Female-only expeditions are rising sharply in bookings – and they’re transforming the lives of women across the globe
Learning the ancient arts of henna and kohl in Jordan’s Wadi Rum valley – sat side-by-side with local Bedouin women, chatting and laughing freely without headscarves – is something that not many outsiders get to experience. It certainly wouldn’t be included on a standard guided tour, with male travellers present, due to cultural restrictions in the country.
But a new breed of female-only tours, which are skyrocketing in popularity, allows Bedouin beauty secrets that go back centuries to be shared – offering an unprecedented insight into the conservative county’s private lives of women.
Sisters are doing it for themselves
While solo female travel has long been on the rise, with Google Trends reporting a 131% rise in interest in 2019, exclusively female-run tours in far-flung destinations like Iran, Morocco, Nepal and Jordan take the trend up a notch. These locations might look extra impressive on the ’gram, but there’s a serious backbone to the fast-growing trend, and it’s no coincidence that female-only tours are becoming prolific in conservative countries like these.
With male visitors taken out of the equation, women tour guides and female-run businesses there can access the economic benefits of tourism that traditionally haven’t been open to them. In turn, they’re able to offer a far more intimate experience than normal to female visitors.
Intrepid Travel is leading the way with its Women’s Expeditions, which launched on International Women’s Day in 2018. Since then it has seen a rise in their bookings by 116% year-on-year, to India, Morocco, Kenya, Nepal, Turkey and Iran, as well as the aforementioned trip to Jordan.
Taking in the usual hotspots like Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea and Petra, this itinerary also gives women travellers the opportunity to do things that they’d never have access to as part of a mixed group. They swim at a ladies-only beach; learn to cook, make tea and gossip Arabic-style in a local home; and milk goats with a female shepherd. It’s more than a win-win for customers and hosts. Tours like these are the product of a business model that puts sustainability, in terms of gender equality, first.
Gender equality from the ground up
“We launched these tours to create gender equality not just for the travellers, but also for the hosts,” says Zina Bencheikh, Intrepid’s Regional General Manager for Europe, Middle East and North Africa. “The tours empower the hosts through employing them – allowing women to do jobs that they wouldn’t normally be able to do if they were interacting with male guests.
“This breaks down cultural barriers between our customers and hosts, who get to interact in a really special and unique way. The tours have been picked up so well by our female customers that they’ve been our most successful product in 30 years.”
The tours are also opening up future job opportunities, as the likes of Intrepid ensure that more female guides are being trained than ever before, particularly in areas where they’re lacking.
“We really pushed the authorities to train women up in places such as Morocco, where it’s very rare that you’ll find a female mountain guide,” says Bencheikh. “There are now 10 of them. We also have female drivers on our Turkey trips. We ensure that the women are well paid, and this means that other women really aspire to do these jobs. We see this as reducing the gender gap.”
Other tours that Intrepid runs include a 12-day trip to northern India, which encompasses the Taj Mahal, Old Delhi’s bazaar and Jaipur. Yet the female-only elements set the trip apart from standard tours of Rajasthan, while providing income where it’s most needed. The tour includes visits to a café run by acid attack survivors; a non-profit rickshaw company that offers employment to women from low-income households; and the female-only Gangaur Festival, where visitors dance, paint henna and make arts and crafts with local women.
Ticking off bucket-list destinations
As for other offerings, New York-based travel company SmarTours runs female-focused trips to Egypt, Morocco, Colombia and Vietnam. Their 14-night Amazing Thailand package spans meeting female Buddhist monks and taking part in a Thai cookery class, as well as a lecture on the social perspectives of Thai women. Of course, guests can tick off other bucket-list activities such as visiting the awe-inspiring temples of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Bangkok – all led by their local female guide.
Millennial travellers, on the other hand, might be tempted by Explorer Chick’s fun, female-focused ‘she-nanigans’, which run mostly in the US, South America and Caribbean, but also to Jordan, headed up by female tour guides. Then there’s Jomfrureiser, a Norwegian company that specialises in “travel for ladies” to the UAE, Malaysia and Miami, which often encompass wellness elements like yoga and hiking.
Are there safety concerns on female-only tours that aren’t a consideration for mixed groups? For Bencheikh, the answer is not at all. “We train up our female guides to the same high standards as our male guides,” she says. “They have the same first aid and health and safety qualifications – the same skills completely.”
But if the testimonials are anything to go by, the female guides seem to provide something that’s not necessarily guaranteed from their male counterparts: the ability to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience through genuine, cross-cultural exchange. “This women’s expedition changed my life, impacted me and empowered me,” reads one, from Intrepid’s Women’s Expedition to Morocco. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” says another.