The time is right for female tourism entrepreneurship in the MENA region!

The time is right for female tourism entrepreneurship in the MENA region!

Entrepreneurship is an important yet untapped resource in the MENA region. Even as recently as the 3rd March 2017, an event was held in Brussels with several institutional actors from the region to highlight the critical importance of female entrepreneurship as an essential element of building future sustainable political economies of the MENA region.

According to several studies, including OECD’s 2014, women owned businesses represent 12% of all businesses in the region; male owned business are more than double at 31%. Moreover, only 7% of women owned businesses can be classified as ‘large’ and many if not most are in traditionally ‘female’ sectors such as education and healthcare.

The OECD says that although women’s education is on the rise and women are often educated to the highest levels, their participation in the workforce is still low, at a mere 24% versus 60% of the OECD countries average.  Naturally, the two statistics are linked because for many employed work is an important precursor to entrepreneurship.

Despite the fact that MENA nations have made considerable efforts to narrow the gender gap, much remains to be done to empower women in the region, both in terms of cultural norms and culturally, but also as far as access to financial services and resources, barriers in the business environment and lack of research and data.

As a matter of fact, when one looks at research around barriers to entrepreneurship, much research (International Finance Corporation, World Bank etc.) shows that most perceived obstacles are around access to finance and credit; access to skills and training and at times, finding and keeping good employees.

However, women in the MENA regions are optimistic about their future and about their ability to grow their businesses and so they should be!

When one looks around at what is available to women entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs, there is no doubt that a great amount of momentum can now be felt, with a proliferation of initiatives becoming available to MENA based women:

  • Business incubators and most specifically women focussed business incubators (for example in Morocco and Egypt)
  • Women driven angel investors platforms like WOMENA
  • Initiatives such as entrepreneurship training programme organised by Women Business Associations and Women Business Forum across the region. (see for example

In a recent feature Reaping the Rewards: The MENA Region’s Female Entrepreneurs by A number of MENA women were interviewed to talk about their businesses, and voice their opinions about needs, challenges and opportunities encountered as female entrepreneurs in the area. Some of them include travel, tourism, hospitality and entertainment related businesses, such as Sara Mohammadi, the founder of Tehran-based Eventbox, and Nida Sumar founder of dining app Keza. These women are making important changes to the female entrepreneurship landscape in the MENA region and proving that good ideas and determination can certainly be turned into a successful business when the environment is also right!

Looking specifically at Travel & Tourism, there is little doubt that the industry can provide amazing opportunities to women entrepreneurs.

We already know that this industry makes a very substantial contribution to the region and this will only continue to grow as demonstrated in my last blog, How the travel industry can embrace #BeBoldForChange. Specifically entrepreneurship can be a major force for women’s economic empowerment, sustainability and poverty alleviation: this is being recognised at institutional level too, with the UNWTO (the United Nations World Tourism Organisation) discussing this topic at the recent INVESTOUR conference in the context of Madrid based Fitur, as part as The Year for Sustainable Tourism Development.

Within the forthcoming Arabian Travel Market, Women in Travel CIC’s, Women in Travel Meetup will also contribute to the effort by gathering a panel of women entrepreneurs to discuss their experiences in the MENA region. Women in Travel CIC is a recently launched social enterprise that aims to leverage the travel and tourism sector in order to empower women through education, engagement and especially entrepreneurship.

The panel features entrepreneurs from countries including Iran, Jordan and Egypt. One thing they all have in common is a passion for entrepreneurship; an indefatigable commitment to the travel and tourism industry, and a great belief that women can and must create change for everyone’s long term benefits.

As the OECD says in its 2014 report ‘closing the gender labour gap could add another 25% GDP per capita to the MENA region’…the time is right for female entrepreneurship in travel and tourism to play its part!


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Alessandra is a senior professional and qualified coach-mentor with 18 years of business experience spent working in the commercial sector, mostly consulting for the travel, tourism, hospitality and event management industry. Current and recent clients include Tourism Boards, Trade Associations, Hotels, Caterers and Educational Institutions. In 2011 Alessandra was appointed visiting lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire within the Travel Tourism Hospitality and Events faculty of the Business School and has taught in a variety of establishments including The Ecole Hotelier de Lausanne and more recently The University of Normandie’s Business School. Alessandra is passionate about gender in tourism and has written and spoken extensively on the subject, including at the United Nations World Tourism Day. She is well known as co-founder of Shine People and Places – a boutique outfit dedicate to supporting women in the workplace - and The Shine Awards for Women Achievements in Travel Tourism Hospitality and Events, which she run between 2004 and 2010 before Sector Skills Council People 1st took them over. Prior to Shine Alessandra worked at KPMG, where she built the Travel & Tourism division, and the World Travel and Tourism Council.


  1. Irfan Ahmad says:

    We are an Islamic travel startup – – and two of the three co-founders are female. Naajya looks after content while Sehyr is the designer who has designed our much acclaimed mobile app. Business is run by me – the third co-founder – because of my prior entrepreneurial experience.

    55% of our 1.5 million users are females. 80% are Arabs. This shows the tremendous importance of females in the travel decision making process in the Arab world. For my own personal vacations, my wife has always decided on where to go and more importantly on which hotel to stay in (despite my grumblings that there was an equally good and less expensive hotel there!).

    • alessandra says:

      Thank you Irfan, you are absolutely spot on whether it is from the view point of talent or buying and decision making power women matter to the travel industry in the MENA region!
      If you are at ATM do come say hello with your co-founders…our event is on the Monday 24 – 4.30 to 6 pm. Kind regards Alessandra

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