We Travel For Women+: Paloma Zapata, Sustainable Travel International

March 22, 2023
Paloma Zapata (she/her)
3 min read
Paloma Zapata (she/her)

CEO, Sustainable Travel International
Live from: Barcelona, Spain

As CEO of Sustainable Travel International, I lead an all-female team aiming to maximize tourism’s contribution to sustainable development, conservation of natural and cultural resources, and community well-being. With over 15 years of experience in sustainable tourism development, I’ve designed and implemented impactful initiatives and projects in 26 nations across the globe. I’m driving the organization’s global leadership on climate action by engaging the tourism industry, destinations, and travelers in decarbonizing travel and channeling finance toward clean energy and natural climate solutions. 

I grew up enjoying the pristine beaches and the friendly community of the Dominican Republic.  Later in life, while living in New York City and working as an engineer, I witnessed the negative impact of tourism.  Our beaches were increasingly degraded, and our island community was progressively alienated. This reality inspired me to change my career to sustainable tourism.

My experience working as a female in a tourism-related field is similar to other industries. Even though more women are working in tourism than in the male-dominated industrial and systems engineering field, gender unbalance still exists. Fewer women are in leadership roles, and women must work harder than men to get noticed and promoted. And we often still have to make personal sacrifices to excel in our careers.

When I became an international tourism development consultant, I traveled far and wide working on many exciting projects.  However, as a female, there were extra precautions I had to take for safety reasons that my male counterparts did not have to concern themselves with.  Additionally, I had to navigate gender expectations and break barriers to have my voice heard at the seat of male-dominated tables.

Indeed, there are already more up-and-coming women leaders and trailblazers in tourism.  This is an uplifting trend among women, especially young women, who need role models they can relate to.  Yet, there is more we need to do to provide equal opportunities and support women in this field. 

Paloma Zapata

Too often, I encounter men with minimal substance and experience who easily gain recognition if they are loud enough. In contrast, for women to achieve the same acknowledgment, they need to be smarter, stronger, and with higher credentials.  In my career, I have felt the glass ceiling regarding equal pay, career opportunities, and recognition, and it’s a subtle but constant uphill battle.

I’ve had the privilege of working with many empowered women who’ve been my mentors.  They tend to be bold, take risks, and have perseverance and good judgment.  These women tend to break barriers and reach success. 

As a leader of an all-female team, I’ve learned that we can empower women by recognizing and meeting their priorities and by supporting them in reaching their professional goals and objectives.  And when women in the workforce are empowered, teamwork, resilience, and prosperity will follow. 

Also, when working on tourism development projects in the field, I’ve seen communities where women groups thrive.  They tend to succeed when they join forces, gain skills, and venture into a tourism-related business.  These women-led enterprises conduce lasting positive social and economic impacts on their families and their communities.

However, We need to break stereotypes by educating men and women on the contribution of women to the industry.  We need to celebrate not just the stories of leaders and trailblazers but of regular women: from hotel cleaning staff to high-level executives, women are shaping the industry.

We also need to continue the dialogue on how we experience gender biases.  They may seem subtle, but we must openly discuss them to effect change.  And we must tackle the salary gap head-on; it should not be the status quo. Finally, benefits like maternity leave, child care, and a flexible schedule should be the norm and not a perk.   

A conscious traveler should also be mindful and support female-led tourism enterprises.  Most of these women are sole family caretakers and are often the most affected by the impacts of climate change, exacerbated by gender inequalities.

Women have always been a part of history.  I am grateful for the legacy of our foremothers, whose efforts led to the recognition of the contribution of women in history. But we shouldn’t dedicate only a month to this topic; it should be the entire year. A woman today should already have equal opportunities and rights. The goal needs to be an equitable society where women’s history month doesn’t need to exist.