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Beth Santos on Shifting the Safety Narrative for Solo Women Travelers

Photos: Courtesy of Shes Wanderful

Beth Santos, founder and CEO of Wanderful, which specializes in empowering women to travel the world, talks about the focus on the perils of traveling solo for women, and why it’s important to move away from this talking point.

Beth Santos

Founder and CEO, Wanderful

You’re very outspoken when arguing whether solo travel is safe for women or not. Could you explain why and where this comes from?

There is a lot of dialogue lately about how women can stay safe when traveling alone. A quick Google search will reveal loads of articles, many of which surface around March (Women’s Month).

Typically, when we as a society talk about solo travel for women, we follow one of two narratives. Either it’s the Eat, Pray, Love narrative, in which a woman has a magical and life-changing experience abroad, usually involving a gorgeous romantic interest (and no shade here to Eat Pray Love itself– I actually loved the book myself but still the narrative exists); or it’s the “murdered in a dark alley” narrative, in which a woman makes the bad choice of traveling by herself and pays the ultimate price for it.

Often there’s very little nuance, and that’s my main frustration. We oversimplify safety and immediately apply a gendered lens to it. You won’t find nearly as much information directed to men about traveling safely as you will for women, yet it’s a topic that’s relevant for everyone. Not to mention, often by providing “tips” for women to travel safely, what we’re actually communicating to women is that it needs to be our responsibility to protect ourselves. But we, as a society, need to have a conversation about how to stop sexism, harassment, and violence against women in the first place.

What did you discover about your own community and their perceptions of safety while traveling abroad?

The Wanderful community is comprised of fantastic, inspirational women who dedicate a large portion of their lives to travel. They live and breathe it. For the most part, their concerns about safety don’t stop them from going out into the world. But they do also still have concerns.

For example, a few years ago we polled our community and found that 54 percent opted out of homesharing when traveling by themselves, even when they used it regularly with friends, partners, and family. This was a powerful statistic because it showed us our community’s concern for their own safety.

What is the Wanderful Homesharing Network?

Knowing this about our community compelled us to create the Wanderful Homesharing Network, which is an identity-verified platform for women. We actually video verify each user (both travelers and guests) so they feel safer when staying with others. The added security features have not just been valuable for the traveler side — our hostesses feel much better knowing that her guests have been verified, too.

With listings in 10 countries around the world, the network is growing fast.

The other thing that’s interesting about Wanderful is that we’re one of the few truly multigenerational communities out there. We host events in 50 chapters around the world, including our new Wanderful Women Wednesdays where we connect local women together with women actively traveling through a city. You’ll be just as likely to meet women in their 20s there as you would women in their 60s. Diversity is an incredibly important part of our makeup, and we regularly try to reach outside of our own network to make sure that all the members of our community feel celebrated and welcome.

I mention this because safety and the feeling of being safe can be very subjective and sometimes even very cultural. By fostering spaces around the world where diverse women can share their experiences with each other in the context of travel, we give them a place to air concerns, provide feedback, and support each other.

What else can the private sector do to address the unique needs of women?

It’s so easy to default to stereotypes when focusing on supporting women in the travel space. We think that by making something “girly” or having enough beauty magazines available we’re making travel women-friendly.

Actually, we’ve been doing it all backwards. Women make 80 percent of the decisions in the travel space, and are two-thirds of all travelers. In many ways, we dominate the travel sector, yet when we think about women’s travel, it’s almost like it’s viewed as a spinoff of regular (read: men’s) travel.

There are a lot of topics that are exceptionally relevant to women in day-to-day life. Gender norms and cultural expectations in new places. Menstruation, pregnancy, and motherhood. And yes, even topics like street harassment and violence against women. These topics are things women think about every day.

Addressing the needs of women doesn’t happen with one action overnight. Being thoughtful about women should be part of the fabric of every company. First, the private sector should examine the diversity of its own leadership and evaluate who is making decisions at the top and who is ready for a promotion. Then, they should look down the ranks to see how many women are in the pipeline to roles in leadership. Examining and fixing internal policies and procedures like parental leave, services for new mothers, and even business culture can make a huge difference in getting more women represented.

There are simple changes we can make too, like stocking hotel rooms and airplanes with menstrual products, or supporting more women- and minority-owned businesses. We work with a lot of companies that are interested in meaningfully reaching women decision-makers, and run a conference called the Women in Travel Summit that aims to connect women creators and influencers in the travel space with members of the industry. We believe that by lifting the already strong voices of women, we can help make travel better for all of us.

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