I accept that I might get abused on the way . . . I might get raped . . . I still scare [sic] . . . You accept that everything might happen. So, you just go, you don’t worry.
– Confession of an Asian Solo Female Traveller
I believe research is inherently value laden and shaped by personal experience. I am a petite Asian female from Malaysia in my mid-thirties. I started to travel alone when I turned 21 years old, when I decided to do something different, or rebellious to be precise, as that was a decision that startled my parents, friends, and strangers at my travel destinations. I have been repeatedly told that I am an easy target for abduction and other crimes due to the size of my physical body and gender. But I was too naïve to fear, and I thought carrying a big backpack, wandering in unfamiliar places on my own, just like many Western backpackers whom I have come across in Malaysia was a really cool thing to do. And most importantly, none of my close friends and acquaintances had travelled solo, which made it even more special. Hence, I went on the road alone.
My first solo trip was to Australia, and I could not know at that time that I would end up doing a PhD on solo female travel there. That first solo trip, which then encouraged the many solo trips that followed, was transformational. Across these trips, I often had curious male strangers asking if I was alone, or why I was alone. I took those questions as friendly gestures and concerns at the beginning until I heard men calling me an Asian prostitute or slut in languages that they thought I did not comprehend. You see, to fear, is an acquired skill to some extent. After several uncomfortable occurrences, I began to notice my vulnerability. The more I was aware of it, the more risk I perceived, and the more worried I became. The tipping point was an incident in Greece where I believed that I was drugged and subsequently robbed in a hostel. When I was shaking in tears on my own the next morning in a foreign land, I realised that I was truly alone. I am still puzzled by what happened but what has bewildered me more is the fact that I have not stopped travelling alone. Understanding of the unique risk faced by Asian solo female travellers, my own experience, and our combined, seemingly risk-taking behaviour, formed the impetus for my PhD project.
However, the proposal to research Asian solo female travellers was deemed as too niche with little practical value at that time in Malaysia. I was encouraged to change my PhD topic to something quite different, which I did and struggled for a year and a half due to many reasons, including my lack of interest in the new topic. When an opportunity came, I applied to Griffith University in Australia using my initial proposal on Asian solo female travellers and embarked on this research journey. Seven years later, it is still an area of research that is very close to my heart.
Background to My Research on Asian Solo Female Travellers
I started my PhD research on Asian solo female travellers in 2014. The next year, TripAdvisor’s survey reported that 79% of women from Southeast Asia has shown an interest in travelling alone (TripAdvisor, 2015) and in 2016, solo travel was rated as one of the most popular new activities for Asian travellers in general (TripAdvisor, 2016). Despite the growing interest in solo female travel in Asia, the experience of Asian women has been investigated sparingly within the solo female travel literature prior to my work. In contrast to the statistics of various industry reports pointing to the rise of the solo female travel market in Asia (eGlobal Travel Media, 2014; The Star, 2014), the extant literature at that time suggested that Asian women were less interested in independent forms of travel because of the Asian gender norms and expectations (Zhang & Hitchcock, 2014).
Further, tourism knowledge has conventionally assumed a Western-centric viewpoint. For instance, in the backpacking literature, the self-searching journey usually took place in the Third World, where (male) travellers leave the comfort of Western civilisation and travel to the untouched, primitive, and exotic destinations in the East and South for transformative experiences (Bui, Wilkins, & Lee, 2013; Elsrud, 2001; O’Reilly, 2005; Teo & Leong, 2006). Independent travel, to some extent, exemplifies a form of neo-colonialism that perpetuates Western domination and subjugation of past colonies and developing countries (Chung, 1994; d’Hauteserre, 2004). Studies on backpacking, a form of independent travel akin to solo travel, albeit backpacking does not necessarily indicate travelling alone, has continuously revealed the presence of Western-centric practices in certain destinations (Muzaini, 2006; Teo & Leong, 2006).
