This story was originally published in Condé Nast Traveler.
Introducing this list is a full-circle moment for me. In 2011, when I started Nomadness Travel Tribe, a community for travelers of color, the travel space looked and sounded quite different. Instagram wasn’t even a year old. There were no travel influencers and only a handful of online travel groups actively bringing communities together. Industry leaders weren’t speaking about the priorities of sustainability, intersectionality, or equity the way they are today. And while women in tourism were twice as likely to be in leadership roles as in other sectors, most held unstable, low-skilled jobs, earning 10 to 15 percent less than their male counterparts; more than 80 percent of employees working in hospitality and aviation that year were white.
This lack of diversity and gender equity is why I began Nomadness. I wanted to democratize access and representation across the tourism industry. The travel landscape felt like the Wild West, filled with untapped opportunity—and for women like me, the time had come to forge our own paths. Since then, Nomadness has bloomed into a 31,000-member community—78 percent of which is made up of women. Today we are influencing the travel industry like never before: Marriott International’s workforce is now 54 percent women; in 2019, the tour operator Intrepid Travel more than doubled its women leaders, from 154 to 342. We are the activists, designers, politicians, hoteliers, television hosts, and community leaders who are bringing creativity, innovation, and empathy to every corner of travel, from the outdoors to aviation to food.
Take Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna. The first Indigenous Cabinet member, she is tasked with protecting and preserving the nation’s spectacular public lands—places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Or Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, who works tirelessly to transform the airline industry into a better place for workers. Then there is television host and culinary evangelist Padma Lakshmi, who uses her platform to educate (and entertain) us about the diversity that truly makes America what it is, insisting that there are always seats at the table for others. Actor Eva Longoria will soon follow in her footsteps, bringing her new show Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico to our screens this spring as one of the only Latina travel hosts out there.
As a 2019 alumna of the last edition of this list, I know the power of being among such groundbreaking women. I also understand that platforms like this one are to be shared—it’s an opportunity to pass the mic to the next generation who will shape the way we travel. (I recommend following the work of Ashley Renne Nsonwu, an activist, sustainability educator, and board member of the advocacy group Climate Power.) Emerging leaders can look to the women below for inspiration, knowing that while we have claimed our place in the travel universe, there’s still plenty of room—and need—for all of us. —Evita Robinson
When Malin Fezehai gets on the phone with me, she’s in her Brooklyn apartment, “packing as always.” The next day she’ll be on a plane to Java, Indonesia. Fezehai is headed there to photograph women surfing, work that is being supported by National Geographic Society, which named her one of its “Explorers” for 2022. The Eritrean Swedish photographer first became fascinated with women surfers, whom she describes as “warriors,” after photographing the Senegalese surf scene for The New York Times Magazine in 2016. In 2018, Fezehai joined the paper’s Surfacing team, participating in a one-year residency. You’ve likely seen her images of African refugees in Israel, of Jamaican girls who love synchronized swimming, or of the Indian village that drew tourists with its clean-living practices. Or her work photographing survivors of violent extremism across sub-Saharan Africa, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme. Fezehai’s work seeks to show the complexity of the human experience: She has captured images of children fighting to survive famine in Mogadishu, Somalia, as well as photographs of people laughing at the beach in that same city. Her photography displays the depth and range of experiences that people, particularly in developing countries—which are often portrayed as downtrodden and mired in stereotypes of misery and hopelessness—don’t often have extended to them. “I think that sometimes people can get attached to thinking, I want to show a positive view of this place, or sometimes they get really attached to wanting to show the negative,” she says. “I’m of the mind that we live in a world where both things exist and both things are equally important to show.” —Tariro Mzezewa
Secretary Deb Haaland
