With societal expectations to ‘settle down’, raise a family or embark on a scholarly career, leading tour groups around foreign countries does not usually top the list of ‘typical’ job descriptions for females.
Those who have challenged the status quo find themselves in a minority of adventure-seeking women who are passionate about making travellers’ dreams a reality.
So, what does it mean to be a female tour guide in 2019? We sit down with Marisa Lukovich and Isabelle Vergara, two of Trafalgar’s leading travel directors and discover how together with their army of female colleagues, they feel empowered by their careers in the travel industry, one amazing trip at a time.
Chasing dreams and realising your destiny
With more than four decades of experience between them, Lukovich and Vergara both cite ‘fate’ as the driving force behind their career in travel.
“I guess this was my destiny”, Lukovich said.
“I was born on the island of Brac on the Dalmatian Coast, where my mum worked at a tourist office. As a little girl, I used to visit her and had so much fun watching all the international travellers inquire about Croatia and our island.
“My father also worked as a sea captain, sailing the world and recounting us stories of faraway countries. I guess travel is in my blood.”
Likewise, Vergara displayed a fearlessness for travel from an early age, often exploring her native city, Amsterdam on her own.
“As a 9-year-old child I used to explore [Amsterdam] on all means of public transport – trams, buses or ferries – all by myself using my weekly travel pass. I thought a tram conductor was a nice profession.”
“Later, as a student, I successfully organised two student trips to Spain. After completing my studies (European Studies) the opportunity to work as a travel director in Spain came up, so I took it as a summer job. That was 28 years ago…”.
Challenging gender stereotypes in the travel industry
Although male tour guides still eclipse women industry-wide, the numbers are balancing. As a company, it’s important to Trafalgar to ensure equal opportunities are available for both office staff and travel directors on the road.
In fact, for the upcoming summer season, Trafalgar has employed 310 travel directors to run the growing portfolio of trips, with 43 per cent being female – an impressive number for what is traditionally considered a male-dominated role.
When asked if guests are surprised they have a female travel director, Lukovich explained that it’s often actually the opposite.
“There used to be a notion that [tour guiding] was more suitable to men, as life on the road is considered quite tough. Many women who consider having a family would find it unsuitable being away from home for such long periods of time. But generally, guests who travel are the ones who have an open mind and not such a traditional outlook on life.”
The challenges of being a female travel director
Despite the many rewards that come from a career in travel, Vergara admits it can occasionally be a challenge to exercise authority as a woman in foreign countries. Thankfully, she has the support from Trafalgar.
“In Morocco, it is less usual to find a woman in a leading position. Still, I have always felt well-respected, especially representing our well-known company.”
Gender aside, Marisa shares the challenges that come with such a unique job. “Being a Travel Director is an incredible job, but it doesn’t suit everyone and many people don’t fully understand it,” she said.
“I started as a travel director with my best friend, who quit after a year. She needed stability and to sleep in her own bed every night. It takes a certain character – us travel directors like the freedom to feel the ‘wind in our hair’ and along the way, show amazing treasures and sights to our guests. There is something very fulfilling about that.”
For both Lukovich and Vergara, the pressure to conform to society’s traditional values has not affected their desire to continue leading Trafalgar trips around Europe.
“After all these years, some of my family members and old friends started asking, ‘when are you going to settle down?’. I can understand their point of view, but not everyone is meant to follow the same path in life. All of us are different and should always follow our hearts.
“I feel very blessed for being able to achieve that. If we love what we do, then it’s not a job, it’s a passion”, said Lukovich.
“The most difficult part, and more so for us women and mothers, is finding a balance with our family lives. However, it can be found if the support is there. In my case, it has been one of the best decisions I could have made and for which I am still grateful,” conceded Vergara.
The future of female-led tours
So, what’s next for female tour guides around the world? With more and more women opting to venture into a career in travel, the future looks bright. In fact, the female presence throughout the Trafalgar offices around the world is strongly felt, with women making up 72 per cent of the team in the USA and 82 per cent of the team in Australia. According to Lukovich, the biggest challenge is conquering your own fears and overcoming the stigmas that might be attached to forging a career on the road.
“From my personal experience, over two decades of being a Travel Director, I can truly say to all the ladies out there who are not sure whether this is the right job for them: if you like travelling and meeting and working with people, there is nothing stopping you,” she said.
“Even if you are a mother, or thinking of becoming one, there is no need to fear. You can always take time off and adjust your level of work.”
“If men can do it, so can we!”