Welcome to Community Conversations, an interview series featuring Intrepid travellers, creatives and activists in our community. In every Q&A we’ll ask an inspiring individual about their world view and their world adventures.
Today, we’re talking to Beth Santos, founder and CEO of Wanderful, a global community of women travellers and content creators. In addition to an online membership and local chapters, Wanderful also hosts the annual Women in Travel Summit (WITS) and, in March 2022, will host Wanderfest in New Orleans, the first major outdoor travel festival by and for women.
Hi Beth! Tell us about yourself.
I am originally from the New England, USA, area, but I’ve spent some time studying abroad in Portugal. My family is Portuguese, and it was great to rediscover my roots. After I graduated, I moved to Washington DC and got a job at the Embassy of Portugal. I was really interested in diplomacy and international relations.
When I was 22, I went to live in Sao Tome and Principe, a two-island nation off the coast of Gabon, Africa. I taught at a school, doing a laptop learning program through One Laptop per Child, which is a program out of MIT that creates affordable, energy-efficient laptops for developing economies.
What inspired you to start a women’s travel organization?
I had this extremely hyper-local life in Sao Tome. Only about 160,000 people lived there at the time. It brought up a lot of questions for me of what it’s like to be a foreigner, especially as a woman.
I realized that women have different experiences when we travel. There’s a lot of information we need to collect. What are the gender norms in this place? What are the cultural expectations of me? How should I dress appropriately? Where do I find birth control? Or medical help? There wasn’t a lot out there.
The women-in-travel narrative was always about what to wear on your beach vacation or how not to get murdered. That’s not good enough.
I started a blog to share my experiences, and I recruited other writers to share their experiences of being women in the world. I called it Go Girl. Eventually we changed our name to Wanderful.
What is Wanderful?
Wanderful is a global collective of women who love to travel. Our mission is to help all women travel the world. We use the word ‘all’ very purposefully. Often, when we talk about women in travel, we’re looking at a very narrow picture of a young, white, able-bodied, thin woman. But Wanderful is about the diverse experiences of all women.
Our motto is “Women helping women travel the world”. We have a network of women who can help each other — you can show up in any airport around the world with access to somebody who can guide you, take you out for a coffee, give you advice, even host you in her home.
We have virtual events, trips, festivals. These are spaces for women who deeply love travel, so that they can have a sisterhood and get the resources they need to go out there.
It’s not about arming women with pepper spray and sending them on their way.
There are systemic issues in the travel industry that have made women a niche, even though women are the dominant consumer in travel. We encourage the industry to examine their biases and how they’re talking to women, how they’re representing women, their leadership make-up, etc., all with the purpose of making travel easier and better for women, and truly representative of women.
How does Wanderful promote diversity in travel?
We lean into topics related to social justice, environmentalism, access and responsibility. If you think about where travel came from, it’s rooted in power, violence and genocide. That needs to be looked at: why do people travel, how have people travelled historically, who has been able to do it — and even today, who has that access? Being an American, it’s easier for me than for somebody with a different passport who has to get a visa application processed every time they go somewhere.
That has opened a lot of conversations — examining the flaws of travel and how we can make it better. We look at intersections of race, of gender identity. We make those topics front and centre, whereas other organisations make them one of many topics.
You’ve said before that “travel is a political act”. What do you mean by that?
There are few other industries where each consumer spends as much money as in travel. We spend thousands of dollars — it’s like we’re mini-investors every time we travel. Wherever you choose to spend it, you are investing in that type of travel and that future for the travel industry.
We have a responsibility to research, to educate ourselves, to have conversations, and to constantly question and challenge ourselves as the industry evolves. Whenever you travel, you are having an impact on a local community. Travel is not just about the traveller going to a place, it’s also about how that place is affected by the person visiting. There are two sides to that story.
I recommend Anu Taranath’s book, Beyond Guilt Trips. It is a courageous book that talks about our role and identity as travellers, and how your presence in a place affects somebody else’s culture.
What has travel taught you about yourself and about the world?
Your memories can be both positive and negative at the same time. You can look back on something that’s beautiful but also feel sad about it — and that’s okay. You might have a certain experience, but then years later, you learn something new, and that affects how you remember the experience.
In my early 20s I did a lot of volunteering abroad, and I had a good understanding of the international development space. But I have a different understanding of it now. I think back to that girl who felt she was changing a community, and I realise how problematic that was in so many ways — for me to think I was changing hundreds or thousands of years of culture, just because I was there for six weeks.
I feel much more aligned with the idea of travellers as investors than I do of travellers as independent changemakers. You’re in a role of listening and receiving. Sometimes the best way to support someone’s culture is to just spend money there and be a tourist.
But doesn’t that go against the trend to “be a traveller, not a tourist”?
For me, travel consists of three things: challenging your preconceptions, trying something new, and putting yourself in a position of discomfort. If you can do those three things five minutes from your house, that to me is more of a travel experience than going thousands of miles away and not feeling those things.
If for somebody, visiting the Eiffel Tower and eating at a super touristy French restaurant is putting them out of their comfort zone, do it. Absolutely. If you are feeling challenged and you’re trying something new, then whatever that travel experience is, I’m proud of you for that.
Tell us about the Antarctica Community Trip!
We are teaming up with Intrepid on board the Ocean Endeavour in 2023. We’re putting our own Wanderful spin on it, with fun activities, little gifts, meet-ups.
The ship holds 200 guests and we’re hoping to hit about 100 Wanderful women — I say women, but allies, friends, men, cis men, trans men, anybody over the age of 9 can participate. It’s not just a “regular” trip to Antarctica, but even more celebratory and community-oriented and fun.
What other destinations and experiences are at the top of your bucket list?
I haven’t been on any of Intrepid’s Women’s Expeditions, but I love the idea of connecting with local women and getting to know a place through their eyes. That story is not told enough.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in East Asia. That’s the one big hole in my travels. Japan, Korea, Nepal, India: all these incredible places that I’ve just not had a chance to go.
Also, I really miss my family in Portugal. So, before I do all the adventurous stuff, I just want to reunite with them.
Who are some people in the travel industry who inspire you?
There are so many! Lolá Ákínmádé Åkerström is one of the most brilliant people in the industry, and one of the sweetest and most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. Nour Brahimi is the first female Algerian travel vlogger, who’s challenging what a traveller should look and be like. Annette Richmond and Kirsty Leanne are building really powerful communities.
READ OUR COMMUNITY CONVERSATION WITH ANNETTE
Alessandra Alonso and Jamie Lee Abtar of Women in Travel CIC are doing a lot of work in the UK on making the travel industry accessible to people who haven’t worked in it before. They work with immigrant women, helping them to get employed in the travel industry. (Editor’s note: check out Urban Adventures’ Women-Led Experiences run in collaboration with Women in Travel!)
Justine Abigail Yu, who runs Living Hyphen, does a lot of anti-racism, anti-colonialism work and how that intersects in the travel industry.
Tony Martin, who works in diversity and inclusion at TripAdvisor. He’s a brilliant human being and honed in on the challenges of the travel industry.
Tell us about Wanderfest!
We have music and speakers, like Oneika Raymond, Patricia Schultz of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, chef Crystal Wahpepah, who was one of the first Native American chefs on Chopped. We have a women-owned marketplace, we’re doing a second line parade in the French Quarter, we’re doing community art projects. It’s a really fun, celebratory travel experience in New Orleans and we’re expecting 1,000 women. We’re pumped about it!
You can follow Wanderful on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Learn more about the Wanderful x Intrepid Antarctica trip.