Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental and Energy Policy (PhD)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Social Sciences

Advisor 1

Richelle L. Winkler

Committee Member 1

Melissa F. Baird

Committee Member 2

Angie Carter

Committee Member 3

Kamara Taylor


Globally, women make up a relatively large proportion of the tourism workforce; however, they usually do menial jobs and earn lower wages than men doing the same job. Traditional gender expectations and unequal power relations between women and men persist, limiting women’s opportunities. Ecotourism could be a tool for sustainable development and might be expected to empower women, given its explicit attention to social justice, grassroots development, and empowering local people. However, it may primarily empower groups that already have power, and not those who already are in disadvantaged positions, including women. Without explicitly considering gender and power complexities, ecotourism might be a “gender blind” industry that only reinforces traditional gender expectations instead of promoting gender equity, women’s empowerment, and social justice. The purpose of this research is to understand the processes through which ecotourism empowers or disempowers women. My research analyzes two ecotourism projects in rural Mexico. One formed exclusively by women and another with male and female participation. I also examine how Mexican tourism and ecotourism policies incorporate women and gender equity. Results show that power is concentrated in an elite group of male decision-makers who control resources. International, federal, and local tourism and ecotourism policies rarely incorporate gender or women’s empowerment, and when they do goals are not set, progress is not tracked, and implementation is often voluntary and not appropriately incentivized. The most successful federal policies that aim to integrate women in ecotourism projects only lead to nominal inclusion. Even in the case where the ecotourism project is entirely organized and run by women, local gender expectations prevent women from fully participating in and committing to the ecotourism cooperative. Women’s lives, in this rural Mexican context, are constrained by existing family and work demands (first and second shifts), so that taking on the additional work of starting and running an effective ecotourism project (a third shift) is beyond their capabilities. Ultimately, I argue that the Mexican ecotourism industry largely reinforces traditional gender expectations and perpetuates existing power divisions, putting women in disadvantaged positions instead of promoting empowerment as it promises.