Go­ing solo

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - PURSUITS -

Women trav­el­ling on their own is one of the fastest grow­ing seg­ments of the travel in­dus­try. But they’re not just look­ing for a hol­i­day – they’re look­ing for em­pow­er­ment

The growth in the num­ber of women hol­i­day­ing on their own has cre­ated a new sec­tor for the tourism in­dus­try. As Sarah Tre­leaven re­ports, women aren’t just af­ter an es­cape, but ex­plo­ration and em­pow­er­ment

In 2005, Michelle Ponto was liv­ing in Toronto, with a job in mar­ket­ing, when her newly mar­ried sis­ter-in-law sud­denly col­lapsed and fell into a months-long coma. The event served as a wakeup call. “She waited all her life to get mar­ried so she could travel and now she’s sick,” Ponto says. “I de­cided I couldn’t wait.” Since then, Ponto, who now works in com­mu­ni­ca­tions in Saudi Ara­bia, has trav­elled the world by her­self. In just the past three months, she has vis­ited Zanz­ibar, Kenya, Mo­rocco, France, Switzer­land and Hong Kong. It hasn’t all been easy. There was the time she planned a cy­cling tour of Ire­land in the height of the rainy sea­son, and the time she was in Kenya and heard a wa­ter buf­falo snort­ing on the other side of her sa­fari tent. “I re­mem­ber try­ing my best not to breathe,” she says.

But th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences – some­times chal­leng­ing, of­ten ex­hil­a­rat­ing – have be­come defin­ing mo­ments in Ponto’s life. “It makes you feel re­ally in­de­pen­dent to do things women are sup­posed to be afraid of do­ing,” she says. “We don’t need to rely on any­body to fol­low our dreams any more. It’s lib­er­at­ing to do it by your­self.”

The idea that trav­el­ling alone can act as a tool of fe­male em­pow­er­ment and self-dis­cov­ery has been grow­ing since the pub­li­ca­tion of pop­u­lar cul­ture pow­er­houses such as El­iz­a­beth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and Ch­eryl Strayed’s

Wild. “It’s a uniquely 21st-cen­tury as­pect of fe­male life,” says Sarah He­pola, a Dal­las-based writer work­ing on a book about solo travel. “Women are now more com­fort­able trav­el­ling alone in a way they didn’t when they were re­ally only two things: wives and moth­ers.”

Of course, men also set off by them­selves, but it is the fe­male solo trav­eller that has be­come the dom­i­nant trope. In re­cent years, the trend seems to have mor­phed al­most into a move­ment, with the in­dus­try re­spond­ing with more women-only tours, ho­tel ser­vices – even a pri­vate is­land. So what is it that women in par­tic­u­lar have to gain from solo ad­ven­tures?

Start speak­ing to fe­male trav­ellers and it’s clear they ven­ture out into the world for myr­iad rea­sons: to ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent cul­tures, try new foods, learn lan­guages and take pic­tures of those per­fect sun­sets

that seem ro­man­tic even when alone. But many are also seek­ing some­thing they might not name but in­tu­itively sense they need.

Go­ing solo al­lows women to shake off the de­mands and ex­pec­ta­tions of oth­ers. In gen­eral, women are so­cial­ized to be hy­per­at­tuned to the needs of those we love – some­times at the ex­pense of our own ful­fill­ment. “When you travel alone, you have the op­por­tu­nity to recharge your bat­ter­ies away from those at home who rely on you for emo­tional and men­tal sup­port,” says Oneika Ray­mond, a Travel Chan­nel host orig­i­nally from Toronto.

Jen­nifer Had­dow, owner of New­found­land-based Wild Women Ex­pe­di­tions, which of­fers na­ture-in­ten­sive ex­cur­sions for women, says that many of her guests are tired of con­stantly jug­gling work has­sles, fam­ily de­mands and more. “They want some space to feel the truth of who they are again.”

For some women, that first solo ex­pe­ri­ence is a big push out of their com­fort zone – and many find nav­i­gat­ing the as­so­ci­ated chal­lenges ter­rif­i­cally re­ward­ing. “It’s a huge test of for­ti­tude,” He­pola says. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity to learn and I be­came less afraid of the un­known, less afraid of be­ing alone and less afraid of find­ing my way out of places where I was stuck.”

Jan­ice Waugh’s hus­band died when she was 49, and she ven­tured out on her own two years later. “The first 24 hours were a dis­as­ter,” says Waugh, who lives in Toronto. She ar­rived in Ha­vana af­ter dark to find that her ho­tel was on a pedes­trian street her taxi couldn’t ac­cess. She found the ho­tel but her room had no win­dow, she didn’t like the food and she strug­gled with Cuba’s mul­ti­ple cur­ren­cies. “I called and asked my travel agent to move me into a re­sort but she never called back,” she re­calls. “And it was the best thing that she didn’t be­cause I re­ally found my feet.”

