Blerina Ago ranks among the success stories of women adventure tourism entrepreneurs worldwide by the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
As a woman in the adventure travel industry for over 20 years, I have been surrounded by men in leadership positions. Sprinkled in between them have been women who many in the adventure travel community know—Trish Sare (BikeHike Adventures), Tullia Cabellero (S-Cape Travel), sisters Maria Elena and Monica Price (ExperiencePlus!), Ana Figueroa (Adventure & Landscape), and so many others. What is exciting to discover is that there are more and more women joining them and leading adventure travel into the future.
“We are always evolving and we are discovering ourselves and today I am here in front of you with a new Active Albania initiative that promotes authentic experiences of Albania and the region and supports responsible tourism initiatives. It is an innovative venture run 70% by girls, who are constantly committed on the basis of 3 principles: sustainability-sustainability-sustainability. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us of the importance of this word.” Blerina Ago, Active Albania
Women Businesses – Women Focus
Businesses in countries across the world from Croatia, Albania, and Italy to the United States, India, and Mongolia run by women are looking carefully at their operations and making it a priority to work with women-owned suppliers, women guides, women craftspeople, and with local communities. Some of these businesses focus on or offer women-only trips, giving women the space and opportunity to travel in a way that may feel more safe, comfortable, inspiring, or fun.
Veselka Hulji, owner of AndAdventure in Croatia is one such example, as well as Poonam Rawat-Hahne in India. Poonam started Fernweh Fair Travel to create authentic immersive experiences that value sustainable tourism. To do this, Fernweh Fair Travel works with local women to help train and develop their skills as artisans, tour guides, homestay hosts, and more. Their purpose is to uplift rural communities in the Indian Himalayas and help guests leave transformed, with a deep understanding of local culture and knowledge.
Another example is Tahitian Adventure owned by Lois Stogdill. Their tours are designed to support small local businesses, and women-owned tour operators in the islands are their preferred partners. They even work with elderly women as teachers, so they can impart their knowledge to a new generation.
A couple of examples in the U.S. include a mountain bike company and a yoga business. Julie Hanen from Ride the Earth shared, “So many women that I have guided over the years are always telling me that they rarely get out on their bike without their partner (who is usually a male). I strive to create opportunities to get women out on their bikes where they can learn new skills, meet other women riders, and most of all, discover how strong and capable they are. One of my favorite things about what I do is showing a woman that she can do way more than she ever gave herself credit for.”
Jennifer Hoddevik owns and operates The Travel Yogi. They focus on adventure, wellness, body positivity, climate initiatives, and environmental impact with a majority of women trip leaders and predominantly female travelers. The Travel Yogi is also a Tomorrow’s Air education partner, showing their commitment to climate action.
Ashley Blake of Traverse Journeys operates her trips around the globe with an all-female team. Even though their trips are not just for women they offer travel tips, work with female photographers and women-owned restaurants, and each trip gives a donation back to communities visited, many of them women cooperatives.
Women Conservationists & Community Activists
Around the world women fight for land and community rights, both key to the long-term sustainability of adventure travel. Without wild spaces to explore and unique cultures to experience and understand, the magical elements of adventure are lost. Those moments spent overlooking wide-open landscapes from a hike, crashing through a river rapid on a raft, or having a cup of tea with a local business owner or community member brings peace, mental and physical health, and inspiration.
One of the women leading the way is Vanessa Marino of Amazon Emotions. For over 23 years she has combined her conservation and adventure tourism passions. She works with indigenous communities in Brazil, looking at both the impacts and benefits of tourism and supporting their self-governance, economic alternatives, and traditional ways of life.
In Canada, an inspiring young woman, Teara Fraser, founded KÎSIK Aerial Survey Inc.; the Raven Institute; Indigenous LIFT Collective; and Iskwew Air, a 100% Indigenous female-owned business that celebrates matriarchal leadership and champions women in aviation. The first Canadian airline to be founded and owned by an Indigenous woman, Iskwew Air shares the history and culture of the Indigenous peoples while connecting travelers to remote BC communities. During COVID-19, Iskwew Air pivoted and began transporting essential services and supplies to hard-to-reach communities.
