On March 8, International Women’s Day, Intrepid Travel launched a new range of women-only trips to the Middle East that product manager Jenny Gray believes will help “break down the cultural barriers of traditional tourism”.
Gray, who created the range, says the idea was sparked by feedback from clients who had travelled to the Middle East with Intrepid.
The three Women’s Expeditions, which visit Morocco, Jordan and Iran, allow female travellers an authentic glimpse into the countries while respecting cultural boundaries.
“Each country has its own unique cultural and religious factors, which can mean that local interaction is challenging and complex for mixed-gender groups,” explains Gray when I ask why Intrepid chose these specific countries for its all-female adventures.
She cites the example of desert camps in Jordan’s Wadi Rum, which are only operated by men. “In these close confines, it’s not socially accepted for men to be alone with our female travellers, so the opportunities for interaction on mixed-group tours has been limited,” she says.
By the same token, until now most opportunities for Intrepid’s tours to spend time with local women have been in the presence of men, in “a controlled environment”.
The all-female trips also have an important role to play in challenging misconceptions and stereotypes about the countries they visit.
“The kind of experiences we’ve included will give female travellers real first-hand insight into the daily lives of a breadth of local women: young, old, conservative, modern, religious and otherwise,” explains Gray.“It’s about breaking down barriers and fostering genuine discussions and connections.”
Gray cites the example of Iran as a country that often surprises visitors. “They think it’s going to be just like Saudi Arabia – that women aren’t allowed to drive, work or get an education, and that they’re highly conservative and religious,” she says.
While this side of Iran certainly exists, Gray says clients are often amazed to discover that half of Iran’s population is under 35 and has a more relaxed religious outlook.
The new trips are guided by local female leaders and include a variety of authentic experiences – from visiting a beauty salon in Iran and sharing traditional female-only customs such as henna nights in Jordan, to spending a day eating, working and sleeping alongside local women in rural Morocco.
“Each of the itineraries was put together by different destination managers and operations teams with a wealth of knowledge and experience in the places we visit,” explains Gray.
“We knew there was an amazing opportunity here to take our female travellers behind closed doors, so we looked for experiences and destinations that our mixed-gender groups didn’t have access to.”
Gray says the response has been “overwhelmingly positive” among travellers, travel agents and across the industry.
All trips have hit and exceeded minimum numbers and Intrepid has added additional departures for 2018.
Gray hopes to be able to expand the limited-edition range to make it permanent in the long term and is looking at potential destinations for 2019.
Intrepid’s tour leaders and local operations teams have also been receptive to the new trips. “They’ve been really excited to get these off the ground, so there’s been no challenge too big for them,” Gray adds.
While she notes that the all-female concept is still “quite foreign” to some local suppliers, she’s delighted they’re happy to get onboard.
“We’ve worked with a local Bedouin sheikh in Wadi Rum for years, where we’ve had exclusive access to his desert camp,” she says.
“For this trip, we’ve arranged for the drivers to depart camp so travellers can be joined by local Bedouin women. This is an honour, as these ladies of the desert are rarely seen, and are usually very reluctant to mix with visitors.
“This was something the sheikh has never done before, but he was open to the idea, as were the Bedouin women, and that in itself is really positive.”
It’s proof that the women-only trips are breaking new ground both in destination and on home soil.