All-Women Travel Expeditions Take Off In Middle East

By Maya Margit | The Media Line
A group of women take part in an all-female travel expedition to Iran. (Damien Raggatt, Intrepid Travel)

Amid growing demand, more and more travel companies launching trips geared towards women in countries such as Iran, Egypt, Jordan and Oman

To explore the world independently, meet locals in new and unfamiliar places, or simply to stretch the limits of one’s comfort zone—there are myriad reasons for a growing trend in tourism: namely, all-women expeditions. For a woman, hitting the road alone often seems daunting enough and perhaps more so when considering a trip to conservative countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Women are therefore increasingly taking advantage of all-female options—and dozens of tour companies are rushing to meet the demand. Among the most popular destinations for westerners are Morocco, Iran, Egypt and Jordan.

While less common, Middle Eastern Muslim women are also beginning to seek out these travel experiences; this, even though many Islamic leaders hold that it is impermissible for Muslim women to travel alone without a mahram, a legal male escort that accompanies her during overnight journeys. Yet entrepreneurs have started to buck religious and social norms by offering female travel enthusiasts the opportunity to experience the world in a new way.

Noura Al Ameri, a Qatari businesswoman who in 2014 founded the Doha-based Tartebkum Holidays, organizes excursions exclusively for women and children. She has also called for the establishment of tourist facilities in Qatar that are expressly designed for the female traveler.

“The idea began in my mind ten years ago but I waited for the right time to implement it,” Al Ameri told The Media Line. “I started to organize tourist trips limited in scale, in cooperation with [governmental] bodies such as the Ministry of Culture and the Tourism Authority.”

Al Ameri’s first tour was to Turkey and included only two women—a Qatari and a Saudi. Since then, the concept has taken off and now dozens of women from various Arab states participate in each outing.

Still, tourism companies continue to face obstacles.

“Women in our country and in the Gulf have different requirements,” Al Ameri stressed. “They need special trips that are safer and cater to them. Because our customs and traditions forbid women from traveling alone they are denied the pleasure. My company aims to overcome this barrier and take women everywhere in the world.

“Sometimes I communicate directly with the husband or brother of the woman who wants to participate to convince him to allow her to go and dispel any fears,” she expounded. “There is certainly a big responsibility but I decided to go ahead with the project because I am convinced that it’s what we need.”

Catering To Solo Female Travelers

To capitalize on the burgeoning movement, Intrepid Travel recently announced the creation of women-only holidays to Morocco, Jordan and Iran, among other locations.

“Each tour was designed to uncover the customs, food, challenges and lives of the local women in each country, all the while encouraging female empowerment and showcasing the traditions and routines unique to each culture,” Jenny Gray, Regional Product Manager for the Middle East at Intrepid Travel, told The Media Line.

One of the advantages of embarking on women-only tours, Gray notes, is the ability to visit local establishments generally inaccessible to mixed-gender groups. For instance, in the Moroccan city of Marrakech travelers frequent an artist’s cooperative that supports female rug-weavers as well as a traditional hammam, or bathhouse, that is open only to women. In Jordan, participants learn about henna art from Bedouin women, whereas in Iran—infamous for its strict gender-segregation rules—they tour a female-only park and meet with women entrepreneurs.

“The itineraries, each guided by women, break the barriers of customary tourism in these locales, offering a deeper understanding of female culture in each Middle Eastern nation,” Gray affirmed. “The trips expose female travelers to a range of fascinating local women—young, old, religious, conservative, rural, modern and liberal—while respecting traditional cultural values.”

Intrepid’s latest offerings, many of which coincide with International Women’s Day in March, are increasingly being sought out and there currently are several itineraries already scheduled for 2019 and 2020. The trips to Iran, for example, retail anywhere from $2,310 for a 9-day jaunt (none of the pricing includes airfare) to $4,550 for a 16-day cycling adventure throughout the country.

The majority of Intrepid’s clients are based in Australia, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The goal, Gray explains, is not only to provide female travelers with the opportunity to venture into previously unseen territory but also to empower local women.

Calling All Women: The Quest for Adventure

There are many reasons women are choosing to set off on these unique adventures.

“I don’t like the idea of accommodating men,” Nevena Barrett, a retired schoolteacher living in Australia, explained to The Media Line. “I have been on mixed trips before and I’m more comfortable going strictly with women. I just want to go for the enjoyment of the travel and the enrichment that it provides, rather than being distracted by the possibility of romantic relationships. In a small setting like that, sometimes guys want to make a move and you just want to focus on the trip without distraction.”

Barrett, 68, embarked on her first such trip with Venus Adventures to Morocco nearly a decade ago. Since then, she has taken numerous similar vacations, most recently to Oman.

“When you’re strictly with women, you’re able to share things that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to discuss with men because the subjects or topics are unique to a woman’s perspective,” she elaborated. “Because of that, connections and conversations are freer and you don’t feel as inhibited as you would if the opposite sex were present.”

Venus Adventures created the marketplace for women-only travel groups several years ago after noticing a gap in the industry. Its pricing varies depending on the destination and length of stay, ranging from roughly $3,300 for a 15-day odyssey through Morocco to an 11-day journey in Egypt for $3,900.

“We [put] an emphasis on meeting the locals and mingling with them as much as possible to get to know the culture,” Julie Paterson, Managing Director at Venus Adventures, told The Media Line, adding that the majority of the company’s clients are mature women from English-speaking countries whose friends are unavailable to travel.

“The 50-and-over demographic that partakes in women-only trips may be married/divorced/single, or often we have women whose husbands have recently passed away and they are traveling for the first time alone,” Paterson explained. “Women feel safer and more comfortable in a group of like-minded people. Without men around they don’t have to compete with them when doing activities or for their attention.”

For Stephanie, a 56-year-old woman from Canada, the decision to go on an all-women excursion was less about being surrounded by members of the same sex and more about the trip aligning with her personal interests. She recently went to Egypt on a tour arranged by Wild Women Expeditions, a global agency focusing on outdoor adventure travel and which currently offers trips to nearly 30 countries. A 12-day vacation to Egypt, including accommodations, a tour guide, in-country travel and full board costs $5,495.

“I wanted to go to Egypt and had traveled with this tour operator before,” Stephanie, who is divorced, recounted to The Media Line. “It came down to a choice between two options: a trip through an educational institute in the United States or this one. After looking at the itineraries, costs and lengths of the respective offerings, the deciding factor wasn’t so much that it was a group of women but that it was a women-focused trip.”

As interest in such travel continues to rise, one of the problems agencies are dealing with is recruiting enough female tour guides. For its part, Intrepid has attempted to overcome this challenge by advertising specifically to females and launching targeted social media campaigns.

In a study published last year, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) found that travel-related policies can be tailored to promote leadership qualities among women. According to the UNWTO, the tourism sector employs up to 10 percent of the global workforce and is thus ideally positioned to contribute to fostering gender equality.

Despite the lack of women in managerial or senior roles in the industry, the world body nevertheless highlighted that “there are almost twice as many women entrepreneurs [51%] in tourism than in any other [field].”

(Julia Altmann contributed to this report)