When travelling alone in the tourism space that privileges (white) men’s travel experience (Pritchard & Morgan, 2000), women are exposed to gendered risks, such as sexual harassment and unwanted attention (Jordan & Gibson, 2005; Wilson & Little, 2008). Some scholars suggest that the effect of risk can be amplified in Asian women because of the different cultural values underlying the social expectations of what it is to be a respectable woman in an Asian society (Muzaini, 2006; Teo & Leong, 2006). That there is a risk to solo female travel is widely indicated in media (Bates, 2016), social media (see #viajosolo and later #metoo on Twitter) and popular culture (see for examples, the movies, Wild and Queen, about solo female travellers–an American and Indian, respectively). Many travel guidebooks have allocated an independent section or even a full chapter to provide safety tips for solo female travellers (Lewis, 2014; Williams, 2014; Wilson, Holdsworth, & Witsel, 2009). Similarly, discussion threads on the safety risk of women travelling alone are commonly seen in online travel forums (see for examples, Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and 背包客棧backpackers.com.tw). Many women are aware of the risk or the possible negative outcomes of travelling alone but are not deterred from taking the solo journeys. This decision renders solo female travel a voluntary risk-taking endeavour to some extent (Elsrud, 2001; Myers, 2010). While the risk associated with solo female travel has been frequently mentioned, few studies have conceptualised risk as an independent subject of investigation.
In response to the rise of the solo female travel market in Asia and the knowledge gaps identified above, my research investigated the solo travel experience of Asian women, with a focus on risk. Specifically, my research sought to address the following questions:
(1) How do Asian solo female travellers perceive and interpret the risk of travelling alone?
(2) How do these women respond to the perceived risk?
(3) What is the implication of their risk experiences in relation to the individuals’ lives and the social world?
Overview of Research Methods
My research is underpinned by a constructivist paradigm. I believe that “the self is a social phenomenon” (Wright, 2010, p. 127) and “subjectivity is inseparable from social existence” (Charmaz, 2014, p. 14). In my work, risk is construed as a social construction rather than an objective threat. The perception of risk is subjective, but the subjective perception is mediated by the embedded social grid and cultural context. I attempt to present the many facets of the “realities” or experiences of Asian solo female travellers. I recognise the uniqueness of each individual and experience but also seeks to understand the intersubjectivity or shared consciousness that may exist within this group of travellers. Nonetheless, the experiences of these female travellers can never be entirely or objectively captured because for a constructivist who embraces a subjectivist epistemology, the creation of knowledge is an act of interpretation that is co-constructed by the researcher and the participants (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011). The co-construction of knowledge empowers the participants and gives voices to groups that have been marginalised in research (Jordan & Gibson, 2004). My research methods are guided by a constructivist qualitative methodology. Some of the methods and techniques I used to research Asian solo female travellers include constructivist grounded theory, autoethnography, and photo-elicitation interviews. The findings presented in this chapter are based on the solo travel narratives of 35 Asian women from 10 Asian countries and my autoethnographic field work in Thailand. All my work on Asian solo female travellers entails an intersectionality lens to investigate the intertwined gender, race, and cultural identities and how these identities shape Asian women’s travel experiences.
Mapping the State of Knowledge
I conducted two systematic literature reviews, a quantitative systematic review and a narrative synthesis to integrate existing knowledge, examine the state of research, and identify gaps in the main research areas, namely Asian female travellers and risk and gender in tourism. The gaps identified in these reviews guided the direction of my empirical research, which I will detail in the next section.
“A systematic literature review of risk and gender research in tourism” (Yang, Khoo-Lattimore, & Arcodia, 2017b) is the first study to systematically review tourism risk literature in general and from a gender perspective. The paper has been cited 194 times according to Google Scholar and placed in the top performing 1% of papers in the ESI field of Social Sciences (Web of Science, date retrieved 6 August 2021). The review outcomes based on 86 studies indicate that existing travel risk and gender research has been dominated by western perspectives and has remained at a surface understanding. While research relevant to risk and gender was the criteria for these studies to be included in the review, few have contributed to the theoretical development of the concept of risk and gendered risk. In fact, gender has been predominantly used as one of the many variables rather than as a major subject for investigation itself. Although gender differences in tourist risk experience are evident in 70% of these studies, few have engaged a gender or feminist framework in explaining the differences. The lack of in-depth theoretical discussion can be attributed to the limitation of the positivist quantitative research method that was favoured in the literature. Surveys are instrumental in measuring and comparing risk perception and risk-taking propensity between male and female travellers, but the focus on numbers means that they have limited capacity in providing in-depth interpretations of the performative, embodied, and gendered tourist behaviour (Morgan & Pritchard, 2005). Based on the traits and gaps identified in the review, several recommendations have been provided for future research, and they include: attending to cultural pluralism by including the voices of non-western tourists, engaging in interpretive and reflexive methodologies, and deepening the theoretical understanding of gendered travel risk.