“If you are visiting another state, another county, another city, research that place. What tribes lived there prior to colonization? What tribes still live there?” says Secretary Deb Haaland, Pueblo of Laguna, who made history when she was sworn in as the United States Secretary of the Interior in 2021. The first Native American Cabinet secretary, she oversees 480 million acres of public land—including the 423 sites overseen by the National Park Service, which drew nearly 300 million visitors in 2021. As an Indigenous woman who grew up helping her grandparents in their cornfield and participating in her Pueblos’ cultural ceremonies, Secretary Haaland brings a different perspective to the office than her predecessors, most of whom have been white and male. For travelers, her message is clear: “There are sites that are sacred to Native Americans, to tribal communities,” she says. “We are hoping that people visit with respect.” Not every American has easy access to nature—something that Secretary Haaland is seeking to change. Last summer the Interior announced an influx of $192 million to create more parks and outdoor recreational spaces in urban areas across the US. (A wildlife refuge in Detroit is a recent success story.) Secretary Haaland knows firsthand the power of the land’s being open to all people. “I was so fortunate to take my mother to the Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico,” she says. “We were able to push her wheelchair through that site because it was accessible. This country belongs to all of us.” —Pauly Denetclaw
Black U.S. travelers spent over $100 billion on travel in 2019. Yet some-how they remain overlooked by the industry. Aurora James, however, will not be ignored. She’s the founder of fashion label Brother Vellies, known for its use of traditional African designs, as well as the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which asks retailers to earmark at least 15 percent of shelf space for products from Black-owned businesses. James’s efforts are creating and sustaining artisanal jobs in Africa, a place near and dear to her. At the age of 23, she headed to Morocco to backpack the continent and did something most travelers probably wouldn’t do—she rented a car from a stranger she met at the airport. She wanted to be open-minded and trusting in her journey, an ethos that animates her work today. “For me, traveling and living and occupying space in places that you weren’t born into is about being like water,” she says. “You have to let that environment catch you off guard and flow with it instead of force it.” This approach allowed James to meet artisans like beadworkers and handloomers from Burkina Faso, who explained that, due in large part to American-donated clothes and the spread of Western fashion trends, their skills were no longer in high demand. When she launched Brother Vellies in 2013, she hired some of those same makers. Rooted in sustainability, craftsmanship, and social impact, the brand has helped redefine luxury. James isn’t stopping there—she also hopes to address the lack of curated experiences for Black women travelers. “I would love to do a Brother Vellies hotel one day.” —Nana Agyemang
As a child in Northern California, Lily Kwong felt an unwavering connection to nature. “I grew up 10 minutes from the main entrance of Muir Woods National Monument. The tallest trees in the world were my neighbors.” It’s no wonder, then, that Kwong’s career keeps her rooted in the natural world. The landscape artist has spent the past five years transforming public spaces like Vanderbilt Hall in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and the busiest night market in Taipei into tranquil pieces of botanical art, using materials like live moss and blood red flowers in full bloom. And while her stunning creations look at home on Instagram feeds, Kwong is set apart by what she calls an “evangelical” devotion to sustainability and conservation. She prioritizes working with endemic plants—most recently in gardens she created for JW Marriott at its properties in Desert Springs, California; Orlando; and New York City. “We’re told we need a certain type of beauty 365 days a year, but that’s just not natural,” she says. “Nature has rhythms and cycles. We really have to learn how to respect and integrate ourselves into that, instead of forcing ourselves on the landscape as we’ve been doing.” Kwong sees the widespread practice of planting exotic non-native vegetation within a landscape as an act that detrimentally “changes environments and communities” and “decimates ecosystems.” She hopes other brands will follow the example of JW Marriott, for whom she has several global projects planned, including a culinary garden in Singapore. “Ecological consciousness means a concern for the more-than-human world, where plants, animals, insects, and beyond are considered and respected,” she says. “It takes more time and planning, but the rewards are enormous.” —Lale Arikoglu
