For Bangalore-based Sudha Setty, 47, who works with an international NGO, the toss up this year is between touring Guatemala and vacationing on the beaches of Bali, sipping tall drinks and reading books. Setty plans to holiday solo because, “I want some me-time and what better way to completely chill than to go far alone?”
Indian women like Setty are everywhere, holidaying in the sandy deserts of the Rann of Kutch and the houseboats in the backwaters of Kerala, the Amazonian forests and the beaches of Hawaii. Gaggles of women, young and old, sari-clad and otherwise, out in the world by themselves or with fellow women travellers represent the biggest trend in Indian travel.
Women-only travel is one of the fastest growing segments, agrees Rajesh Magow, co-founder and CEO of India’s largest online travel portal, MakeMyTrip. The travel firm’s women-only package tours introduced in 2013 saw a 400 per cent jump last year.
“The year 2015 will see a big spurt in numbers and the jump will significantly alter tourism in India just as weekend travellers transformed Indian tourism in the last decade,” says Hari Nair, founder and CEO of travel and holiday information portal, HolidayIQ.com.
Padmaja Sakhamuri, 50, head of the Crafts Council of Karnataka, travels with her girlfriends at least twice a year. This June, they are headed to Iceland. Sakhamuri personally plans each trip of two to three weeks, customising it for her group of 6 to 8 — even numbers so that sharing four-star hotel rooms and splitting expenses on private guides and hired cars becomes simpler. Sightseeing and museum visits are pre-decided but restaurant visits and shopping are kept open to suit individual tastes. “We pack Indian snacks and ready-to-eat food for spice-craving vegetarians like me,” says Sakhamuri. She and her friends have travelled to 25 countries, including trips to the deserts of Rajasthan, the painted churches of Moldova, the penguins in Argentina and the markets of Morocco.
“Through travel, women are finding their own spaces,” says Sakhamuri, who goes on short trips with her husband, but plans the “real travel” trips with her friends. “The men say they cannot take that much time off so we plan leisurely trips and take in everything — art, nightclubs, fun and shopping.”
The internet allows women travellers to research and check out safe hotels and modes of travel. Setty has been to 43 countries so far, including Oslo, Beijing, Johannesburg and Madrid. “Women are no longer shackled with the need to travel with a man, it is not difficult to connect with like-minded women who want to travel,” she says.
Kumkum Bhuwania, 61, who runs a silk accessories business in Bangalore, has been travelling in women-only groups for the past few years and has covered destinations starting with Coorg to Bhutan, Japan and Russia. “Travelling with educated, independent women is rejuvenating, that is the time when women can get away from their daily routine and just be themselves — not be a wife, daughter, mother or somebody’s something,” says Bhuwania, whose husband cannot travel because of health reasons. Bhuwani is headed to Alaska this May with four friends, and is looking forward to the trip.
Sumitra Senapathy has been a pioneer in the field and her Women on Wanderlust (WOW) platform has long been facilitating women-only tours for Indians. She notes a change, “Earlier too, Indian women were financially independent and had travel dreams, but their families didn’t allow the travel.” Her platform organises over 100 such tours every year and covers everything from Ladakh to Sikkim to Japan, Bolivia and cruises in the Pacific.
Women no longer hesitate in handling the challenges of travel, say tour organisers. A MakeMyTrip survey of women travellers on Facebook showed half of them felt safe travelling in India. Travel blogs and work-related travel, too, are inspiring women to head out by themselves, says Magow of MakeMyTrip.
Even women from small towns like Guwahati, Indore, Gwalior, Hubli and Nasik are signing up for women-only trips.
The story appeared in print with the headline The World is Her Oyster