“A narrative review of Asian female travellers” (Yang, Khoo-Lattimore, & Arcodia, 2017a) synthesised fragmented knowledge of Asian female travellers from the seventeenth century and earlier up to the present day. Based on 88 studies in multiple languages and from various disciplines, the review unfolded the stories of Asian female travellers in the past and present and reveal the agency of Asian women in contesting the submissive and immobile image that was expected of them. The traveller identity of Asian women has transformed remarkably from that of a passive travel companion, to one of an enthusiastic companion, and on to that of an active traveller. This transformation became especially palpable in the past century, which was characterised by massive social changes, including active feminist movements that took different forms and developed at different rates across the globe. While Asian women have gained improved access to travel, their travel behaviour is still bounded by the gender norms in their culture. Women’s newly gained autonomy in mobility contradicts the lingering breath of and in some cases, the revival of traditional values that constrain women to the domestic sphere and caretaker role. Nevertheless, the ambivalent gender identities and travel narratives identified in the literature imply on-going reconstruction of Asian gender identities, some of which have been enabled by tourism.
Risk-taking on Her Lonely Planet: Exploring the Risk Experiences of Asian Solo Female Travellers
The findings presented below is based on my PhD thesis (Yang, 2017a) and four of my publications (Yang, 2017b; Yang, Khoo-Lattimore, & Arcodia, 2018a, 2018b; Yang, Yang, & Khoo-Lattimore, 2019). The key themes include the risk perception of Asian solo female travellers, their response to risk, and the implications of their risk experiences.
Risk perception of Asian solo female travellers
Gendered risk and cultured risk are two main risks that have emerged strongly from the Asian women’s narratives. Gendered risk refers to the socially constructed consciousness of danger or mostly undesirable outcomes that are related to or prompted by women’s gender. Gendered risk identified in my research ranges from unwanted gaze, stalking, street harassment, uninvited sexual advance, to sexual assault. Cultured risk is the consciousness of threats or unpleasant occurrences that are induced by Asian women’s cultural background, including the risk of being disapproved of, stereotyped, treated unfairly, and discriminated against through verbal harassment and physical assault. In some cases, gendered risk is amplified by Asian culture: The risk of sexual assault is amplified by societal value of chastity and the risk of tarnishing family reputation in the collective Asian society. In other cases, cultured risk is amplified by women’s gender: Asian women who are alone on the road run the risk of being stereotyped as easy sexual targets due to the submissive, domesticated and in some destinations, sexualised image of Asian women. These findings exemplify the intersectionality of women’s travel experiences from gender and culture perspectives. The findings also reveal the unequal power relations that underpinned the gendered and racialised tourism space.
Three main risk mitigation strategies used by Asian solo female travellers include adjusting spatial practices, modifying appearances, and carrying protection artefacts. The participants have avoided destinations and places with high perceived risk and retreated from places upon hostile occurrences. Numerous participants have also avoided wandering out at night to minimise risk. Such spatial and temporal practices indicate the restricted mobility of Asian solo female travellers that are bounded by the socially constructed and imposed risk. After eliminating places that fell beyond the subjectively acceptable risk, the participants then negotiated their access into the gendered and sexualised tourism space by moderating their feminine appearances. This practice demonstrates the body politics staging on the contemporary tourism space. Women’s appearance adjustment is complemented by a wide range of protection artefacts (e.g., pepper spray, Swiss army knife, whistle, fake wedding band etc.), which the participants brought along. Through these gendered and embodied spatial practices, the participants claimed a safe space from the existing tourism space, but these risk mitigation practices also indicate that the responsibility for safety is placed in the hands of the solo female travellers.
While the above risk mitigation strategies suggest that the participants have resisted the risk in order to travel alone, a closer reading of their narratives reveals that they were in fact accepting the risk. Several participants explicitly expressed that they accepted the risk because it cannot be entirely eliminated. Others were of the opinion that risk is an indispensable element of the solo travel experience. By taking the risk, the participants were taking a chance to travel alone. These risk takers believed that the potential negative consequences of travelling alone weighed less than the anticipated gains (e.g., transformative experience, spiritual fulfilment, and empowerment). These findings bring to light the positive dimension of risk and the opportunities that come with risk taking in the realm of solo female travel.
