The world of wandering women

/ New Delhi
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As more and more women catch the travel bug, tour operators are coming up with tailor-made offerings for women travellers from culture-rich experiences and wellness breaks to shopping getaways and adrenaline infused outdoor adventures.

RAJEEV KALE, President & Country Head-Holidays, Mice, Visa, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd

Rajeev Kale, president & country head-Holidays, Mice, Visa, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd

In 2015, when Rita Karan, a 60-year-old school teacher from Kolkata, decided to go off on her first international trip, she didn’t opt for the cocoon of the company of her husband or the family. Instead, she asked another friend, Chhabi Roy, if she wanted to explore the United Kingdom together. “I love travelling and always want to visit and explore new places, meet new people, learn about their lives, visit independent coffee shops and know about their culture and beliefs, explore the countryside and indulge in their cuisines. It was a great experience and I was quite enlightened. The trip opened up new horizons of my mind and made me value different cultures and beliefs even more,” tells 60 year old Karan to India Outbound.

It is not just the women in their 40s-60s who are daring to go on a trip with their friends. Young working professional women make for an even bigger chunk of travellers from India. Neha Singh, 27, a working professional who is now settled in the US, went on an all-woman trip to Bhutan in 2018 with her cousin. “Going on a trip with just my cousin was something that I had wanted to do since long time. It was just the two girls who decided to escape the monotony and set off chasing experiences. We experienced so many things in just one trip- from spiritual awakening, to adventurous trekking, to mixing with the local community and trying their local cuisines. We lived Bhutan,” Singh tells India Outbound.

The last decade has seen a sharp rise in the number of women venturing out of the country on their own or with a group of other women, creating a new and lucrative segment of the Indian outbound travel market. Just like Karan and Singh, more and more women are going for trips for diverse reasons — be it for leisure, wellness breaks, shopping getaways, adventure trips or even a combination of business and leisure trips. “Today’s women travellers are bold, independent and looking to explore new and authentic experiences by venturing outside their comfort zones, willing to experiment more with destinations, experiences, and activities,” Daniel D’souza, president & country head, Leisure, SOTC Travel, tells India Outbound.

“Easy availability of visa, value driven group packages and aspirational travel are also a few reasons for this trend to have become popular. Destinations like Bhutan, South Africa, Maldives and Seychelles amongst others are the top favourites,” adds D’souza.

According to the SOTC India Holiday Report (IHR) of 2019, the new age Indian women are eager to explore a variety of destinations according to their preferences. While sightseeing is a priority for them all, they also wish to explore a multitude of activities that help them gain unique experiences and even new skills.

“Apart from family breaks, a rising trend is the 25 pc growth in demand for girl gang travel. With milestone celebrations like ‘friendversaries’, bachelorettes and first pay-checks, women are travelling with their BFFs and kitty groups on cruises, for pool parties in Las Vegas, sundowners in Miami, selfdrive weekends in Wales/Scotland, high end shopping with a personal shopper in Paris/Dubai, Singapore’s eat street markets, beach breaks at Malaysia’s Redang Island,” Rajeev Kale, president & country head – Holidays, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd, tells India Outbound.

A consistent growth 

Various trade professionals as well as market studies say that women in India now account for the fastest growing travel segment in the country. For decades, women had been travelling as part of large groups on organised tours or with their spouses and in a few cases with their families. However, with an increasing number of well-educated women professionals in well-paid jobs in key sectors such as ITES, banking or media, they are increasingly confident and certain of themselves to venture out and travel on their own, within India and overseas as well.

Very often, it is a group of women working together or even college students that join up to plan their sojourn without their families or spouses. A report, released in early March by Thomas Cook India, one of the largest travel companies of the country, says that women travellers as a segment registered a hefty 32 pc growth in travel demand in the year 2019. This growth was across the entire consolidated spectrum of travel, including leisure and b-leisure. “Displaying a clear shift from conventional to the off-beat, India’s women are travelling as a means to disconnect, unwind and enrich themselves. From culture rich experiences to adrenaline infused outdoor adventures, they are setting out to discover the world,’’ says a press communique issued by Thomas Cook announcing the report.

“Women are displaying a strong and growing appetite for travel and at Thomas Cook India we have observed a 32 pc growth in demand: experience led, group driven (girl gang reunion tours, bachelorette parties, etc) as well as from solo travellers–pushing us to curate unique itineraries to suit their requirements,” says Kale.

While initially, the women travellers belonged to the very well to do families and that too from a handful of metros in the country, notably Mumbai, over the last few years, with the booming Indian economy, the market has certainly become more democratic and now women from other metros as well as smaller cities have joined in and are  travelling as an all-woman group or even solo. The trends in 2019 have remained pretty much the same, points out the report by Thomas Cook.

‘‘While India’s metros like Bengaluru (23 pc growth in demand), Mumbai (20 pc), Delhi (18 pc), Hyderabad (15 pc) are driving demand, Tier 2-3 cities like Chandigarh (23 pc), Ahmedabad (22 pc), Nagpur (25 pc) and Kochi (18 pc) are also emerging well,’’ says Kale.

Other tour operators also say that while historically the bulk of the women- only travellers hail from large metros, the market is growing rapidly in smaller cities across the country as well. ‘‘We have been conducting specialised tours for women- only groups for many years and now we see that the demand for such tours is also emerging from many smaller cities. These are basically women in a closely-knit grouping such as a kitty party group or another similar social community,’’ says Amit Jain of Gem Tours, a Mumbai-based tour operator.