Padma Lakshmi isn’t just one of the most enduring voices in food and travel today; she’s also one of the most vital. As the host of the Emmy-nominated Top Chef, she has consistently prioritized expanding the types of dishes featured on the show—and including more women and minorities. As the executive producer–host of Hulu’s Taste the Nation (season two drops on May 5), she crosses the country highlighting marginalized communities whose cuisines often get left out of the celebration of American food. Lakshmi doesn’t just eat her way through destinations—she dives deep into local cultures, creating room for complex, often painful stories of migration and assimilation. “We all recognize the places in the show, but how many know that there’s a vital Thai community in Las Vegas, or about the beautiful Arab cuisine that is in Dearborn, Michigan?” Lakshmi asks. As a host, she draws on her own identity as an Indian American—and an immigrant experience that she recognizes isn’t singular to her—as well as those of her mostly women-of-color crew. “I’m not interested in shows with swashbuckling male hosts traveling to gawk at ‘strange funky food,’” she says. In shifting the narrative on food cultures in America, Lakshmi is changing the way we travel. “There tends to be such homogeneity to everyone’s experiences. Learn to get lost on your travels. Pick a truck stop, not just the Michelin-starred restaurant. Ask a local where their community eats; it will give you a more authentic experience of what it feels like to walk in their shoes.” —Arati Menon
Abha Narain Lambah
Abha Narain Lambah’s love of Mumbai is embedded in the brick and mortar of the city—it’s also the impetus behind her work to preserve India’s architectural heritage. The 52-year-old conservation architect made a name for herself in the late 1990s with her restoration of Mumbai’s historic Dadabhai Naoroji Road, transforming it from a haphazard strip of neon signage and neglected shop fronts into a portal into 19th-century Bombay that was awarded the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award of Merit in 2004. In doing so, she created a handbook for restorations that bring in the community, rather than exclude it. “Most of the street furniture was paid for by local business owners, residents, and corporate houses who had offices and shops on the street,” she says. “This challenged the concept of conservation as elitist.” Together with UNESCO, the government of India, public-private collaborations, and the overwhelming support of local communities, Lambah has spent more than two decades restoring pieces of India’s collective past and turning the spotlight on its plethora of heritage sites—the 15th-century Maitreya temple in Basgo, Ladakh, for example. “I would like travel experiences to be more authentic and rooted in a place, its flavors, and its people,” she says, “rather than packaging and creating something that is a fake version of India.” Lambah is often getting her hands dirty, either up on scaffoldings or working away to fortify foundations alongside local builders. It’s this on-the-ground experience, alongside chance discoveries in archives, old memoirs, and paintings, that keeps her traveling to the farthest corners of India, from one epoch of the country’s history to another. “We don’t realize how much travel and tourism happens just to see a building,” she says. “Despite Instagram, AR, and VR, there is nothing as beautiful as making that road trip to discover a monument and actually feel its stones.” Up next? A refurbishment of Kashmir’s Shalimar Bagh, a Mughal garden, as well as the urban conservation of Hyderabad’s Laad Bazaar. —Diya Kohli
“Hospitality, the act of welcoming someone—whether into your home or a hotel—should be rooted in simplicity, generosity, and elegance,” says designer Clémentine Larroumet. With a Parisian sensibility that encapsulates old-world artistry, utilitarian aesthetics, and timeless sophistication, Larroumet cofounded the branding-and-design studio Saint-Lazare in 2021, alongside her childhood friend Antoine Ricardou—and the pair have already worked with a string of iconic hotels: Hôtel Les Roches Rouges on the French Riviera; Les Sources de Cheverny, an elegant château in the Loire Valley; Le Barn, a pastoral escape outside Paris; and the luxury NoMad brand, bringing each space to life through narrative design, a unique approach in the hospitality space that blends branding, architecture, and, more recently, product and interior design with art direction. What sets Larroumet apart is her acute attention to detail: “Every step of our process is [grounded] in the project’s history, environment, and community.” Each object introduced to a hotel, from the artfully executed printed goods—matchbooks, coasters, books—to the vintage artwork, commissioned murals, and custom-designed furniture, earns its place in the room. “We prioritize simplicity and good design, which eliminates the superfluous,” she says. For the past two decades, Larroumet and Ricardou ran be-poles, a multi-hyphenate design studio, but it was a new office space—an 1880s Haussmann-style building on Rue Saint-Lazare—that led to their renewed focus on craftsmanship, original artisan methods, and quality raw materials. “Our new space embodies where we’re at personally and with our business,” says Larroumet. “With a kiln, workshop, and engraving press, our workshop is a laboratory of ideas.” —Christine Chitnis
