NYTIMES - Taking some time off from a tech job in Chicago this year to contemplate a career move, Shannon Elarton signed up to visit Tanzania in May with AdventureWomen, a women-only tour company, on a hunch that she might gain some perspective from her fellow travellers.
She was also, she said, "craving something deeper than you would get in a basic tour" and got it one day when the company owner, Judi Wineland, introduced the group to 12 women from a local Masai community. Through interpreters, the assembled talked for more than two hours about subjects from female genital mutilation in Africa to divorce in the United States.
"By the time it was finished, it was the biggest gift for me," she said. "At the end of the day, we all want the same things: to have work, to provide for our family, to have a family."
Travelling to experience such personal connections and search one's soul isn't limited to women, of course. But a rise in the number of women-only trips, both from new companies and established ones, suggests women are keen to wander well beyond resorts touting girlfriend getaway packages and mother-daughter spa retreats.
"It's more than yoga and wellness now," said Samantha Brown, the television host of Samantha Brown's Places To Love, noting the rise of women-only learning trips. "It's empowerment through a skill set."
"When women make connections with other women who are very different than they are, it's an invitation to see the world through another woman's lens, to see all that we have in common, and an opportunity to develop more empathy and compassion for women, and the world around us," said Mary Cecchini, who left her corporate career in 2014 to found Living Big, an adventure travel company.
Judi Wineland, a veteran of the adventure travel industry, acquired AdventureWomen, one of the oldest women-only specialists, last year and brought in her 28- and 30-year-old daughters to help run the company. New trips include viewing the northern lights in Finland and seeing orangutans in Indonesia and offer women-to-women exchanges with locals, from female politicians to divers for pearl oysters in Japan.
"We're a relationship company, and our medium is travel, and our travel is to less-visited places off the beaten path," Wineland said.
Among new women-focused companies, Living Big offers small group trips to places like Iceland and Kauai where the focus is on adventure (the eight-day trip to the Hawaiian island of Kauai in May costs US$3,649, or S$4,975). But it also guides trips to Italy and New Orleans where the emphasis might shift to food or music, and customises trips for solo travellers and small groups.
Allison Fleece and Danielle Thornton founded WHOA Travel in 2013 in a moment of inspiration after their own exhilarating climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. WHOA, which stands for Women High on Adventure, runs trips around the world, but its Kilimanjaro trips remain popular (from US$3,400 for nine days).
"It's safer, and there's built-in camaraderie when you're sharing experiences," Thornton said.
Long-established, but new to the gender-specific tour, Austin Adventures will offer three new women-only itineraries. The tours are led by Kasey Austin Morrissey, the 28-year-old daughter of the company's owner, Dan Austin; she has worked in the family business since she was 11 and is the company's vice president for operations. She considers adventure trips the new spa getaways, places where women "are looking to challenge themselves and their friends by pushing their limits together". Trips include nine days in Costa Rica in March (from US$3,498) and from six days in Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in May (from US$2,798).
Responding to a rise in women travelling on its regular itineraries last year - 65 per cent versus 55 per cent the year prior - and the requests of its clients, Exodus Travels just announced 12 departures dedicated to and guided by women. They range from 15 days touring Iran (from US$3,715) to eight days walking in Italy (US$1,705) and five days climbing Mount Toubkal in Morocco (from US$545).