Statistics say that globally, women travellers are increasingly forming the highest growth segment in the travel industry. A recent report, brought out by the Singapore-based Mastercards International, nails the argument.
Based on a survey of 13 countries in the Asia Pacific region, including India, the report shows that the ratio of male to female travellers has catapulted from a 90:10 ratio 30 years ago to a 60:40 level currently. This suggests that today 56 million of the 139 million travellers in this region are women, and by 2011, if the growth continues with the same intensity, they may even surpass men.
In India, a gender breakdown of travellers is almost unheard of. The Ministry of Tourism has no data; neither do trade bodies like the Indian Association of Travel Operators (IATO) and the Federation of Hotels and Restaurants of India (FHRI).
For an accurate segmentation of 2004's 300 million domestic tourists, an intensive web search also proves unproductive. The only authentic gender information on the 5 million inbound tourists and the 6 million outbound tourists estimated this year (2005) lies with the notoriously secretive Immigration Department.
Despite this appalling lack of data within the trade and official establishment, there is an absolute conviction that women are coming into their own as far as travelling is concerned. Far from being simply part of conventional pilgrimage tours, women are travelling as business executives, as part of leisure groups and even solo.
Subhash Goyal, President of IATO, and proprietor of Stic Travels, one of the country's largest travel agencies, believes that the increase in this segment has been 30 per cent over the past three years. He recalls how in the late 1970s he had organized a group of 100 women from the Lakshmi Club of Ludhiana to travel to Japan. "At that time it was an unheard of for so many women to travel abroad without the supervision of their husbands or any male escorts. Now my company routinely organizes such groups."
Internally, too, the travel industry and the establishment has cottoned on to the potential of this niche market. Unfortunately, reactions have been limited to providing services for the up-market frequent fliers rather than providing basic facilities like clean toilets to the "run of the
mill" woman traveller. Most of the facilities come with a patina of corporate blandness.
With crime, molestations and rape - a chronic feature of India's turbulent landscape - upper crust hotels are hard selling their properties by promoting the security and special facilities they provide for the physical and psychological well being of their female guests. For instance, chains like the Oberoi Group and ITC Limited provide dedicated floors for their female clientele. The Leela Kampinsky in Mumbai has a wing reserved for its women guests. The Taj's Residency in Bangalore provides a screen next to the guest's bed to see who is ringing the bell. Specially deputed women butlers for room service, intimate breakfast rooms, companion services, screened calls, women tour guides are all apart of the deal to make a harried women executive feel "safe" for a steep price.
As for travel arrangements, Ankur Bhatia, who runs Amadeus, an online travel booking, says, many travel agencies give special discounted fares to women and throw value add-ons to their itineraries like a shopping spree to attract women.
In a sense, the escalation in this segment was waiting to happen. Ever since the 1991 economic reforms took place, travel for personal pleasure lost its exalted status: from being a luxury indulged in only by the really creamy layer, it became an almost routine activity. But even then, women were not making inroads. This despite the fact that within a family, inevitably, it was the woman of the house who made the travel arrangements.
The doors opened a little wider with the '90s. The BPO revolution, the return of the Leave Travel Concession to government employees and the removing of ceilings on foreign exchange for travel - all helped to stroke the temptation to travel. As disposable incomes increased amongst women so did confidence levels. "The propensity to travel was more the result of affluence than biology," explains Nina Rao, who teaches Travel and Tourism in Delhi University and is associated with an NGO, Equations, that focuses on tourism policy issues.
The urge to cross the seven seas was further triggered by technology. Access to information available on the internet fuelled the market potential. Women grabbed the opportunity and were willing and happy to travel independently.
But somehow, even today, women travellers in India are far from being adventurous divas, ditching the daily grind, struggling against odds to conquer the last frontier. They don't appear as radical disturbers of the peace. For the most part these tourists come from elite background opting for safe group tours reminiscent of the package tours originally started by Thomas Cook for the ladies of the Victorian era way back in the 1900s.
Typically, today, independent women travellers range from the early 20s to late 60s. The younger travellers tend to be single, working women and more creative in their choice of destinations. The older travellers, unburdened by familial responsibility and economic disadvantages are forming a new segment: Well past their 50s, they are old enough to use prudently accumulated life savings and not too young to be hampered by demanding husbands and children. Like Pashi Sareen, 72, who is coordinating a trip for 30 women next year to China. Last year she, along with her friends, visited Pakistan.
Unlike their western counterparts, Asian women travellers still hanker for family connections, so they relish the shared experience while travelling. Often times, women travellers from this region follow an inter-generational approach: Very well-heeled grandmothers travel together with their travel savvy daughters and her tech savvy grandchildren.
Women travelling for pleasure may be a privileged activity; it may not have caused a social transformation but its very presence is changing mindsets leading to progressive thinking.