Women Of The World

For these travelers, part of the adventure is to leave the menfolk behind.

August 11, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

One morning in February, just as dawn broke, Janet Ridgway found herself gazing over the African continent from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It was hard to believe: The 65-year-old former kindergarten teacher with the "short" legs, bundled in a parka, breath streaming out in the thin, frosty air, was standing on the roof of Africa. Awed and humbled, she thought about her late husband, and about the mother who had raised her long ago in a very small, very flat town in Kansas.

Then she posed for photos with her companions, five other women who came together to climb the 19,340-foot peak, and in so doing symbolically joined the growing ranks of women pursuing travel without the company of men.

Not only are more women signing up for active vacations with women-only operators like Adventures in Good Company, the Baltimore-based company that mounted the African journey, they are also taking all-female trips to spas and vineyards, filling up theater and shopping tours, and making pilgrimages to sacred sites.

"Women are one of the most important segments of the adventure travel industry," says Chris Doyle, director of the Seattle-based Adventure Travel Trade Association. "Women make the vast majority of travel decisions in families -- not only the destinations, but the activities. They are the predominant adventure travel planners."

Research by the association also suggests that more women than men are craving adventure travel -- a far cry from the late 1960s when the industry began offering its first whitewater rafting vacations and trekking tours in such places as Kenya and Nepal.

"As we've seen the rise of cultural, environmental and educational tourism in adventure travel, we've also seen the rise of female participation," Doyle notes. "Part of that is due to changes in women's attitudes about their own abilities. As more women participate in such things as fly-fishing, whitewater kayaking and bicycling, we're also seeing concurrent growth in those areas in adventure travel."

As proof, he points to the proliferation of tour operators and companies catering specifically to active women during the past 10 years, at prices ranging from hundreds of dollars for a weekend rafting trip to thousands of dollars for a Kenya walking tour.

A growth industry

Although women-only leisure travel is too diverse to track with hard numbers, anecdotal evidence of growth is apparent. A quick Internet search reveals scores of women-centered travel groups and trips offered by such companies as AdventureWomen, Call of the Wild, Sacred Journeys for Women and Women Traveling Together.

In 1994, when Evelyn Hannon started publishing Journeywoman, a woman's travel resource, she had 2,000 readers and 10 advertisers. Now online, the Journeywoman Web site gets more than 2,500 hits a day and has more than 150 women-oriented travel advertisers. Her free electronic newsletter has roughly 50,000 subscribers.

The 65-year-old Toronto editor estimates tens of thousands of women are traveling on their own or linking up with other women.

"When the big travel companies started adding women-only trips onto their subsidiaries, you began to understand how popular this has become," she says. "This is more than a trend, it's a fact of life."

Tour operator Maupintour launched its Gutsy Women travel division in 2002 with 15 trips for women. Next year it will offer 35, including cruises and trips to spas.

"When we looked at developing new markets, we found that a staggering 40 percent of women over 40 were single, either never married, divorced or widowed, and that that number had grown dramatically," says April Merenda, vice president for Gutsy Women. "Of the women who were married, we found 50 percent had traveled somewhere without their spouse in the past year."

Smaller groups

Founded in 1999, Adventures in Good Company operates about 35 trips a year, including international excursions. Each is generally limited to a dozen women or fewer.

"On larger tours, you may connect with certain individuals, but you don't get that sense of connecting as a whole group," says owner and Baltimore native Marian Marbury. "This really becomes like traveling with a group of good friends, and you can talk about a wider range of subjects."

Trained as an epidemiologist, the 53-year-old outdoors enthusiast started her business after serving part-time as an instructor for Outward Bound, Wilderness Inquiry and Woodswomen, one of the country's earliest women-only travel outfits. When Woodswomen closed in the late 1990s, Marbury decided to take over its business, using her expertise -- as well as the services of other guides she knew -- to expand the scope of active vacations.

This year, business has increased by 60 percent, she says. As much as 70 percent of Marbury's new business comes from women browsing the Internet while the rest comes from referrals. Approximately a third of this year's customers traveled on previous tours.

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