And another great story comes from Africa where at Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy Bike Enterprise, trained women bicycle mechanics have earned enough money from the sales of bikes to resupply their bike shop eight times at $15,000 each. They are in turn paying the school tuition for orphans and vulnerable children.
Another well-known female leader in conservation is Kristine Tompkins (see ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell’s Campfire Chat with her here). In addition to Kristine, Sofia Heionnen in Argentina and Carolina Morgado in Chile drive the Tompkins Conservation mission forward along with fellow female staff members working as biologists and veterinarians.
Also in South America, several businesses support women through their trip operations. Vamos Expeditions is owned by Annelies Hamerlinck; their tours benefit local women through homestays and community-based tourism projects. Amity Tours has worked with Mapuche women in the Chilean, Argentine, and Patagonian region for many years. Working with the community, travelers experience the traditions of the indigenous peoples. Amity Tours now offers a women-only trip that focuses on the lifestyle of these local women. Tierra Hotels collaborates with Sandra Naiman, a Williche entrepreneur in Quincaho, an island on the Chiloé Archipelago. Sandra plays a key role in the island’s culture of keeping the Williche agricultural traditions alive. The collaboration with Tierra Chiloé has allowed her to develop her orchard and promote sustainable farming practices on the island, empowering herself and other women who dedicate their lives to traditional farming.
Around the world, companies have worked to hire and train more women guides. This month Switzerland launched an ambitious new initiative called 100% Women. The program is created by women for women, with the aim of connecting women travelers and giving them perspectives on new experiences. At MySwitzerland.com/women, there are 230 offers with the aim to bring women together and experience Switzerland with a 100% focus. The majority of the offerings are about outdoor sports, all led by female guides, and also only bookable by women.
In Mongolia, Jessica Brooks, owner of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia shared, “As a female business owner, it is important to me to use my skills and influence to improve the prospects for other women. An integral part of our business philosophy is empowering women through travel and tourism (we use 6 of the 17 SDGs for measuring our impact including SDG 5) and we do that by providing training, development, and long-term employment opportunities to Mongolian women that want the opportunity to work in tourism (whether that be for a professional reason, for the development of personal skills or for economic empowerment).”
Her reason for having all-female guides is especially inspiring. “In addition, because all of our guides are women, we run a women-only tour. Unlike most female only experiences, we haven’t just replicated standard tour itineraries and just made them female only. Instead, we have designed our female-only tour experience to allow female travellers a unique opportunity to discover the challenges and lives of local women in Mongolia through a range of experiences. Our experience gives our female guests the chance to understand the breadth and depth of the careers and lives of women in Mongolia as they experience their daily lives side by side with them.”
Additional examples of women guides include the Emboo River Camp in the Maasai Mara, where they recently hired a female safari guide. She’s also the first female guide to drive an electric safari vehicle in the Mara. In Alberta, Canada Yamnuska Mountain Adventures trains women in a specific guiding program, and master Interpretive Guide Brenda Holdercan be found leading groups with Mahikan Trails. Finally, Speyside Wildlife in Scotland, owned by Sally Dowden, has been able to tap into a program called “Women in Rural Areas” that helps fund women to attend their 12-month Wildlife Identification Qualification course. They hope this will support more careers for women within the wildlife tourism sector as historically students have become guides for Speyside Wildlife.
Women Travelers Only
Adventure travel great Judi Wineland, known for the many Thompson branded travel businesses, founded AdventureWomen with her two daughters and invites women to unite and travel together while focusing on female connection. Since COVID-19 struck, they have not only created several new domestic departures but also launched new international itineraries. These adventures include meaningful women-to-women exchanges across the world—with innovative education leaders in Morocco, local artisans in Thailand, pearl divers in Japan and beer “sommeliers” in Canada. Meetings allow for the bridging of cultural boundaries and discovery of common causes, bringing together women from vastly different backgrounds across the globe.