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By Zosia Bielski
From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Several things distinguish Cliff Speer’s annual canoe trip along the mighty Churchill River: there is the onboard massage therapist kneading tired shoulders; the guest musician reciting haiku and filling the northern Saskatchewan air with guitar noodling; and the fact the five-day, women-only trip consistently outperforms all of Speer’s other ventures at CanoeSki, the outdoor adventure company he founded 18 years ago.
CanoeSki’s Women and Waves expedition is but one example of a tourism industry stirring to meet the needs of women. Whether they’re married, divorced, widowed or empty nesters, mothers or daughters, overworked or retired, women are fuelling tremendous growth in the travel market.
According to an Adventure Travel Trade Association survey conducted last fall, 52 per cent of adventure travellers are now women. The survey of 157 tour operators from 35 countries also found the average age is 45.
This echoes the findings of Gutsy Traveller, a website created by women’s travel expert Marybeth Bond. “The average adventure traveller is not a 28-year-old male,” she writes, “but a 47-year-old female. And she wears a size 12 dress.”
The business-travel market is also experiencing a rapid demographic shift. According to British Airways, the number of women travelling on business has doubled in the past five years.
On Monday, American Airlines launched Women Travelers Connected, a section of its website that allows women to share tips on business and holiday travel.
And high-end hoteliers are responding with secure, women-only floors, as well as mini-bars stocked with pantyhose.
The number of women-only travel companies is skyrocketing: Bond cites a 230-per-cent increase in the past six years.
“[In 1994], there was talk in the press about how unique it was to see women going off on canoe trips together, leaving their makeup kits and hair gels behind, testing themselves against the elements and having the time of their lives,” says Evelyn Hannon. That year, the Torontonian launched Journeywoman, an online travel resource where women sound off on everything from loneliness on the road to travelling with children.
Hannon says the majority of established tour companies “paid little attention to the female market,” but eventually “even the most established companies had to take notice of the surge and began adding one or two active holidays for ‘women-only’ into their catalogues.”
Kira Zack of G.A.P Adventures says her company’s trips now “skew slightly higher with female clients,” even though all remain co-ed. Zack has also witnessed the proliferation of “soft” activities, with extreme adventures such as heli-skiing giving way to trekking and safaris.
Today’s female-only tour operators cater to like-minded women seeking camaraderie, self-realization and fun in exotic and challenging locales. Many of them are run by women.
“You’ve got a lot of women who have kept themselves in shape that are in their 40s, 50s and 60s that have the time and the money to get away and travel. But not everybody in their social circle is interested in what they want to do,” says Debra Asberry. When she was 12 years old, Asberry obsessed about whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon. “Staring 40 in the face,” she had yet to do it. Once her family and friends declined, it became a case of stay home or go solo.
Instead, Asberry, a former competitive swimmer, started Women Travelling Together, a Maryland-based tour operator for women who had shelved their plans while waiting for the perfect travel companion. To celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary, Asberry is running a nine-day rafting expedition through the Grand Canyon in July.
“Women just really enjoy the company of other women. Sharing the excitement of getting to Everest base camp or the peak of Kilimanjaro is the draw,” says Marian Marbury, chief executive of Adventures in Good Company. The Baltimore-based operator runs tours through Nepal, Africa, Europe, Canada and the United States. The current itinerary includes hiking the Swiss Alps and trekking through Bhutan. Since launching her women-only group in 1999, Marbury has watched business grow 300 per cent.
The most obvious hurdle for women is still safety, particularly where solo travel is concerned.
Zack of G.A.P Adventures urges her female clients to consult Her Own Way: A Woman’s Guide to Safe and Successful Travel, published by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. The online guide offers measured advice on everything from culture shock and dress sense to travelling while pregnant and avoiding harassment.
Safety is becoming less of an issue for those who can afford it. The last four years have seen a surge of high-end hoteliers offering secured floors for women.
Dubai’s Jumeirah Emirates Tower Hotel became the first hotel in the Middle East to feature a women-only floor, billing a $60 surcharge.
In February, the Fleming Hotel became one of Hong Kong’s first hotels to create a dedicated women’s floor. The floral-themed rooms in “Her Space” also treat clients to more frivolous perks: yoga mats, jewellery boxes, facial steamers, exclusive toiletries from L’Occitane, as well as essentials women tend to forget, like sanitary napkins and the all-important emery board.
Grange City in East London even offers its clients pantyhose in the mini-bar.
Recently, corporations have taken note of female adventure travellers. The Outdoor Industry Association, a Colorado-based trade group, gives retailers tips on tapping the market. In a marketing supplement called “Beyond Pink Thinking: Positioning Your Brand to Effectively Reach Women,” the group urges outdoor apparel retailers to stop patronizing women with pink marketing campaigns when what they really need are quality athletic supplies fitted to their bodies.
Still, the surge of women travelling is about more than goods and purchasing power, as Asberry happily points out.
“When we get into our 40s, we’ve already collected the baubles of life. We have a car, we have a house, we have a husband, we have children. And we start asking those bigger questions, like where do I fit into the world and what do I really want out of life. It’s an awakening time. That’s really when we see women starting to travel.”
Special to The Globe and Mail