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The professional path to working in commercial adventure travel often starts with a story like this: “I was on a cross-country bike ride … ” “I was climbing Kilimanjaro … ” “I took a rafting trip down the Colorado River … ” During that experience, there’s often a moment of personal clarity or a previously uncovered realization that causes the seemingly well-groomed life course to veer wildly in a different direction. The next part of the story often includes a description of well-meaning friends and family who object to this newfound decision to become an adventure business owner, tour operator, or travel guide.
And so this story arc, all too common in the adventure travel industry, is one of finding inspiration and overcoming obstacles — but sometimes that bar is raised significantly higher and the inspiration to pursue this professional path goes against not just familial wishes but cultural and gender norms and expectations.
Such has been the case for three women who shared their stories at this year’s AdventureNEXT Near East event in a keynote session called “Near East Innovators Breaking New Ground.” Suzanne Al Houby, Shereen Allam, and Shaikha Ebrahim Al Mutawa have all taken this familiar journey from inspiration to successful adventure travel career, but along the way, they’ve each had to forge their own way, breaking down particularly challenging barriers and driving real change in the industry in remarkable ways.
The Explorer: Suzanne Al Houby
Suzanne Al Houby was the first Arab woman to climb Mount Everest and finish the seven summits, and she is also the founder of a leading Middle East adventure travel company called Rahhalah Explorers. During her presentation, Al Houby shared a fascinating story of persistence and inspiration — from working as the vice president of Dubai Bone and Joint Centre (part of Dubai Healthcare City) to setting out on her first serious climb of Mount Kilimanjaro with all the wrong equipment and eventually going on to establish her own company.
Al Houby faced challenges in her career path not only because she was a women but also due to cultural appropriateness. In her culture, she said, everyone interferes with everyone else’s business, and people often make decisions to please societal norms and not themselves. People didn’t understand how she could travel alone, meet random people, and rough it during her adventurous pursuits. For a long time, people made comments about how she wasn’t acting like an Arab or Muslim, but that has changed now that people realize her passion for climbing doesn’t affect her identity as either of those things. Al Houby consistently had to write the rules for herself because there were no examples of strong women in the Middle East climbing mountains and founding businesses to help others do the same. There is a perception and image women are expected to maintain in her community in terms of appropriateness, dress codes, gender sensitivities, and the need to obtain approvals from male family members, but, she said, “it has been changing big time and will continue to change.”
Over the years, she has been inspired by the rewards of pushing her limits, earning her achievements, and feeling liberated on the mountains she has climbed. With her persistence and help from a global community, Al Houby has successfully raised awareness and interest for adventure travel in the region. She has overcome negative branding and publicity and clearly delights in surprising people. Hearing her story, one in which she was frequently referred to as majnun or “crazy,” gave the audience a new understanding of what it means to hold true to one’s vision and persist.
Al Houby has been an agent of change, and in just over five years, she has seen tremendous growth in her business and is now offering 80 itineraries around the globe. “When I learned more about all these great adventures, I realized, who needs fiction? We can live a life that far exceeds the thrills of fiction in an adventurous way,” she said. As an adventurer and business owner, she has proven there is no ambition too far flung and certainly no mountain too high.
The Entrepreneur: Shereen Allam
A visionary, serial entrepreneur, and winner of the International Alliance for Women’s “World of Difference” award from Egypt, Shereen Allam shared the story of how she came to find herself as a “champion of women’s economic advancement.” Inspired first to create a company that manufactured children’s clothes which was very successful, Allam went on to launch a business in Egypt distributing printer ink cartridges. Her company eventually became the top distributor of compatible printer cartridges in Egypt, encouraging 250 national and multinational organizations to recycle used print cartridges. She has also taught university students online and managed a marketing company that supports start-up companies as they grow and become sustainable.
“What continued to inspire me as I moved up the economic advancement ladder is the bigger vision and the idea that the sky is the limit,” she said. “Once I reach one point I see the possibilities available in the next level and start to connect more dots and find more things to achieve and to link others in so I keep going.”
Choosing to devote her considerable energy and creativity to furthering women’s entrepreneurship in Egypt, she went on to found the Association for Women’s Total Advancement & Development (AWTAD), a non-profit association aimed at developing entrepreneurship among women and youth. In this position, she routinely puts other women ahead of herself, empowering them to think and act creatively. Allam appreciates and respects the peripatetic nature of her work, and has certainly been successful with connecting the dots among her professional skills, contacts, and opportunities. Her commitment to the people behind the work and a confidence in the knowledge that growth does not come without discomfort continue to drive her, allowing her to grow successful businesses for nearly 30 years.
“Get out of your comfort zone” is a well known maxim, but coming from Allam, it takes on a new meaning — especially when it’s hard to say for sure where her next innovative idea will lead.
The Environmentalist: Shaikha Al Mutawa
Shaikha Al Mutawa shared the story of how powerful women helped shape the trajectory of development in Dubai with vision and determination. Her story was one of unlikely heroes: women who made their own paths to success, moving through and around the obstacles they encountered with precision, grace, and wisdom.
These women didn’t break down barriers so much as neutralize them, earning trust and gaining influence through the men that held the legal power in their society. The relentless work and optimism of these women has created dramatic change in the Middle East, taking Dubai from an oasis in 1908 where 40,000 people lived and two out of three women died in childbirth to a city in the 2000s that people of more than 200 nationalities call home and millions of people visit each year.
In the midst of all this development, the realization that environmental sustainability must take priority took root, and that’s where Al Mutawa has left her footprint. In her role at the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Al Mutawa has tirelessly pushed an environmental agenda. She has developed many sustainable tourism initiatives and trained more than 1500 key decision makers about environmental sustainability in workshops and training sessions. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed: Al Mutawa wa the recipient of the 2013 award as “Innovative Employee in the Dubai Government,” a prestigious award offered to one of 90,000 employees in the Dubai government for her excellence in innovation.
During their presentation at AdventureNEXT Near East, these three inspirational women clearly demonstrated their passion for change. Their achievements would be impressive regardless of where in the world they lived and worked, but in the Near East, they take on a particularly significant meaning. Al Houby, Allam, and Al Mutawa demonstrate the role women can — and should — play in building sustainable economies in the region. Their visions offer a very promising outlook for adventure travel in the Near East, women in the industry, and the world at large.