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The Next Economy
Indian Tourism Initiatives Removing Social Barriers to Women’s Employment

India ranks among the lowest countries for even access to economic participation and opportunities for women. But a growing number of tourism-based initiatives are working to help leveling the playing field.

“Happy Holi!”

Renu Sharma greeted me with a warm smile and clasped my hands in both of hers. She wore two bangles on each wrist, and her hair was pulled back in a flawless bun. She exuded an air of stress-free coolness — something I failed to embody amidst the ceaseless honking and 90°F-degree heat in Jaipur, India. As I slid into the padded backseat of her pink rickshaw, Sharma put on her sunglasses, started up the engine, and we took off for a heritage tour of India’s famed “Pink City.”

As in many Indian cities, getting around Jaipur revolves around rickshaws – approximately 30,000 of them. Of these, the 20 owned by Pink City Rickshaw Company stand out not only for their color, but also because they’re the only ones driven by women.

Initiated in 2017, Pink City Rickshaw Company is a women’s-empowerment initiative supported by the non-profit organization, ACCESS Development Services. It employs more than 60 women from low- and mid-level-income households. Together, they provide 30 to 40 rides a day — all of which are high-quality city tours and not simply point-to-point services. Sharma is the chairperson overseeing the day-to-day operations and has been part of the initiative since the beginning.

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“I am very happy about this project,” she said through a translator. “Driving rickshaws improves the economic conditions for these women.”

According to the World Economic Forum, India ranks among the lowest countries for even access to economic participation and opportunities for women. In the private sector, including in the tourism industry, few women hold decision-making positions. For women who also identify with a marginalized community (such as by class, caste or religion), access to meaningful employment is even more challenging to achieve.

“In India, women face various barriers that hinder their access to education, employment and other opportunities,” said Priyanka Singh, Planeterra’s community tourism project manager for the Asia-Pacific region.

Common barriers include social and cultural norms, gender-based violence and safety concerns, inability to access tourism tools and resources, and limited access to educational and professional opportunities. Initiatives such as Pink City Rickshaw intentionally address these barriers and help close this gap.

“We’re getting a better income than women working in domestic work,” Sharma said. “Plus, this job takes less time, is more flexible and gives us dignity.”

Tourism is a natural avenue for empowering and employing women, especially since tourism in India continues to grow.

“Tourism provides a wide range of employment opportunities — including jobs in hospitality, tour guiding, as homestay hosts, running restaurants, transportation and handicrafts,” Singh said. “By actively participating, women can access formal employment, generate income and achieve economic independence.”

Tourism jobs are uniquely situated to offer transferable skills, such as language learning and customer service, which can be applied beyond the industry. Additionally, Singh said, “women in India play a crucial role in conserving and promoting cultural heritage — including traditional crafts, cuisine and performing arts.”

I experienced this in Delhi, where I spent the morning with Shumayila — a guide with No Footprints. She led me through Nizamuddin Basti, a neighborhood densely populated by Sufi Muslims, and introduced me to women making and selling intricate paper crafts supported by a cooperative called Insha-e-Noor.

The initiatives supporting women don’t end there: In Agra, I enjoyed a casual lunch at a cafe called Sheroes Hangout — which employs women who are acid attack survivors. Women With Wheels, supported by Sakha Consulting Wings, hires women from “restrictive, resource-poor backgrounds.” At Sunder Rang in Rajasthan, 30 women belonging to different castes work together on embroidery, sewing, weaving and beadwork projects.

And in Kerala, Planeterra worked with 10 women to develop a meal experience for tourists. It was a project that started with a community hall and dream.

“From being a group with zero experience, they are today a group of empowered women who have further built their itinerary and confidently receive travelers,” Singh said. “It is a beautiful case of where not just economic empowerment but also the social and cultural aspects are being addressed — the celebration of culture and the power of women-led community experiences.”

Back in Jaipur, Sharma maneuvered the rickshaw through the Ajmeri Gate into the old city and down streets lined with shops. We stopped for kulfi and then mango lassi – a refreshing treat to fight the heat. As Sharma and I wound our way through Jaipur, traffic was particularly bad due to Holi celebrations; yet she handled the bumper-to-bumper jam like a pro.

At one point, we came to a complete standstill. In the car next to us, the male driver rolled down his window and asked Sharma for directions. She pointed this way, then that way — her bangled wrist snaking through the air to indicate where to go. He thanked her just as a space magically opened in the traffic ahead of us. Sharma pressed down on the accelerator, and our pink rickshaw continued on its way.

(Note: Intrepid Travel hosted my experiences with Pink City Rickshaw Company, a partner of the Intrepid Foundation, and Sheroes Hangout. No Footprints hosted my Basti Sisterhood tour in Delhi.)