For Equality and the Economy: Exploring the Gender Dimension of Timor-Leste’s Tourism Sector


Women weavers network group from Oecusse weaving at the Korea and Timor-Leste Friendship week in Oecusse. Photo: UN Women/Seul Lee

Tourism has a unique potential to drive economic growth, create jobs, and promote innovation for more sustainable development, and in particular support development of the municipalities in Timor-Leste. Developing tourism in Timor-Leste means business, and business in tourism means women. The Global Report on Women in Tourism 2019 found that women make up most of the tourism workforce globally and identified key issues for women in the industry alongside recommendations. In 2019, UN Women undertook an analysis to see the links between the global findings and the emerging tourism industry in Timor-Leste. The research culminated in a Roundtable Discussion in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism in late 2019 to meet with industry stakeholders and make the case for women to be actively included in the development of the industry. UN Women will soon publish the report, For Equality and the Economy: Exploring the Gender Dimensions of Timor-Leste’s Tourism Sector, to be available in both Tetun and English.

The research followed the themes of the Global Report to provide the best comparison to tourism globally. It used a dual approach of qualitative analysis to understand the nuance of experiences and backed this up with statistical data that represents the broader economy in Timor-Leste, drawn from sources such as the Population Census, the Business Activity Survey, and analysis of social media use data. The report makes recommendations to empower women in the areas of Representation and Leadership, Education and Training, Institutional Gender Mainstreaming, and Gender-responsive Policies and Environment. 

The research found a high level of similarities between the Timor-Leste and global contexts which shows that lessons can be drawn from abroad about the inclusion of women in the development of the tourism industry. For instance, globally the gendered pay gap in the industry is lower, but the industry as a whole is paid lower than other industries. In Timor-Leste the gendered pay gap in the industry is unknown, but the industry as a whole is comparatively low paid. Globally, women make up the majority of the workforce in the industry, and in Timor-Leste, the Accommodation and Food Services industry is the only women-dominated industry, and 74% of all female managers work in this field. Globally and locally, a large amount of unpaid work is carried out by women in family tourism businesses.

The upcoming report explores the Timor-Leste tourism context from a gender perspective. Important to consider is that the majority of commerce happens in Dili, while the majority of unemployed and economically inactive women are based in the municipalities. Women make up the majority of the tourism workforce, which suggests that developing tourism opportunities throughout Timor-Leste, such as eco-tourism, marine and community tourism, can have positively address disparities in labour participation and impact women, creating opportunities outside Dili. This impact, coincidentally, is a key factor in Timor-Leste reaching its goals under the Timor-Leste Strategic Development Plan, and can be achieved with support from government agencies already committed to supporting rural women through the Maubisse Declaration.

In Timor-Leste, tourism entrepreneurship opportunities in the municipalities often draw on skills women already use, but might not be renumerated for, such as hosting a guesthouse, selling food and drink, and producing craft-products. The perception that much of tourism work is “women’s work” has a limiting effect on the types of other work within the industry women might access. This means that travel (Pre-COVID 19), trips away from home overnight, and stigma associated with service roles maintain a gendered segregation in the industry. Men also face stigma in tourism work, including derogatory assumptions about their gender identities and sexual orientation. The stigma that both women and men working in tourism experience are connected to harmful gender norms which are based in patriarchal systems of power and control. The social perceptions restricting what tourism work women can perform has a significant impact on their access to different roles, and in turn, access to decision-making and leadership positions. These social norms also expose women to stigma from family and neighbours, and harassment from men who perceive that they are acting outside their pre-defined acceptable role.

Cultural attractions are popular too, with half of all travellers to Timor-Leste doing cultural activities, such as visiting the tais market, or attending tours. National non-governmental organizations such as Asosiasaun Chega! Ba Ita (Acbit) and Juventude ba Dezenvolvimentu Násional (JDN) have promoted guided walks featuring women who contributed during the resistance and faced grave human rights violations as a result. These highlight the potential of cultural tourism, and the importance of women-led processes guiding how women’s stories are shared, valuing women’s voices and role as agents of change. As the bearers of cultural artefacts, such as tais, women have unique opportunities to advance tourism in Timor-Leste.

Educational and leadership opportunities for women have been shown to reap huge dividends globally for the women themselves as well as the businesses they work in, and their communities. Even access to entry level training roles can create a pathway into opportunities for youth to show their talent. The upcoming report details the experience of “Sarah”, who went from an entry level training opportunity in Dili to designing menus as a head chef within a mere few years. Ensuring women have access to educational and leadership opportunities requires an industry, and the dedicated efforts of coordinated diverse stakeholders, committed to ensuring their inclusion, as outlined in the recommendations in the upcoming report.

Without women at the decision-making helm in the development of the industry, women’s labour is at risk of subsidizing the industry, and supporting community development that does not benefit the women themselves.

In the era of COVID-19, tourism is struggling, and with women making up the majority of this workforce, the loss of tourism has a disproportionate impact on them. UN Women acknowledges the dedicated work from USAID’s Tourism for All Project and other partners to develop a COVID-19 specific plan for the maintenance and growth of the Tourism Industry. The new report aims to offer a timely contribution to propose key recommendations based in evidence, both globally and locally, to ensure the industry develops with women at its centre, as decision-makers, leaders, entrepreneurs and workers.

In the coming years, UN Women will continue to advance its work in supporting women in the tourism sector through its Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme, working with other tourism stakeholders to promote and support new opportunities for tourism development that includes decent work for all, and in particular for women.