Waugh now runs the re­source web­site solo­trav­el­er­world.com and is launch­ing a guide to en­cour­age other women to take the solo travel plunge. “You get to dis­cover who you are when no one’s look­ing, when no one else is defin­ing you or im­pos­ing ex­pec­ta­tions on you.”

In July, Trav­el­zoo’s first ever Fe­male Solo Travel Re­port found that 70 per cent of Cana­dian women were likely to take a solo trip in the fu­ture. This new wave re­flects changes at both ends of the de­mo­graphic spec­trum, from an in­creas­ing num­ber of un­cou­pled women in their 20s, 30s and 40s to a ris­ing “sil­ver di­vorce” rate among women in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

But it is not just sin­gle women who travel alone. Ac­cord­ing to Erica Wil­son, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of busi­ness and tourism at South­ern Cross Univer­sity in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, the em­pow­er­ment nar­ra­tive is key at all stages of life. “Women over 40 have a de­sire for in­de­pen­dence and a sense of achieve­ment,” says Wil­son, who co-edited Women and Travel: His­tor­i­cal and Con­tem­po­rary Per­spec­tives.

“Younger women feel like it’s a rite of pas­sage; they want to do this be­fore set­tling down.”

For Ray­mond, that first solo trip was a mat­ter of cir­cum­stance. She was 25 and work­ing in Mon­ter­rey, Mex­ico, in 2007 when she de­cided to visit Za­cate­cas, a min­ing city. “My friends al­ready had plans and I didn’t want to miss out on see­ing the world be­cause I didn’t have some­one to do it with.”

Ray­mond hopped on a bus and spent the week­end in Za­cate­cas hang­ing out with two Mex­i­can sis­ters she met at her hos­tel and vis­it­ing lo­cal mar­kets filled with sil­ver and semi-pre­cious stones. A love of solo travel took hold. “I get to do what I want, when I want and I don’t have to cater to some­one else’s needs, de­sires, bud­get or time­line,” she ex­plains.

Ac­cord­ing to tour op­er­a­tor In­trepid, fe­male solo-trav­eller book­ings in Canada have in­creased 45 per cent since 2016. Of course it – and other in­dus­try play­ers – is happy to re­spond to the grow­ing trend. In March, the com­pany launched fe­male-only de­par­tures to Mo­rocco, Iran and Jor­dan, not­ing that “women are feel­ing more em­pow­ered than ever and we wanted to be a part of that.” On In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day, Trafal­gar Tours launched the so­cial me­dia cam­paign #SheGoes, high­light­ing in­spi­ra­tional itin­er­ar­ies such as In­dia (“She Goes to Re­flect”) and Costa Rica (“She Goes to Es­cape”).

Ho­tels are jump­ing on board, too. In June, SuperShe – a fe­male-only lux­ury re­treat with a richkid sum­mer-camp vibe on a pri­vate is­land off the coast of Fin­land – opened to bring women to­gether and al­low them to re­lax with­out men. And St. Giles ho­tel group re­cently launched a “Go Solo, Go St. Giles” pro­gram – with in­cen­tives for women, in­clud­ing a ded­i­cated concierge ser­vice and mi­crosite with travel tips – at their prop­er­ties in New York, Lon­don, Syd­ney and Penang.

“Solo travel is free­ing and con­fi­dence-build­ing,” says Abi­gail Tan-Giroud, the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive and a fre­quent trav­eller her­self.

“It makes women feel like the world is their oys­ter.”

We don’t need to rely on any­body to fol­low our dreams any more. It’s lib­er­at­ing to do it by your­self.”

MICHELLE PONTO

DANIEL BURKA/UNSPLASH

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF IN­TREPID TRAVEL; WILD WOMEN EX­PE­DI­TIONS; TRAFAL­GAR; CATHER­INE AEPPEL/SUPERSHE

From top left: An In­trepid Travel tour stop at Amer Fort in Jaipur, In­dia. A Wild Women Ex­pe­di­tion in Patag­o­nia, a Trafal­gar tour in Dubrovnik, Croa­tia, and SuperShe Is­land in Fin­land.

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF MICHELLE PONTO, ONEIKA RAY­MOND, JEN­NIFER HAD­DOW, WILD WOMEN EX­PE­DI­TIONS.

Solo trav­ellers, clock­wise from top left: Michelle Ponto, travel re­porter Oneika Ray­mond; Jen­nifer Had­dow, owner of New­found­land-based Wild Women Ex­pe­di­tions, in Thai­land; and Jan­ice Waugh at the Great Wall of China.

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