To travel is to see, feel, experience and make memories all over the world. Some have even gone so far as to say that to travel is to 'live'. But as Lao Tzu says, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." And often enough, this first single step can be quite a tangle for women.
With greater independence and bigger disposable incomes, women now want to travel and experience the world even without their partners and families. "When they travel with families, women travel as mothers, grandmothers, daughters or daughter-in-laws and seldom as themselves," says Sumitra Senapaty, an avid traveller who created a women's travel group called Women on Wanderlust (WOW) in 2005.
Piya Bose, founder of Girls on the Go, adds that when a holiday is planned with family and friends, the itinerary is not mapped out based on what the women want. Often, therefore, they don't enjoy the trip as much as they should.
So for reasons like these and others - for some it is to find fellow travellers, for others it is a search for offbeat and adventurous tours, while for some it is the safety and convenience - that women want to travel on their own. However, the story is not quite so simple. "It isn't easy to always gather family and friends for a holiday trip. Also, conservative families don't want women to travel alone," points out Shireen Mehra, owner of Women on Clouds, a women's travel group formed in 2008. "There are constraints," adds Senapaty. Women-only tour organisers step in to help women facing such problems.
* * * * *There are many now who have been won over to traipsing the world in the company of women. Harini Rao, owner of Hearth Treasures, joined WOW for a trip to Ladakh when work commitments forced her husband to pull out of their planned trip. Travelling with an all-women's group was a different experience, she says. "I was with this bunch of women who all had a good sense of humour and a great spirit of adventure. We had a 10-year-old with her mom and a 70-year-old too in the group," she adds.
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On average, a tour group comprises 15-20 women of all age groups. Single, married women, housewives, professionals, whatever their credentials, all are welcome so long as they have a passion to travel. "In the first two years of our operations, we had more single women signing up for trips, but after the third year, housewives gradually started joining in," says Mehra. Now the numbers of single and married women in any tour group is almost equal.
The various groups between them have over 140,000 likes on Facebook and rely on social media and word of the mouth to attract customers. In eight years, WOW has taken around 3,000 women on holidays, says Senapaty. For Girls on the Go, the count is more than 1,000. Mehra says 700-750 women have travelled with Women on Clouds in the last couple of years.
Ruchira Shukla, business development manager, Fujitsu, chose Girls on the Go in search of like-minded travellers and offbeat tours. She went on a couple of trips with the group in India. The itinerary is more personalised when travelling with such groups, and the group size is small, which does make a difference. "We went to places that others don't normally include in their itineraries," she says.
* * * * *Tanul Mishra, founder of Eatopia.in, has gone on trekking trips with Women on Clouds, which include a Himalayan trek, a Ladakh visit and a river-rafting trip to Rishikesh. "Mehra finds locations which haven't been explored yet, I'm not travelling with 60 people, and it is not a rushed trip - it is experience like this for which I would travel with Women on Clouds again," she says.
The tour organisers say that their experience has been that women look for offbeat places that they probably won't get to visit with their families. There is interest in places like East Africa, Morocco, Egypt, and even Alaska, Arctic Circle and Antartica, they say. Even in case of conventional destinations, the travel groups offer some offbeat activity. Girls on the Go, for instance, offers underwater walks in Bali, while WOW has a serious wildlife segment in its East Africa activities.
The travel companies usually handle all the travel arrangements for you, unless you prefer pursuing them on your own. Rakhee Dhar, senior manager at Inductis, joined Girls on the Go for their tours to Egypt and Vietnam-Cambodia. She says convenience was part of the reason she chose a women's travel group. "Safety is paramount when you are travelling abroad. The travel arrangements - visa, paper work and other hassles - are all taken care of, you just have to land there," she says.
The accommodation is twin-sharing, with an option for single occupancy. The prices per trip range from Rs 10,000 for a home destination to around Rs 5 lakh for international expeditions. Safety of clients is obviously a big factor, and the groups have tie-ups with destination management companies or vendors who are chosen after thorough background checks and references.
They ensure that hotels are centrally located and the itinerary is designed in such a way so as to ensure that the women are never threatened at any time. In case of night travel, Women on Clouds has male co-coordinators on board. Bose says when going to explore a destination's nightlife - a visit to a night club, perhaps - the bouncers there are informed in advance that it is a women's-only group.
The popularity of women-only travel is increasing. Senapaty says WOW has ramped up its trips from a handful to 80 a year now. Girls on the Go has now ventured into customised travel besides group departures, and has logged a growth of 30 per cent since inception. For Women on Clouds, Mehra pegs her company's growth at 30-35 per cent.
"Travelling with family is fun too, but I recommend travelling with an all-ladies group once in a while," says Rao of Hearth Treasures. The bonus, as many of the travellers will point out, is the friends they have made for life through these tours.