Why are more women choosing all-female travel? Perhaps the better question is, why not? Kate Symons explores the growing trend of women-only adventures
We met at Sydney Airport. There had been a few emails back and forth beforehand and, yes, I had Googled their names to see if I could find a face, perhaps even a bio, to quell my curiosity. It’s the 21st century, after all. But the shaking of hands went down at an innocuous airport bar, a nerve-calming shiraz close by.
I would be spending nine days with these strangers – exploring colourful Cape Town, taste-testing the spoils of wine country, going wild on safari – so I was anxious to see the dynamic in person. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. As well as an unforgettable South African adventure, I ended up with friends for life. Such is the power of female connection.
Hosted by Bench Africa, this tour was an all-female affair, although by coincidence rather than design. Now, having facilitated so many enduring friendships of this kind, Bench has officially entered the fast-growing market, launching its first ladies-only itinerary late
“Our vision in creating ladies-only tours was to bring adventurous women together so that they could get the support and camaraderie that they might not otherwise find on a more generic tour or private itinerary,” explains Bench Africa’s Groups & Operations Director, Julie De Palo.
And while the Explore Kenya – Escorted Ladies Safari, which departs Nairobi in June, was originally designed with the solo traveller in mind (Bench has waived the single supplement), interest has spread even wider. “Things didn’t pan out quite how we thought they would,” says De Palo. “Sure, we are getting enquiries from solo female travellers, but we’re also seeing small groups of friends enquiring about the tour as well. We have put it down to the fact that women simply like to travel together!”
Hear Me Roar
Sisters are, indeed, doing it for themselves, and the statistics (as well as the Eurythmics) will tell you as much. Take Intrepid, for example. In 2019, female travellers made up 64 per cent of its bookings. This figure represents a nine per cent growth on 2018, which was a watershed year for the adventure travel company.
Following a 2017 launch, which coincided with International Women’s Day, Intrepid’s first Women’s Expeditions hit the ground running in 2018. The launch comprised three itineraries – Morocco, Iran and Jordan – with four 2018 departures originally scheduled. In just a couple of months, those four departures had exploded to 36, making the range one of the best-selling in Intrepid’s 30-year history.
“And the momentum hasn’t slowed down either,” says Intrepid Senior Product Manager, Jenny Gray. “Last year, we saw a 116 per cent increase on our Women’s Expeditions and we’re definitely working on a few more destinations for this year as well.”
Of course, there’s nothing new about adventurous women leaving the blokes at home – Harriet Chalmers Adams, Amelia Earhart and Jessica Watson, to name (and I cannot stress this enough) only a few. But the practice has moved from anomaly to fast-growing trend.
Women-only travel itineraries are increasingly popular for various reasons, not least of all a huge (and, mercifully, still-in-progress) shift in societal expectations of the so-called fairer sex. Broadly speaking, women no longer need permission, nor financial backing, to pack up their sense of adventure and hit the road. The trend is also spurred on by preferences and circumstances: preferences being, for example, favouring the company of women (plenty of reasons for that); circumstances being, for example, the need for one parent to stay home with the kids (plenty of reasons, also, for that).
For MTA (Mobile Travel Agents) specialist Rachel Cleary, a personal brush with girl power three decades ago planted the seed for her 2018 move towards women-only itineraries. On a ski trip with a group of girlfriends – the same friends who traditionally made the same trip with their “high-powered husbands” – Cleary experienced a blissful freedom created by the absence of pressure to ‘keep up’. The mental load, which can often follow women, particularly wives and mothers, on holidays was also notably absent. Cleary tried to recreate this experience when she hosted her first women-only tour – a ski trip to Canada – two years ago.
“It was really important that everyone was able to be themselves,” Cleary says of that foray into all-female territory. “They weren’t a mother, they weren’t a wife, they weren’t a career woman. All of that was left to the side. “It was a completely inclusive, no-expectation ski trip…and we had such a great time.”
Cleary is deep in the planning phase of another ski itinerary (with a number of returning guests already signed on), and will also host an Antarctica adventure next year, among others. But it is Africa and its widely coveted safari that has enjoyed much of her attention. “Everyone should be able to experience the wonderment of Africa,” she says, clearly smitten. In particular, she recalls a mother-daughter trip with great fondness: “Teenage daughters aren’t always talking to their mums, but when you’re in Africa in a safari truck and you’ve got a whole pride of lions surrounding you… everything falls away. It’s the most bonding experience.”
Although she now favours single-sex journeys – “I only do one trip a year that isn’t women only” – Cleary says the differences don’t crop up in the planning phase. “The trips are the same. I think women are as capable as men of anything. The difference is the bonding experience,” she says.
“I find women far more open to making new friends than men so women are far more likely to come on a group with other women knowing we’ll all talk and have a great time. I don’t care if you’re a princess or if you’re a toilet cleaner, those bonding experiences last a lifetime because you are all exposed to the same incredible knowledge and experiences, and the things you see and hear and do, at the same time.”
Where Are the Women?
It all went down a little differently at Intrepid HQ, where the Women’s Expeditions were founded on destination-specific customer feedback, as Gray explains: “Our female travellers were asking, ‘Where are the women?’ in a lot of destinations; ‘Why didn’t I get to see any women, or interact, or have genuine connections with women?’
“The kind of experiences that we sought out were ones that travellers wouldn’t have access to if they were in a mixed-gender group. It just really gives our female travellers first-hand insight into the daily lives of a breadth of local women – young, old, conservative, modern, religious – and breaks down those barriers, and [provides an] opportunity for fostering genuine conversations and connections as well.”
Beyond Morocco, Iran and Jordan, Intrepid’s Women’s Expeditions now visit India, Turkey, Kenya and Nepal. (New destinations are just around the corner.) Tours are immersive, offering an up-close look at local customs and other culturally unique experiences. On the Iran itinerary, for example, travellers visit a local beauty salon, take a yoga class, explore a female-only park, experience women-only public transport services, and enjoy a cooking class with young female entrepreneurs. There is also a female-hosted homestay.
Another key feature of the initiative has been Intrepid’s commitment to gender equality from a recruitment point of view. In 2017, the company announced its mission to double the number of female leaders globally by 2020 – a modest target in some parts of the world, but a significant challenge in others. With help from some creative strategies, including in-school recruitment drives, social media campaigns and encouraging entry-level staff to pursue leadership roles, Intrepid surpassed its target last year with plenty of time to spare – the 50-50 gender split achieved in India one of the most noteworthy feats. And the results have proven mutually beneficial.
“As excited as our female travellers are to really get under the skin of destinations and connect with women, these women are equally excited to be able to showcase and highlight what their lives are about as well,” explains Gray. “And in some destinations, this is really a new concept to them as well. No one’s ever asked them to talk about their life or their stories.”
A perfect fit. Because, after all, what’s travel if not the pursuit of stories?