When Stanley Tucci called Eva Longoria to suggest she host a travel show in the vein of his popular Searching for Italy, the actor didn’t realize at first how groundbreaking an idea it was. Few travel hosts are women, and even fewer are Latinas. Last spring, she wrapped production on the six episodes of Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico, which premieres on CNN on March 26. Longoria grew up near the border in South Texas and in 2021 founded the women-run tequila brand Casa del Sol near Guadalajara, but she says that even a lifetime of having “one foot in Mexico” couldn’t prepare her for the emotional wallop of this experience. “I don’t think there was a day that I didn’t cry.” For the show, she visited traditional fishermen in Lake Chapala, Mayan cooks in the Yucatán, a female master mezcal maker in Oaxaca, and the gender-fluid muxes who live on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, among others. Each location, with its unique culture, topography, and culinary traditions, felt like entering a “whole new Mexico,” Longoria says. “As wonderful as tacos and tequila are, I think that’s all people think Mexican cuisine is.” Food, she adds, is “the heartbeat of Mexico. It really is expressive of everything beautiful. It’s a way to honor tradition, family, the land, and ingredients. It’s a way to celebrate births, marriages, or deaths. There’s something always shared over a meal. I equate it with love.” —Lesley Téllez
Katalina Mayorga, the CEO of El Camino Travel, began planning small-group trips in 2015—and quickly noticed shared needs among female travelers. “For many of these women, it was the first time they were able to immerse themselves in a destination without the pain points of trust, safety, and convenience,” she says. But it was also important to her to dispel the quotidian itineraries and umbrella-hoisting chaperones often associated with group travel by working with on-the-ground locals who lived and breathed the culture of each destination—and could bring travelers into the inspiring nooks and crannies of a place. Case in point: Mayorga’s partnerships with local entrepreneurs—artisan textile producers, independent artists and designers, boutique-hotel owners, and farmers—are designed to contribute to long-term economic development in the places El Camino visits, while also promising experiences that respect traditional heritage and establish connections with a number of different individuals. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that Mayorga has a background in international development.) Eight years on, El Camino’s 14-person trips travel to destinations like Cuba or the island of Tobago, where the comfort of a group can embolden travelers, in addition to well-trodden places like Colombia, Japan, and Morocco.
This sense of community is why Mayorga launched the El Camino Clubhouse during the pandemic, where, for $99 a year, members can access curated travel guides, virtual events, and a forum to commune with like-minded women travelers. Mayorga hopes that more travelers will show up to a place with humility, making an effort to learn about a destination ahead of arrival—and traveling with El Camino is just one way to do it. On deck for the team: using its experiential marketplace to widen access to fantastic tour operators in destinations the company doesn’t currently visit, with a focus on expanding inventory in Asia, Africa, and Europe. “Empowering women to travel the world boldly, without compromising that experience due to gender, is ingrained in our ethos,” says Mayorga. —Shanika Hillocks
Racing snowmobiles in the Arctic Circle, horse-whispering in Scotland’s Cairngorms, and trekking by camel across the desert in Morocco are all in a day’s work for Sophie Morgan. One of the few female wheelchair users with a travel television series—she is the host of the hit U.K. show Living Wild: How to Change Your Life and a lead presenter of the 2021 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo on Channel 4—she uses her platform to demand an equality of experience for all people with disabilities. Traveling has always been Morgan’s great love, but a car crash changed her life dramatically two decades ago, and becoming a permanent wheelchair user caused many of her travel options to evaporate. One sixth of the world’s population lives with a physical or mental disability, though—a demographic she sees as an untapped market. “We’re at a tipping point, and we need to see the provision of inclusive services for all not as a challenge, but as an opportunity,” Morgan says. Change is happening, but incrementally: American Airlines has made it a policy to proactively call passengers who request disability assistance when booking; Airbnb’s new “Adapted Category” of step-free listings is opening doors everywhere, from tree houses in Brazil to minimalist chalets in the Canadian wilderness; luxury resort Amilla’s work in the Maldives demonstrates that even a remote private-island experience and full accessibility can coexist through on-site beach wheelchairs, accessible pool decks, pre-arrival guest questionnaires, and more. “Design with everybody in mind and everyone benefits,” says Morgan. —Juliet Kinsman
