Women's travel clubs in India going places

Women's travel clubs in India going places

FIVE years ago, Ms Piya Bose gave up a career as a corporate lawyer to start a women's travel club. She called her Web-based club Girls on the Go to reach out to women who wanted to travel but were worried about their safety or had husbands or families opposed to a woman travelling on her own.

"When I started travelling, there was hardly a concept of women travelling without family or close friends," she said. "Now, it's changed." Ms Bose, 30, was bitten by the travel bug on a student exchange programme to Britain at the age of 16. She started her business on a zero cash business model and organises 15 trips in India and overseas every year.

"I take 15 to 20 in a group. The idea is to create the ambience of a club," she said. "You go to a club and meet new people and make new friends. So as part of the club ambience, for instance, we have wine evenings or spa days."

Her groups range from housewives and students to working women in their 20s to 60s.

Women make up 22 per cent of the workforce and a recent study by market research firm IMRB found that their average salary had doubled in urban India in the last decade. Some rough estimates by travel experts put the growth of women travellers at 10 per cent to 15 per cent a year.

"People do have a lot of disposable income and are looking to spend it on something worthwhile," said Ms Bose. "They don't mind stretching their budget for a good travel experience."

Thus, travel clubs like Girls on the Go and others have popped up in India, targeted at women willing to shell out from 15,000 rupees (S$315) to over 400,000 rupees for a trip.

"The trigger is that women have money of their own," said Mr Kabir Vasudeva, an independent travel consultant.

From a sea walk in the Andamans to shopping in Singapore or making pottery on a farm in India, women are up for it, say the entrepreneurs behind the travel clubs.

Ms Shireen Mehra, 32, an air hostess who runs Women on Clouds, went from organising one trip in one to two months to two to four trips a month in the last four years.

"It's not like women haven't travelled in India, but they are hesitant about travelling alone because of safety... clubs like mine - we provide safety in numbers," said Ms Mehra, who worked as a flight attendant for Qatar Airways before starting Women on Clouds.

"We do recces of places and speak to local vendors and transporters," she said. "We plan hotel accommodation and we will not pick one in the middle of nowhere because it's women travelling."

Women's safety issues have been in the forefront since the fatal gang rape of a Delhi woman in December last year triggered major changes to India's anti-rape legislation.

Adding to the fear was the gang rape of a Swiss tourist while camping with her husband in the state of Madhya Pradesh on March 15, followed four days later by the case of a 32-year-old British woman jumping from the second floor of her hotel to escape a sexual assault, and the rape of a US woman in the tourist city of Manali on June 5.

But Ms Mehra said that the rape cases had not stopped women from travelling.

Ms Swati Swarnkar, 28, who works as a freelance trainer at business process outsourcing centres, said: "Women in India are already aware of the issues." In March, she signed up for a trip to neighbouring Bhutan.

While her husband and her family were reluctant to let her go alone, they felt more at ease when they knew she was joining a women's travel club.

"Not everybody has the travel bug so they can't accompany me all the time, so I thought why not try this out," said Ms Swarnkar. "It was also easier to explain to the family."

So with over a dozen other women, Ms Swarnkar went to Bhutan on a trip organised by WOW or Women on Wanderlust, and had the time of her life. "I just liked it. I am planning other trips now," she said. "I think my husband, who can't take as much leave, is a little jealous now."

Women for Wanderlust, or the WOW Club, started by travel writer Sumitra Senapathy eight years ago, is believed to be the pioneering women's travel club. It organises 80 tours every year.

"The composition of the groups is very varied - single, widowed, working, self-employed, housewife, but mostly from metros, though we have started getting women from smaller cities, as their aspiration levels are rising,'' said Mrs Senapathy.

President of the Indian Association of Tour Operators Subhash Goyal reckons that some 20 per cent of travellers going abroad are groups of women.

Ms Ruchira Shukla has been travelling with all-female groups for five years. She has been to Ajanta and Ellora, and the Jaipur literature festival.

"I feel safe to travel without being dependent on anyone else," said the 38-year-old marketing professional with a Japanese multinational company.

"It throws like-minded people together and you can pick and choose the destination."

gnirmala@sph.com.sg

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