I have never been so acutely aware of my womanhood as when I’ve traveled alone.
There was that night in Jaipur, India, when an employee of a tailor came to my hotel to deliver the custom-made tunics I had ordered the day before.
“Let me come to your room so I can be sure they fit right,” he insisted.
Logically, it made some sense. Yet, every bone in my body was screaming to get away from this man as soon as possible — which, thankfully, I did.
There was another time, during a solo trip at a tented camp in Namibia, when an unsettling conversation with a fellow hotel guest made me realize how easy it would be for someone to break into my room — and how spread out the property grounds were. Fixating on every unidentifiable sound that filled my room that night, I knew no one would be able to hear me if I needed help.
On that same trip, driving alone through the country, I stopped for gas and waited in my car for the tank to fill. With the gas hose in my car, I was more or less tied to the space. A man approached me and began to ask probing questions: “Where are you from?” “What’s your husband’s name?”
I was single then, but one-too-many admonishments around the world — “Tsk, tsk, a girl like you should not be traveling alone without a husband” — taught me to never admit that.
I wanted to escape the situation, but instead — as though I was having an out-of-body experience — I watched myself smile and politely respond to his questions, frozen in place.
After a few minutes of intrusive questioning, he lifted his hand to my window and began to open his fingers. I took a deep breath.
He had carved my name, my brother’s name and my fake husband’s name onto the surface of a local nut. He was trying to make a buck.
I drove off, elated, like I had narrowly escaped something dreadful. But that feeling of victory quickly gave way to shame — that I had ever thought something ill of this man in the first place; that I had squandered away an opportunity to get to know a local; that I was stupid enough to travel alone with no good backup plan or support system; and, then, that I was reprimanding myself for engaging in an activity I felt I had a right to do in a country I adored.
I find myself disheartened by the setbacks we keep having, but also inspired by the women who continue to be brave enough to make their voices loud and fight to have our value recognized.
Complex and contradictory, these feelings I had about traveling alone as a woman are not uncommon.
What it feels like to be a female today is hard to examine without considering the latest cultural movements. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have illuminated the safety issues to which women are vulnerable, as well as how commonplace — and often accepted — sexual harassment toward them is.
“Right before I moved to Mexico from New York, I had to watch Hillary Clinton lose the election, which was an emotional blow for me and millions of others around the world,” said Meagan Drillinger, founder of Vaera Journeys, a women-only entrepreneurial travel retreat company. “When I returned, the U.S. was in the heat of the #MeToo movement. I find myself disheartened by the setbacks we keep having, but also inspired by the women who continue to be brave enough to make their voices loud and fight to have our value recognized.”
Indeed, these movements have empowered women to speak up, to not succumb to fears and to pursue their passions and ambitions. As an example, consider the 2018 midterm elections, where a record number of women appeared on the ballot in the races for the U.S. House of Representatives (235 versus a previous record of 167), the U.S. Senate (22 versus 18), state legislature (3,379 versus 2,649) and governor (16 versus 10). For the first time ever, more than 100 women were elected to the House.
Inspiration to Travel
This cultural shift has spread to the way women travel, too.
According to an annual travel trends report by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, “2018 will see an increased interest in catering to female travelers who seek to bond with other women during their adventures.”
Travel agents are also seeing this trend. For the first time ever, “women-only journeys” ranked as one of the most requested niche and specialty travel categories in Travel Leaders Group’s fall travel trends survey.
“Most women seek to empower through self-love and, now, through travel,” said Detra Alton, director of client relations for Almeda Travel, a Travel Leaders agency in Houston. “I do feel like it’s a social movement among women.”
Alton says that although women-only groups make up just about 5 percent of her agency’s business, she has seen an increase in requests in the last year.
“Some are private groups that are celebrating milestones such as a sorority membership anniversary, a birthday or a bachelorette party, or just friends reuniting,” she said.
But Alton’s groups are not only composed of travelers who are already friends. Next year, for example, Alton will send 23 women on a trip to Italy. Many are strangers to one another and eager to form new relationships.
“Traveling in a group of women complements the zeitgeist of these movements because it’s a safe and supportive place to be vulnerable,” said Jennifer Haddow, owner and director of tour operator Wild Women Expeditions. “Sharing each other’s stories helps bind us. Dialogue around these movements is key to shifting the paradigm in our society.”
Wild Women Expeditions, along with AdventureWomen, are pioneers in the women-only adventure travel space — they have been in business as tour operators since 1991 and 1982, respectively.
Both companies have seen upticks in interest, and both have expanded their offerings as a result.
For Wild Women Expeditions, revenue has grown by 1,000 percent since 2010 — with the most significant increases in 2017 and 2018.
More than 1,500 women traveled with the company this year on 160 trip departures across 60 different itineraries in 26 countries. The growth will continue next year, with closer to 200 departures planned for 70 itineraries in 30 countries.
For AdventureWomen, booking for 2018 is up 44 percent over last year, and 2019 is looking even stronger. The number of trips planned has doubled from 21 in 2017 to 42 in 2019.
What was once considered niche — or purely the stuff of wellness retreats — is here to stay.
“We always love hearing about women’s travel as a ‘fad,’” said Judi Wineland, who co-owns AdventureWomen with her daughters. “In fact, women-only travel is a multimillion-dollar industry. Today, there are multiple segments within this sector, from domestic and adventure travel trips — such as what we deliver — to yoga retreats and surf clinics.”