“When I found the ocean, it felt like finding home,” remembers Zandile Ndhlovu. “Being someone who’s never really fit in, to be able to find a place where you didn’t have to pretend to be anything else but yourself was just so incredibly empowering.” Ever since that seminal first dive in Bali, in 2016, Ndhlovu, South Africa’s first Black woman freediving instructor, has been on a mission to make sure others get to experience that same sense of wonder—no small feat, when you consider that just 15 percent of South Africans can swim, with a notable racial divide. “When you think of ocean spaces, Black communities often feel like that’s a white space. I knew I wanted to change the narrative.” With her Black Mermaid Foundation, Ndhlovu—the very image of a mermaid herself, with her signature blue mane and daily visits to the Atlantic Ocean—does this through both education and access: She takes young children from townships, many of whom have never been underwater before, on snorkeling excursions and teaches them about plastic pollution, overfishing, marine habitats, and climate policy in conservation. She’s also creating “hubs of hope” across South Africa and, eventually, the continent: physical safe gathering spaces for children, starting with one in Cape Town’s Langa township. “Many of the kids live under many hard conditions—gender-based violence, drugs, poverty,” she says. “What would it mean to have a hub of hope that is rooted in the ocean but lives in the community?” Ndhlovu is passionate about advocating for more representation, both in the water and in the conversation. “As you enable communities to believe that the oceans belong to them too, they become new custodians and stakeholders and voices that protect these oceans.” And this all starts with showing children the wonder beneath the waves, inspiring a generation to explore bravely and freely. “Sometimes we can’t dream things we don’t see.” —Sarah Khan
If things go wrong on a plane, travelers turn to flight attendants. If things go wrong for flight attendants, they turn to Sara Nelson. A flight attendant for 26 years and the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA for nearly 9, Nelson came to greater prominence during the pandemic as a fierce defender of flight attendants and other workers across the aviation industry. Representing 50,000 employees at 19 different airlines, she fights forcefully against understaffed planes and mistreatment of staff—and for better working conditions and pay. Her latest undertaking? A drive to unionize Delta’s flight attendants. Nelson, who has testified frequently before Congress, sees the organization she leads as critical in creating equity for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ workers navigating a turbulent workplace. “There’s no predicting anything; there’s no planning for anything,” she says of air travel today. “It’s just about being as responsive as possible, as quickly as possible, on every level of the aviation industry.” Three years after COVID-19 turned travel upside down, Nelson hopes that the hard-won changes that have occurred during her tenure can provide a positive example for other sectors. “I’m excited about the role that aviation can play in bringing people together—and not just physically,” she says. “We need to continue building solidarity around big policy ideas and starting movements for progress for the next generations, especially as unions continue to hold management accountable.” —T.M.
When Nemonte Nenquimo, leader of the Waorani community in the Amazon, marched through the streets of Quito in 2019, moments before a historic victory in court against the Ecuadoran government and the oil industry, she found courage through the fearless female pikenani—wise elders—who walked and chanted alongside her. “Indigenous women must travel to the spaces where decisions are made,” says Nenquimo, who is a cofounder of the Indigenous-led Ceibo Alliance and its sister organization, Amazon Frontlines. She wants to see Indigenous women regularly included in climate-change discussions. “Indigenous women and all of the women around the world need to raise our voices and have our voices respected.” That landmark win, spearheaded by Nenquimo, protected half a million acres of the biodiverse rain forest her community calls home—which also plays a crucial role in stabilizing the Earth’s climate by regulating water and carbon cycles regionally and globally—and set a legal precedent that Indigenous nations’ rights to self-determination must be respected. “We as Indigenous peoples know that this space, this forest, this land, is giving life to the world,” says Nenquimo.