The implications of risk taking
Risk taking through solo travel has brought transformative experiences to the participants and their immediate social circles. My participants reported to have gained a sense of empowerment by overcoming the gendered and cultured risks, which are a representation of the unequal power relations underpinning the patriarchal and Western-centric tourism space. The participants claimed to have become more independent and confident, and this transformation is particularly meaningful to the Asian participants as women in their home societies are expected or stereotyped to be domesticated, dependent, and fearful, and therefore, not capable of travelling alone or taking risks. These stereotypes were perpetuated in the immediate social circles of the participants, where family and friends cautioned them of the danger and inappropriateness of women travelling alone. By negotiating the risk of solo female travel, the participants have at the same time negotiated their self and gender identities. The reconstruction of identities has resulted in varying levels of self-othering, where the participants differentiated themselves from other Asian women. Some of the participants have even associated more strongly with a western and/or male identity. The individual’s transformative experiences have extended to the immediate social circles as changes in attitudes and acceptance towards Asian women travelling alone were reported. The travel experiences of the participants who braved the socially constructed and imposed risks have inspired and empowered other women from their home societies to travel independently. This finding demonstrates the effect of individual empowerment on micro social transformation.
Contributions to Knowledge
My work has laid the conceptual and empirical groundwork for future research on Asian solo female travellers. Through the in-depth investigation of risk, my work has also advanced the theoretical development of tourist risk perception by drawing on and subsequently making contributions to emergent theoretical concepts from wider social disciplines to examine the meanings and social implications of risk taking for Asian women in contemporary society.
Risk as power and empowerment
Sociology researcher, Gustafson (1998) puts forth a theoretical explanation of gender differences in risk in which he theorises the differences as a representation of the unequal power relations underpinning the patriarchal society. His work has been widely cited in risk, gender, and other sociology research, but it has rarely been discussed in tourism risk studies where gender differences in tourist risk perception were often left unexplained. My work contributes to tourism risk research by introducing and demonstrating Gustafson’s theory as a potential framework for interpreting the gendered travel risk. The findings on cultured risk adds a cultural dimension to Gustafson’s framework to include the unequal racial power relations underpinning the existing tourism space, and to elucidate how culture intersects with gender in amplifying gendered risk. While the gendered travel risks have been frequently reported in prior research concerning female travellers (Jordan & Gibson, 2005; Wilson & Little, 2008), cultured risks as in the risks of being treated as unfriendly, stereotyped, and discriminated against, were rarely mentioned in the existing tourism research. The lack of discussion on the culture-induced risk from a non-Western perspective further exemplifies the unequal power relations existing in the tourism intellectual space, where existing knowledge of tourism has been dominated by a Western perspective (Chambers, 2010; Winter, 2009). With the expansion of tourism markets in emerging regions such as Asia and the rise of female travel markets within these emerging markets, it is imperative to understand the travel experience of the non-Western, non-male others. The conceptualisation of the gendered travel risk as a representation of the unequal gender power relations advances knowledge of female travellers, while the insights into cultured risk and the intersectional effect of risk underpinned by both the gender and racial power structures lays important groundwork for further research.
In line with a poststructuralist feminist conception of power and agency, my research demonstrates how power can be both oppressive and emancipatory (Aitchison, 2000). Asian solo female travellers who are located at the relatively less powerful end of gender and racial structures have strongly perceived the travel risks. By negotiating and overcoming the perceived risks, these women reported having gained a sense of empowerment. The emancipatory path from being oppressed by unequal power relations to struggling, resisting and eventually gaining empowerment has been illustrated in prior research on Western and Israeli female travellers (Berdychevsky, Gibson, & Poria, 2013; Jordan & Aitchison, 2008; Jordan & Gibson, 2005). Nevertheless, my research suggests a different path with subtle yet important nuances. Instead of resisting the power, some of my participants explicitly mentioned that they accepted the risk of solo travel and its consequences, and a few claimed to go on the road with an “if I die, I die” attitude. While most participants used some strategies to mitigate risk, which signifies the struggle and resistance stages, the participants generally accepted the risk and by taking the risk to travel alone, they gained a sense of empowerment in return. This finding proposes acceptance as an alternative stage to the poststructuralist feminist understanding of power and agency. This finding on acceptance that challenges the existing poststructural feminist framework appears to enable or perpetuate patriarchal domination. At the same time, other researchers may interpret this finding as another form of resistance instead of acceptance. While my data has not been able to fully establish the acceptance proposition and to critique the implication of acceptance, the finding on Asian women has indicated the possibility of a different pathway from the Western framework. Possible directions for future research to further explore and corroborate the acceptance alternative to empowerment include: to investigate the submissive attitude of women entrenched in Asian cultures; to conduct a discourse analysis on the meanings of words used to express acceptance and resistance in different cultures; and to develop a context specific framework of power and empowerment.
