Saudi Arabia has long had a strong religious tourism offering, its wider leisure tourism proposition is still very much in its infancy. The ambition is to grow tourism’s share of GDP to the Kingdom from 3 per cent to 10 per cent. Achieving this requires a largescale recruitment exercise – one that cannot be focused solely on one gender.
“This includes a host of training initiatives designed to upskill ambitious Saudi talent, such as a program with the University of Prince Mugrin that offers both theory and hands on experience, accredited by the École hôtelière de Lausanne. We’re proud to have awarded 170 scholarships to high school students for this to date. An additional 700 vocational training places have been provided and this summer, RSG celebrated the first batch of graduates from the Red Sea Vocational Training Program.
“It is now placing those 430 students into roles with Red Sea Global and operational partners at the Red Sea destination. These roles and opportunities are highly appealing to women, for the same reasons that tourism is appealing for women around the world. While these programs are open to men and women equally, Red Sea Global is committed to empowering women in tourism and is working to significantly increase the number of female workers at the company.”
“Sustainability is no longer enough. After decades of chronic exploitation and impacts, our ecosystems and environment are depleted in both abundance and in health… RSG is now working towards achieving a 30 per cent net conservation benefit at its destinations by 2040 – by not just protecting but enhancing the surrounding environment.”
What does regenerative tourism mean to Red Sea Global (RSG) and Saudi Arabia?
“As a developer creating new destinations in areas previously untouched by tourism, it is incumbent upon us to ensure we are developing sustainably and responsibly. Not just this, but we say that sustainability is no longer enough. After decades of chronic exploitation and impacts, our ecosystems and environment are depleted in both abundance and in health.
“Conserving environments that are already in this weakened state is not good enough. That is why RSG has chosen to pioneer a new model of development that goes beyond simply protecting the natural environment to actually improving it for future generations to treasure and enjoy – a concept we term ‘regenerative tourism’.
“RSG has embraced this ethos of regenerative tourism from the very beginning. Before a shovel hit the ground, scientists were sent in to catalogue and assess the stunning biodiversity of The Red Sea destination area. Based on what they learned through a large-scale Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) exercise, we drew up a master plan that ensured minimal disruption to the surrounding environment and determined our ecological ceiling in many respects, including visitor numbers.
“We decided to develop just 1 per cent of the entire 28,000 sq km area – a site that’s the size of a small country – and to leave the rest untouched. We are developing just 22 of the more than 90 islands in our archipelago, and we’ve designated nine islands as special conservation zones. RSG is now working towards achieving a 30 per cent net conservation benefit at its destinations by 2040 – by not just protecting but enhancing the surrounding environment.
“Socio-economic regeneration is a central part of this ethos. Tourism is a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s vision to diversify its economy, by directly and indirectly creating exciting job opportunities for Saudi talent. ‘Souq Amerah’ is an example of how RSG is achieving this. It is the first market to highlight the authentic products of Umluj, a town near to the Red Sea destination, allowing local artisans and food producers to sell different foods, merchandise, crafts and other products in a fun, lively and entertaining atmosphere.
“Additionally, RSG has co-founded Tamala a cooperative comprising 3000 farms, facilitating their access to new markets and ensuring fair prices for their crops. The ultimate aim of regenerative tourism is to build a better future for both people and planet.”
“Our purpose-built battery storage facility will be the largest in the world, and we have recently completed the installation of more than 760,000 photovoltaic panels needed to power phase one of the destination.”
Tell us about some of RSG’s regenerative travel credentials and innovations.
“RSG takes an innovative, science-led approach to everything it does, using data driven processes to inform decision-making and management of all activities across the destination. As discussed above, before a shovel hit the ground, before a single designer, architect or hotelier stepped onto the site, we sent scientists in to catalogue and assess the destination area. We even published the results in a scientific journal.
“Its in-house team of scientists is not only helping to monitor for environmental impacts, but to actually achieve our regeneration ambitions. RSG’s coral gardening program is led by an expert team who are helping us to grow new coral colonies. They are using artificial intelligence to monitor coral growth and detect minute changes over time. This allowed us to confirm that corals in the nurseries grow faster than on the natural reef. Where corals must be relocated, this team has achieved a 95 per cent success rate versus a global average of 40-70 per cent.
“Beyond our scientific research, we are leveraging the most innovative concepts and technologies in development. For our Sheybarah Island resort, for example, we’re installing prefabricated stainless-steel, orb-shaped villas that ship to us ready-made. This significantly reduces waste, noise pollution, soil erosion and general site disturbance with fewer people required on site.
“We are not afraid to take calculated risks to help us reduce our impact and solve the world’s most complex challenges. For instance, we are working with ZeroAvia to explore the development of hydrogen-powered seaplanes.”
“We’re also proud to be pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved with renewable energy. Both the Red Sea and Amaala will be powered by 100 per cent renewables by the time they are fully operational, with the resulting saving in CO2 emissions to the atmosphere across both projects equivalent to a million tons each year.
“At the Red Sea, our purpose-built battery storage facility will be the largest in the world at 1200MWh, and we have recently completed the installation of more than 760,000 photovoltaic panels needed to power phase one of the destination. The utilities at Six Senses Southern Dunes, the Red Sea, which will be the first hotel to open at the Red Sea, are already being powered by these solar farms.
“We are not afraid to take calculated risks to help us reduce our impact and solve the world’s most complex challenges. For instance, we are working with ZeroAvia to explore the development of hydrogen-powered seaplanes. We’ve also established a pilot project using Partanna’s carbon-negative concrete, which could play a crucial role in helping us become carbon negative. The easier option would have been to outsource our social responsibility, but we are testing and delivering the ideas that will shape the future of the tourism sector, the Kingdom and the planet.”
“If we improve the prospects for women, we improve living standards, health outcomes and prosperity for all.”
In what way is gender equality linked to regeneration?
“At the heart of RSG’s regenerative tourism vision is people and planet. While this absolutely means restoration of the local environment, it also means actively improving and investing in the wellbeing of customers, communities and staff. Much of the focus of regenerative tourism thus far has been on reducing carbon emissions and environmental impact but real progress requires solutions that also incorporate social impact, and in particular, gender equity into the solution.
“While gender equality and regenerative tourism may seem like unrelated issues, research shows that women are uniquely positioned to lead the fight for sustainability and are crucial to make the leap to being restorative, reparative and regenerative as an industry.
“Specific to the role of women, tourism also employs a lot more women 54 per cent compared to 39 per cent in wider economy. So, the ability to impact change for women in particular is a lot more in tourism. As part of this, we are dedicated to providing equal opportunities to our female workforce: offering access to training and, ensuring all employees are equipped with the skills, support and benefits that they need to thrive.
“If we improve the prospects for women, we improve living standards, health outcomes and prosperity for all. This is the essence of social regeneration. If we want a sector with a more positive footprint on the environment and society, we need bold organizations that are committed to ensure women and girls have the opportunity to make decisions, control resources, and reach their full potential. Advancing gender equality in the workplace and in society is a critical success factor to achieve that regenerative agenda.”