Besides groups, another category that has emerged distinctly amongst women travellers in India is the solo traveller. This category, that primarily has younger women, mainly millennials, has been growing rapidly as well. According to the Thomas Cook report, this category grew at 15 pc in 2019.

Travel for every reason

As women get comfortable in travelling with their tribe or alone, several archetypes have emerged – solo, group, b-leisure or volunteer travellers. In the solo segment, women are increasingly keen to explore genres like adventure, wellness, shopping, luxury, sustainable tourism and more. As a group, women particularly enjoy adventure activities including trekking, camping, snorkelling, rafting and more. They also enjoy experience of adventure driven activities like surfing and wildlife safaris.

Another emerging segment is that of b-leisure travellers where women are now converting the professional trips into mini-holidays. Instead of sitting idly in their hotel rooms, these women prefer to explore local experiences after work by checking out famous sights, or rent a vehicle to discover hidden gems all over the destination. As per SOTC another segment that is gaining considerable traction is that of volunteer travellers. “Many women support a number of social causes, and choose to make efforts beyond the monetary kind. For this, they travel to areas that are in need of support, to help in whatever way they can. This is called volunteer travel and women are increasingly becoming motivated to make efforts for the well-being of society and the world at large. Educating the local people and helping in organising local farmers’ market, propagating sustainable and eco- friendly travel and more,” says D’souza.

Another trend that is gaining significant popularity among women travellers is that of wellness. With a 26 pc growth in demand for wellness tourism last year, women travellers are investing in self-care holidays to rejuvenate/ take a break. Stay-cations in city hotels, spa wellness in Indonesia or Fiji or temple- stays amidst Korea’s serene mountains are some of the popular wellness experiences. Wellness tourism is emerging as a preferred option among travellers in the 30-55 years age group.

What women want?

From the first time traveller, hailing from a small city, to an experienced voyager living in a large metropolis, the women travellers of India are not only different in their profile, age, social milieu, but also in their experience as a traveller and the objective of travel. For many women, especially married housewives, travel is first and foremost an escape from the drudgery of their day-to-day lives, most of which are spent in taking care of the home. Hence, their travels are more about fun and relaxation, with an extra dose of shopping thrown in. In its report, Thomas Cook says, ‘‘The Indian women travellers are displaying a clear shift from conventional to the off-beat and are travelling as a means to disconnect, unwind and enrich themselves.’’

Perhaps the only thing that binds the women travellers from India is their gender. Practically everything else varies dramatically from one woman to another, depending on their social and educational background, their profession as well as their age. Amongst the most popular activities for women travellers of today are outdoor and adventure experiences, which are also the fastest growing category for the women travellers. Thomas Cook says that these activities grew at a muscular rate of 33 pc amongst the women with a strong interest for high adrenalin experiences like skydiving and white/black water rafting in New Zealand, F1 drives around the Yas Marina circuit or bungee jumping off South Africa’s Bloukrans Bridge.

Another key activity that is increasingly popular among women travellers from India is mixing with the local community as well as experiencing the local gastronomy. Thus, Indian women are now seeking out experiences of community life in small villages in Laos or learning the Creole culinary skills in the Reunion Island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean that has a rather unique mix of African, Indian and European ancestry.

Other popular activities include pool parties in the casinos of Las Vegas, self-drive breaks in Scotland, Wales or even down under in Australia, beach breaks and cruise trips, or, for the really well-heeled ones, luxury shopping with a personal shopper in attendance in Paris or in Dubai.

For the new age Indian woman traveller, vacationing is no longer an annual event but an investment for immersive experiences. The preferred once in a lifetime experiences include witnessing the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun in Russia, has been gaining popularity among women only trips, says SOTC travel.

Since exploring a particular destination during the day is the usual trend, more and more women are also actively willing to explore the nightlife of a destination. “It is not just the pubs or discotheques that women are interested in seeing, but some also prefer to take night tours of a particular place as it gives a different perspective on how the city is at night. Women are increasingly willing to explore what’s beyond the day life of a destination. With the millennials, experiencing nightlife in any destination is almost a given. There are a few women who also like to explore nightlife,” says Amit Jain.

Safety in numbers

Though Indian women have begun travelling on their own or with their friends, there do remain several challenges that they need to face. One is family pressure. Even though an increasing share of Indian parents are alright for their daughter to travel overseas without them or any other family member, women travellers continue to face challenges in convincing their families.

Safety is another issue that preoccupies certain women travellers, who remain careful about where they stay, where they go and with whom.

“Safety is the biggest concern. One needs to be alert and know the places and modes of transport beforehand. Not to venture out alone but to be in a group as much as possible. As I was with friends hence didn’t need to worry about safety that much still I don’t prefer travelling alone as one is vulnerable and has no one to look out for. Travelling in a group is safer and much more enjoyable but then you should travel with likeminded people to make the best of it,” says Karan, the teacher from Kolkata.

These fears and challenges too are but temporary and as millennial women come to constitute a greater chunk of the segment of women travellers. Today’s Indian woman is not just financially independent, but she is also emotionally and mentally detached enough to venture out, not just from her home, but also her country and explore the world on her terms.

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