Prior to making headlines, Nenquimo spent more than a decade organizing her community and creating alliances with neighboring tribes to protect their territories through a shrewd combination of ancient Indigenous knowledge, a territory-mapping program, and modern technology like media campaigns, training Indigenous youth in photography and videography, and setting camera traps to document invaders. Nenquimo also encourages travelers to get to know the beauty of the Amazon, support front-line communities—the rain forest’s guardians—directly, and learn about their way of life. “The people of the world who love nature have to visit,” she says. “Travelers come from another world with another type of knowledge. Indigenous peoples, like the Waorani, have many things to teach.” Nenquimo’s work has a globally resounding message: that listening to and empowering Indigenous communities, who live in harmony with nature and closest to the land, is one of the best ways to become better stewards of the Earth and protect the places that we may be so lucky to visit. —Katherine Gallardo
Before deciding to make films, Carla Simón “wanted to be a writer for a travel magazine in order to see the world.” But then she started watching movies and decided she liked that medium better, not knowing yet that it would also allow her to travel frequently. Her debut feature, Summer 1993, premiered in Berlin in 2017, and suddenly the world opened up to her. “I went from Barcelona to Copenhagen, London, Busan, Mumbai, Taiwan, and back to Barcelona in 20 days. It was intense but very cool,” she says. With Alcarràs, her second film, which won the Golden Bear at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival, she turned her attention closer to home, highlighting the forgotten region of inland Spain it is named after. For Simón, filmmaking has offered her a way of traveling in which she is both a visitor and a guide. Her two films are pieces of her personal history as well as portraits of a rural, inland, and hyperlocal Spain that is “normally undervalued” and overlooked by both pop culture and tourism. “Cinema is a window into the world,” she says. “When we talk about the importance of supporting cinema culturally, this is it.” The 36-year-old, who was raised in northern Catalonia, is about to leave the city once again in favor of rural life, both to give her son the opportunity to experience the same connection with the land that she had growing up—and to tell more stories about this disappearing part of Spain. Her work is proof that neglected parts of every country deserve their moment on a bigger screen. “How much of what we know about Japan or the U.S. comes through their cinema?” she says. “Everything. Film is an opportunity to export ourselves and make ourselves known.” —Irene Crespo
Travel writers have always waxed poetic about the magic of train journeys. Paul Theroux did so in his books The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express. Rick Steves has offered countless tips on rail routes to follow and night trains to sleep on. Train travel has even arrived on TikTok thanks to viral trainspotter Francis Bourgeois. But British journalist Monisha Rajesh didn’t see stories she wanted to read—or recognize herself in any of them. “One of the reasons why I wanted to do my book [was] because I had never read anything that I could relate to or that inspired me,” she says. “I thought, There’s nobody who’s a woman that I can find who’s written about this—’cause I bet that experience is different.” Rajesh has penned three books since that realization: Around India in 80 Trains (2012), Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure (2019), and Epic Train Journeys: The Inside Track to the World’s Greatest Rail Routes (2021). Her reporting has taken her everywhere from the Alps on the Bernina Express to the Qinghai–Tibet railway, with stops in places like Sri Lanka, North Korea, and Russia along the way. But it’s crisscrossing through India that has had the most impact, deepening her relationship with the country her family is from—and a place that has long been represented through a singular Western male lens when it comes to travel writing. “A lot of Indian people have this real sense of national pride,” she says. “They really liked the fact that I’d come back as an Indian-born, obviously Indian person with Indian origins, with a genuine interest in the country and wanting to discover it.” Rajesh notes that she finds herself “moving much more towards trains” in light of the ongoing climate crisis and hopes her writing will encourage others to explore in more eco-friendly ways. But what else keeps her train hopping after a decade of adventure? “I love it,” she says. “There really is no more complicated answer than that. I absolutely love train travel.” —L.A.
You can listen to the complete interview with Monisha Rajesh on the Women Who Travel podcast.
Lead editor: Lale Arikoglu
Editors: Megan Spurrell, Rebecca Misner
Copy editors: Marisa Carroll, Joyce Rubin
Research: Anna Gladwin, Alexandra Sanidad
Visuals: Andrea Edelman, Pallavi Kumar
Global social lead: Mercedes Bleth
Social media: Kayla Brock, Lidia Gonzalez, Anukriti Malik, Olivia Morelli
Audience development: Lara Kramer, Erin Paterson
Special thanks: Sarah Allard, Erin Florio, Clara Laguna, Jessica Rach, Salil Deshpande