Like-minded ladies

Indian women are going places. Quite literally.

Thanks to burgeoning all-women travel clubs in India, the ladies are now winging their way to exotic holiday destinations, trying out fun things like bungee jumping, scuba diving and parasailing and indulging in shopping excursions without pesky kids, hubbies or boyfriends holding them back.

Though exclusive women travel clubs have been a part of the western travel lexicon for long, such outfits were eschewed by Indians due to conservative societal norms. However, changing social and professional dynamics have led to a paradigm shift in outlook. With more and more women earning well, marrying late and travelling alone on work, a need to break free from domestic monotony and corporate stress was born.

And it is this exponentially growing segment of the single female traveller that savvy women entrepreneurs are cashing in on.

Shireen Mehra, who runs a travel agency in New Delhi, launched Women on Clouds (WOC), a women’s travel group, in 2008.

“WOC was formed with the idea to cater to women who either needed a break from the stress of work or simply loved travelling,” says Shireen.

She feels that due to safety concerns, most parents or spouses don’t approve of their women travelling on their own. Neither can they always accompany the ladies which leads to frustration amongst both parties.

It is such situations that exclusive women travel clubs help diffuse. Also, the process to enrol is really simple. One becomes a “member’’ after paying a registration fee and is then kept in the loop about the club’s upcoming trips via e-mail and newsletters.

The clientele of these outfits is a good mix of diverse age groups, family backgrounds and professions, so itineraries are designed accordingly.

“So popular have our trips been,” admits Shireen, “that sometimes we even get calls from men who want to book their wives, mothers and sisters to travel with us!”

Girls on the Go (GOG), founded by Piya Bose, has been a hit with Mumbai women ever since it launched last October and claims over 500 members on its rolls.

“There’s nothing like a group of girls ganging up,” laughs Piya.

“But more than the big cities, I was pleasantly surprised to get an overwhelming response from smaller towns. Even poorer states are full of enterprising women who want to break away from the humdrum of regular life to experience independent travel.”

So GOG aims at pushing women out of their homes and office cubicles to take a trip with a bunch of women they have never met before.

Sumitra Senapaty launched Women On Wanderlust (WOW) in 2005 to get together women bitten by the travel bug for exciting holidays. Today, the club claims a membership “database of roughly 3,000 women’’.

WOW, which has made trips to Eastern Europe, Prague, Italy, South Africa and China usually pegs its trips around Rs90,000 (RM6,579) per head for an eight-night/nine-day trip abroad and Rs40,000 (RM2,923) for a trip in India for the same duration.

The Chennai-based Duchess Club (DC), which also specialises in all-women travel, usually charges around Rs50,000 (RM3,654) for a week-long trip abroad. WOC, however, has offers to suit almost all pockets as their weekend getaways (two nights/three days) cost between Rs6,000-Rs 6,500 (RM438-RM475) per head, including boarding, food, travel etc.

Indulgence apart, the travel experience also packs in the opportunity to network and connect with like-minded people.

“Most of the people of my travel group are professionals — doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, teachers, entrepreneurs — independent women that is,” says Piya.

Networking, therefore, seems a natural for independent, educated women who get together to de-stress or indulge in a common passion — travelling.

“Travelling is also the best way to acquire skills such as confidence, self sufficiency and flexibility. We provide the perfect platform for it as we focus mainly on adventure, camping and a lot of physical activities,” says Shireen, who also offers a yoga-adventure package and has got her clients to do rock climbing, river crossing, bungee jumping and many other interesting activities.

The exclusive tours range from group adventures to relaxing getaways to cultural travel experiences.

“I thought I might take time to loosen up with others as a solo traveller,” says Shradha Bhradwaj, an interior designer, who has been on all-women’s trips with two travel clubs, “but I surprised myself at how quickly I bonded with the other women.”

Adds Bhavna Sharma, a Delhi-based architect, “I think one bonds very well on these trips because you’re with new people. So your guard is down and you’re less inhibited and more willing to share experiences.”

That there are no scruffy tour operators herding you like sheep or hurrying you from one spot to another aids the bonding process.

WOC is smartly advertised on social networking sites like Facebook. But more than advertising, it is the word-by-mouth publicity which works most for such outfits.

“From chalking out a good itinerary to being extra particular about the hygiene and the safety of the travellers, I push myself to make a difference to women’s vacations,” says Piya.

GOG designs customised itineraries after factoring in the age groups and fitness levels of travellers. So, even if you are in your 60s, you can sign up.

“We usually get women in their 30s and 40s, but we’ve gone on trips with women aged 18 to 65,” says the DC spokesperson.

“I get many female pairs as well, like mother-daughters and aunt-nieces, who come along just to spend quality time together as well as be free to do what they like when they travel. I’ve noticed that it is an important factor because most tour operators make the itinerary suffocating with no freedom to do your own thing,” says Shireen.

Of course, what has also helped spur the growth of these ventures is that in the face of a bruising economic meltdown, travel is one sector that has remained recession-proof. In fact, it is on an upswing with more and more people packing their bags and heading off to holiday hotspots, hoping to make the most of the good deals that the downturn has to offer.

After Sheila Dhera, 61, lost her husband a decade ago, she began feeling depressed. She mourned for a year, and hung out with other friends who were widowed. But when money from her husband’s insurance plan funded her trip to Europe with a female companion, Sheila’s life took a sharp turn.

“I now travel regularly with women’s groups and have made many friends,” she beams.

Like Aparna Batra, 44, who too, has been on many trips.

“Earlier,” she says, “I’d always travel with family or friends. Moreover, my husband isn’t always free to travel. So when I signed up for a trip to Greece-Istanbul, he was surprised that I was going with people I didn’t know. But it was great; the places we visited were beautiful and it was simply great bonding with other women of all age groups.”

Be it dancing under the stars, shopping without being shouted at by family members or talking about anything under the sun, an all-women’s trip is a different high altogether. And long after the trip is over, good memories are the ones that linger.

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