Boldly she goes

As the female traveller demographic grows and transforms, how can agents prepare to meet their requirements? April Waterston explores

It’s over 40C and I have finished my fourth bottle of water in as many hours. As is human nature, I realise I will soon require the use of a loo.

I ask my tour guide where the closest public toilet is. With an hour’s drive next on the itinerary, I am sure – on a Dubai megafam with nearly 40 agents – I won’t be the only one wondering.

He asks a local shopkeeper in Arabic then gestures to me to follow him. I follow blindly as the young man leads me away from the safety of my group, away from the bustling souks.

We turn off the main street and walk down a dark and deserted alleyway, the sound of the busy streets becoming fainter and fainter. Eventually we reach a steel gate, behind which I can see a grimy apartment block stairwell.

I suddenly become hyper-aware of the fact that nobody knows where I am, and without a phone signal I have no way to contact anyone. My pulse quickening, my mind starts racing with thoughts.

Should I excuse myself and attempt to fi nd my own way back to the group? I conclude that if this is about to turn into something ominous, asking to leave probably wouldn’t end well. So against all intuition, I follow him up the stairs and soon reach the door of an apartment.

After three slow knocks the door swings open to reveal two further men in what appears to be a knockoff designer bag showroom, with shelves lined with bags and purses.

After a brief exchange in Arabic, one of the men walks over to a display in the corner (home to a selection of knockoff Louis Vuittons, I guess), and pulls on the wooden shelves. Panic sets in as the shelves swing forward and reveal a hidden door, leading to a dark room. Now, I really won’t be found in there.

But… what’s that I see? I peer into the room and fi nd, to my surprise, a small bathroom. Yes, the tiny window is lined with a metal grate instead of glass, and yes, the room had a notable absence of a sink (and a toilet seat), but ultimately conclude that I did ask to be directed to a toilet – and here it was.

Within five minutes I am safely back with the group. A few agents made jokes about never expecting to see me again, while another asked where the loo was.

I told him he should hold it.

Reality check

solo intrepid
Berbers expedition in Morocco

The reality is, the travelling experience is not the same for women as it is for men. Anxiety is high with frequent stories of harassement, violence, rape and more instilled in women from a young age.

But for many female travellers – myself included – this fear should not, and will not, override a desire to explore the world.

 “Forbes reported last year that ‘Female Travel’ was booming in two ways – the number of solo female travellers is increasing but women are also looking for more female-led tours, retreats and adventures,” says Rosa Harris, Director of Tourism for The Cayman Islands.

“This may be because they feel more comfortable from a safety perspective, or they want to empower and support women in the travel industry.” Solo female travel is certainly in demand for 2024. A booking.com survey of 27,000 travellers suggested 54% of women are considering a trip on their own this year.

G Adventures has responded to this trend. “Over the last year, around two thirds of our solo travellers were female – so about 60% of them globally,” says Brian Young, MD, G Adventures.

These vary from 18-30 somethings through to older married women who are seeking independent, meaningful experiences… “often while their husbands are off playing golf,” Young explains.

A journey to empowerment

solo mekong
Southeast Asia is considered safe for solo travel

Despite ongoing wellbeing worries, the increasing and ever-evolving demographic of female travellers seek a different experience to their male counterparts.

Travel is more than just a ‘hobby’ for many women. It is the key to empowerment.

 “It is important for travel agents, tourist boards, hoteliers and experience led tour organisers to recognise the needs of the female traveller as women make up 64% of all travellers.

“We know there are a few tour operators who are concentrating on women-only tours, including Tour Radar and Intrepid, and we’ve identified this as an important part of our trade communications for 2024,” adds Harris.

“I don’t think we can generalise when it comes to their holiday requirements. Women can also be just as adventurous as men and enjoy experiences like rock climbing, kite surfing or scuba diving.”

“I only feel normal when I’m travelling,” says Carolyn Pearson, CEO and Founder of Maiden Voyage. Pearson launched Maiden Voyage as a solo female business for travellers looking to connect with like-minded women.

Now the company has transformed to champion inclusive travel and raise awareness of safety issues through training schemes for travel professionals. “We don’t want to disempower travellers,” explains Pearson, “but it’s more about risk mitigation. I’ve been to some dangerous places, but with my eyes open. [Travel safety] is about empowerment and understanding of risks, and creating things around yourself to prevent those risks.”

Agents should be prepared to offer some practical safety advice to clients keen to push through their fears. For example, Pearson advises all women to carry a doorstop or door jammer to ensure safety in hotel rooms. In addition, when booking rooms, a key safety feature to keep in mind is a secondary bolt lock on the inside of a hotel door – electronic key-card access can not always be trusted. Rooms above the ground floor are also deemed safer, reducing risk of break-ins via external windows.

 As Harris says: “As the first point of contact for booking the travel agent is the first line of support for women who are concerned about safety while travelling.

 If the agent has extensive knowledge of a destination and they are able to provide travellers with recommendations for accommodations, attractions and dining, a traveller feels confident and equipped with all the information to ensure they feel secure.”

“Female travellers often seek experiences combining adventure with a strong emphasis on safety, camaraderie, and cultural enrichment,” says Kelly Kimple, CEO of Adventures in Good, a female led travel company based in the U.S.

“What sets them apart is their desire for meaningful connections, and the opportunity to explore diverse destinations in a supportive group environment.”

 Adventures in Good offers curated trips designed for safety and empowerment – two key themes women consider when planning a trip.“Our focus on female-only group adventures, experienced local guides, and a commitment to responsible travel resonates with those seeking enriching journeys with like-minded women,” says Kimple.

Female-led tours

solo petra
Petra in Jordan with Intrepid

Community at the heart: Village Ways has a small-group women-only trip to Kerala, India. The tour includes a stay in the Wayanad hills in a community-owned guesthouse hosted by a women’s committee. With a female guide, explore the coffee, banana and pepper plantations, witness the women’s drumming group and spend time with female entrepreneurs behind a variety of craft projects. villageways.com

Smooth sailing: ASMALLWORLD has launched The Solo Cruise Company, with itineraries catered towards mature solo travelling women. Each trip features no or low single supplements. Its Fully Hosted Journeys include an experienced host who accompanies passengers from start to finish, while its Featured Cruise-Only Journeys are ideal for those wanting to explore independently. Cruises include bucket-list destinations such as Antarctica, The Amazon and The Mekong. thesolocruisecompany.com

For the adventurous: Many female travellers are looking for bucket-list experiences. For G-Advenures, Thailand, Vietnam and Costa Rica are popular destinations for solo female travellers, as are European destinations like Greece. For the 18-30 age bracket, before following Highway 1 back to Vancouver, active holidays are high up on the list, such as climbing Kilimanjaro or traversing the Inca Trail.

Stretch the legs: Active types can take on the challenge of Scotland’s most famous long-distance trail on Wilderness Walking – The West Highland Way, a week-long guided walking break for women. The group will traverse 95 miles from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis in the Highlands taking in the beautiful landscapes of Loch Lomond, Rannoch Moor and Glencoe along the way. wildernessscotland.com

Where to book it

Intrepid offers a variety of women-only tours. An eight-day Women’s Expedition to Jordan includes a night under the stars in Wadi Rum, a visit to Petra and time spent with Bedouin women, from £1,313pp. intrepidtravel.com