Social construction of tourism space
Cultural and feminist geographers construed space as both a physical and social construction shaped by social institutions and symbolic practices (LeFebvre, 1991; Valentine, 1989). Extending the theorisation of risk as power, privileged groups have greater access and freedom in mobility in using the space, while the marginalised groups have restricted access confined by the presence of threat. Valentine (1989) proposes the “geography of women’s fear” to illustrate the restricted mobility of women in using the public space. The notion of the geography of women’s fear has been applied in prior tourism research but my research extends the idea to the notion of risk and added a number of places that were not identified in the previous study, which has only considered the travel experiences of Western women (Wilson & Little, 2008). In particular, Europe was added to the geography of risk as a region affected by the presence of cultured risk. Tourist attractions in general were also included in the list, which epitomises the participants’ observation of the omnipresent risk. Instead of fixating on the mobility restrictions, my research demonstrates the agency of Asian solo female travellers in negotiating access to and carving a “safe” space within the tourism space through various gendered and embodied spatial practices. It appears that the socially constructed tourism space and spatial practices have restricted Asian women’s mobility but at the same time, the very nature of social construction signifies that the space and its spatial practices can be challenged, negotiated, and reconstructed. My research has therefore contributed a transformative approach to conceptualising tourism space, mobility, and risk.
Risk negotiation as identity construction
Edgework researchers conceptualise risk taking as a process to resist and reconstruct the social conditions in contemporary society. Within the edgework literature, Laurendeau (2008) puts for the gendered risk regime to elucidate the gendered construction of risk taking and how women resist and reconstruct gender norms by means of risk taking. My research has lent support to and expanded Laurendeau’s (2008) framework. In line with the gendered risk regime, my research demonstrates how Asian solo female travellers negotiate and reconstruct their gender identities through risk taking, though the identity construction was at the expense of putting their wellbeing at risk in the first place and of stereotyping, othering, and alienating other Asian women. My research has further extended the gendered risk regime by revealing that Asian women’s risk taking in general and specifically in tourism is not only gendered but also a behaviour that embodies Western patriarchal domination. Travelling independently to the unknown Third World was a privilege of white males from the West in the past (Chambers, 2010). My participants continued to regard their risk taking and solo travel behaviour as Westernised and masculine, which are not positively accepted female qualities in their home society. Some participants also believed that Western solo female travellers are likely to perceive less risk or are willing to take more risk. When these Asian solo female travellers negotiated their gender identities through risk taking, instead of constructively redefining Asian gender identities, some participants withdrew from the identities of Asian women and identified more strongly with western and male identities. Further research is warranted to examine the influence of Western ideologies on the travel practices and identity constructions of Asian travellers.
This collection of work is based on my PhD project, which set out to explore the experiences of Asian solo female travellers, with a specific focus on risk perception and the seemingly risk-taking behaviour. My work has advanced existing knowledge of Asian solo female travellers, a rising yet under-researched market, and has contributed to the theoretical development of tourist risk perception. My research has also illuminated the meanings of risk and risk taking in contemporary society. Through the solo travel experiences of Asian women, my research reveals and critiques the unequal power relations that underpin contemporary tourism physical and intellectual space.
As Pritchard and Morgan (2017, p. 34) commented, “critique alone cannot lead to transformation”. I hope that my work on Asian solo female travellers will stimulate awareness in the tourism field and industry regarding the entrenched gender and other inequalities. Since the completion of my PhD, I have expanded my research to gender-based violence and women’s work experience in tourism. I seek to work on research that give voices to women and marginalised groups in tourism, while I continue to explore and negotiate my identity as an Asian woman, both as a solo female traveller and as a tourism academic.
Written by Elaine Chiao Ling Yang, Griffith University, Australia
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