After Sheila Lakhanpal, 65, lost her husband a decade ago, she began feeling listless. She mourned for a year, and hung out with other friends who were widowed. But when money from her husband's insurance plan funded an impromptu trip to Europe with a female companion, Lakhanpal's life wheeled back on track. "I realised I'd been bit by the travel bug, and was inspired to see many more places. I did several other small budget trips to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Egypt with the same friend. But we always had to take into account each other's prior commitments and then plan a tour," she recalls.
Luckily for women like her, the growing need for all-female trips is beginning to be acknowledged. Just last year, a young finance lawyer quit her job to start Girls on the Go, a travel club catering only to women. Piya Bose-Desai, 26, did a bit of advertising and set off to Leh-Ladakh for 10 days with 24 enthusiastic women, one of whom was Lakhanpal. "I've been a solo traveller since the age of 16, and saw that not many Indian women travel on their own, unlike their Western counterparts. Some that I spoke to said they felt restricted when they went on trips with husbands and extended families," recalls Bose-Desai, whose trip from Nepal to Tibet served as inspiration to take women like herself to Ladakh. "It was a challenging destination but it worked; I got great feedback. The ages of the women ranged from 18 to 65 years. My freelance work with travel agencies in the past helped me a great deal in organising the trip. I'm already planning another trip to Konkan in December and a luxury tour to Rajasthan in January," she says.
The pioneer in this field, Sumitra Senapaty, 48, who founded Women on Wanderlust (WoW) in 2005, says this was a great idea just waiting to happen. "I'd been travelling alone all my life and knew many women who wanted to travel but couldn't. WoW was formed to give women the platform to not just travel but also get out there, socialise and make new friends. They're just more evolved as a species," says the Senapaty, who has done everything from kayaking through the South China Sea and camping in the African bush to driving across New Zealand and sailing the waters of Seychelles and Maldives.
The entrepreneur is quick to clarify, however, that WoW is not a travel agency. "It's a club, a social group. Women who travelled on WoW's first trip to Ladakh in the summer of 2005 are still travelling today because they have a lot of fun when they get together. And the group is a heady mix of women of all ages and stages - young, not-so-young, young-at-heart, single, divorced, heartbroken," she says.
Some of Senapaty's most popular trips include destinations like South Africa, Greece, Turkey, Europe, Egypt and China. The travellers say they find cost-effectiveness as well as safety in an all-women group. Like Aparna Pal-Chauhan, 44, who has been on three WoW trips, says, "I had always travelled with family or friends. And my husband isn't always free to travel. Besides, I'm a history buff and he isn't. So when I signed up for a WoW trip to Greece-Istanbul, he was surprised that I was going with people I didn't know at all. But it was great; the places we visited were beautiful, and I paid Rs 75,000 (US$1=Rs 50) for nine days, which I thought was complete value for money."
Clubs such as Girls on the Go and WoW have answered the travel prayers of many urban women. Senapaty, however, says that her patrons are not just women from Mumbai and Delhi but other metros and smaller towns as well. "I even have NRIs and foreign nationals coming along. But a majority of the participants are working professionals, pursuing careers in neurosurgery and chartered accountancy," she says, ruling out religious destinations because professional are thought to be less religious.
Bose-Desai's experience is slightly different, perhaps because she is currently tapping only domestic destinations. "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 nearly suffocating, with no leeway to do your own thing," she says.
Lawyer Sheetal Kumar, 40, and her 18-year-old niece recently hopped on to the Ladakh trip organised by Bose-Desai, and came back wanting more. "I agreed to it instantly because it was an all-girls trip. My niece and I were both craving for a break so it was perfect. Our family members were a little apprehensive because they felt we might, in fact, attract more attention because we're all women. But I thought we were very safe and, despite being strangers, we ended up bonding very well," she recalls. (WFS)