Indeed, many new companies have come online as women-only outfits catering to specific niches, including Vaera Journeys for entrepreneurial women, and Willow & Blair for wellness trips that incorporate local elements, such as meeting with shamans in Peru. WHOA Travel — which stands for Women High on Adventure — was founded in 2013 and offers adventure trips with a special focus on expeditions, such as treks to Mount Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu.
Travel advisor Theresa Tyo, founder of Virtuoso agency Camelot Journeys in Sante Fe, N.M., is booking more women-only group spa trips these days, but she also launched “Ladies of Camelot” as a result of increased requests for specialized trips for small women-only groups.
“Women who are adventurous want to explore unique destinations, but not necessarily by themselves,” she said. “It’s a growing niche, and a need that we want to fill.”
Also impacting this space are the many traditional tour operators that have begun crafting more women-only departures. REI Adventures, Austin Adventures, Intrepid Travel, MT Sobek and Exodus Travel are among the companies investing in creating and marketing these new itineraries.
“In 2017, almost 70 percent of Intrepid travelers were female,” said Jenny Gray, Intrepid Travel’s regional product manager for the Middle East and Africa. “So, we definitely felt there was an exciting opportunity here for female travelers to go behind closed doors and learn about customs, food, challenges and the lives of other women across the globe.”
For MT Sobek, a gaze inward resulted in the new trips.
“There is a large group of women who have worked for MT Sobek over the years who still meet regularly to hike and travel together — at least 30 of us,” said Anne Wood, program director for MT Sobek. “I traveled to Peru in celebration of my 40th birthday with four of them, and no men. It is that extended community here within MT Sobek that has really inspired me to move forward with planning women’s travel.”
What Women Want
What do women get from traveling with other women?
“Women can be discouraged from taking leadership roles on outdoor adventures, as it just isn’t the dominant culture in many situations,” Wild Women Expeditions’ Haddow said. “So, we encourage women to step into more of their power. A sisterhood naturally forms with women on our adventures, which are about inspiring each other, lifting each other up and reaching new heights. We’re not anti-men at all, but there is something very special that emerges when you have a group of women doing everything for themselves.”
A women-only community can also offer support for creative and professional pursuits, and inspire women to take ownership of their business dreams.
“The energy generated when women are working creatively together, with travel as the backdrop, is addictive,” Vaera Journeys’ Drillinger said. “What makes women unique is our willingness to help each other rise to the top.”
Wineland, who notes that AdventureWomen’s guest return rate is 60 to 70 percent, agrees that clients get hooked on the nature of these trips.
“We just completed our annual survey of women adventure travel enthusiasts, and they tell us that they are drawn to the camaraderie, fun, support and sense of community they experience when they travel with other women versus alone or with a partner or spouse,” she said.
According to Camelot Journeys’ Tyo, it’s very basic: Women want this.
“Women want to get away — from work, family obligations and household duties,” she said. “They want to chat and be with other women, because only women can actually know what we go through, and what our thoughts and dreams are made of. Sometimes we need a break, and travel unifies and builds bonds like nothing else.”
For Intrepid, excluding men from its Women’s Expeditions allows for itineraries that provide access to places around the world that are women-only due to religious and cultural reasons. For example, in Iran, where the dress code imposed by Islamic Law means that many ways of life have become segregated by default, Intrepid’s groups can picnic in a women-only park in Tehran; practice yoga at a popular gym; and travel by public transport in female-only carriages.
“Each country has its own unique cultural and religious factors, which means that local interaction is challenging and complex for mixed-gender groups,” said Intrepid’s Gray. “For example, desert camps in Wadi Rum, Jordan, are operated by men. In these close confines, it’s not socially accepted for men to be alone with our female travelers, so the opportunities for interactions are limited. In the same token, during most opportunities our groups have to spend time with local women, it is in the presence of men in a controlled environment.”
Client feedback fueled Intrepid’s decision to offer women-only travel in these regions — and it’s paying off. The trip series has grown from four departures this year to 17 in 2019, and two departures to Iran almost immediately sold out.
Run the World
For some women, taking a dream trip or challenging themselves through travel might be a means of feeling empowered and/or equal to men.
But today’s female travelers, by and large, want to spread those vibes, too.
“We encourage women to step into more of their power. A sisterhood naturally forms with women on our adventures, which are about inspiring each other, lifting each other up and reaching new heights.
Haddow says its female clientele’s priorities are increasingly value-based. They are more aware of how tourism can be a force for good and ask the right questions about how their travel might impact wildlife and locals.
“They want to know how we are contributing to sustainable development and how we are walking our talk,” she said. “For example, in Indonesia, we are helping fund a community-based program to rehabilitate endangered orangutans that have been displaced by palm plantations, which we visit on our tour in Borneo. Our clients are very interested in how our tours help support these programs and ensure that tourists contribute to protecting endangered species.”
Perhaps one of the best side effects of women-only travel is the desire to empower not just the women taking these trips, but women around the world who do not have equal rights as men.
Intrepid, for example, has the goal to double the number of women trip leaders it employs by 2020. It’s already made progress in traditionally hierarchical societies such as India, where Intrepid now employs 11 female leaders thanks to a proactive hiring campaign.
“There’s still a long way to go, but through our ongoing efforts and by launching these new expeditions, we’re making encouraging progress in promoting women’s independence and boosting female employment around the world,” Gray said.
Haddow also believes that improving female employment is a harbinger of better things to come.
“There is a rise in women’s leadership in the adventure travel industry globally,” she said. “In some places where we offer tours, it is very rare to see a woman guide, so we are investing in building the capacity for women to step up in the travel world, get work as guides and be able to become leaders in the industry.”