The rise of female adventure tour guides

Did you know that at least 60% of the global tourism workforce is female, despite the fact that just 23% of board members in the industry are women? And there’s one corner of tourism where women are particularly underrepresented, especially when it comes to female tour guides: adventure travel.

According to adventure tour operator Untamed Borders, just 3% of accredited international mountain guides are women, and in countries where women’s educational opportunities and cultural expectations are limited, women are much more likely to take on lower-paid cleaning and clerical roles than guiding roles. These are the women that keep the world of travel turning – and are most likely to have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But change is in the air.

The three following women, hailing from rural regions of Afghanistan, India and Morocco, represent the green shoots of a cultural shift towards women taking adventure tour guiding roles in global regions where this is unheard of. It’s partly down to the diversification work of companies such as Intrepid Travel, Responsible Travel, GAdventures and Untamed Borders, which are all committed to employing and training more female adventure travel guides.

The solo female travel trend has been growing in popularity in recent years, with Google Trends reporting a 131% rise in interest in 2019. Female-only tours from operators like Intrepid and SmarTours are providing more opportunities for female tour guides than ever before, some in conservative destinations such as Iran, Morocco, Nepal and Jordan, as well as experiences exclusively for women, for their guests. This could mean kohl beauty treatments in Jordan or trying on traditional wedding clothes in Morocco: the world of women that’s not accessible to men in those countries.

“Representation is a fundamental component of achieving equality and access to opportunities,” says Jenna Howieson, Inclusion and Diversity Lead at Skyscanner. “That’s why it’s so important to empower and celebrate the incredible women working in the tourism and tour guide industry. Through training and working as tour guides, women have access to financial autonomy and a well-respected job that connects them to the rest of the world. I hope that tour operators and those working in the travel industry will continue to connect with, amplify and empower even more female tour guides in the future.”

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate some of the women breaking the mould in the world of adventure guiding.

The first female guide in Morocco’s Aït Bouguemez valley: Chama

Credit: Liz Seabrook
Credit: Liz Seabrook

In the High Atlas Mountains, the serene Aït Bouguemez valley is home to many striking things: the towering summit of Morocco’s third-highest mountain, the M’Goun Massif; the rose-coloured, sleepy city of Azilal; indigenous Berber tribes; and a plucky young tour guide making it her mission to break down barriers wherever she goes.

“People say that women can’t do this job,” says Chama Ouammi. “They say it’s too hard for women to hike 20 kilometres, to carry heavy bags, to walk under the sun for more than four or five hours. Women are only to stay in the house, raising children, cleaning and cooking. But I’m opposed to that because women can do everything that men can do, there’s no difference between us. This is why I took the opportunity to go out of my village: to be a good example for ladies in Morocco and to challenge the obstacles of my society.”

Some of those obstacles were very close to home. After studying computer management, Chama began working as a freelance tour guide in Marrakesh before being headhunted by Intrepid Travel to be one of their first female tour guides on their Moroccan women’s expeditions. The company had lobbied Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism to issue some 100 new tour guide licenses to women, on passing a two-part licensing exam, which Chama benefitted from in 2018. But on qualifying, her uncle made it clear that tour guiding was not a path he approved of for his niece.

“My uncle said you can’t do this job, it’s only for men,” she says. “He said, if I had this job I wouldn’t be able to marry in the future, and people would judge me for travelling with different drivers and men. But he was jealous that I am the first female and youngest guide from my region.”

Luckily, Chama’s parents supported her ambitions and respected her wish to opt out of arranged marriage. It’s this support that not only has given Chama the confidence to boldly follow her career path, but has infused that path with such joy and grace. She’s aware of her good fortune: in rural Morocco, over 70% of women are illiterate and arranged marriage, as young as 13 or 14 for girls, is common, typically leading to a life of child-rearing and housework.

“My parents are very smart and always encouraged me to follow my dreams,” she says. “There are ladies in the Berber villages who are very clever, but they can’t finish their studies because no one can support them. I’m happy because I have good, open-minded parents.”

Now working as a freelance tour guide for several tour operators all over Morocco, including Intrepid, Chama gets the most out of the women-only tours that she guides. Speaking five languages and with a warmth that would make any visitor feel welcome, she embodies a kind of joyful, cross-cultural exchange that sometimes, in more conservative societies, is often only accessible between women.

“I really like working with just women because I can talk about anything, and they can too,” she says. “We can stay without headscarves. We can dance together, we can laugh together, in a way that you can’t do when men are there.

“It’s a very real cultural experience, from beginning to end. Some things are only for women.”

The first indigenous female tour guide from northern India: Jangu

Jangu High res4.jpg

India’s West Bengal state encompasses a dizzying range of landscapes, stretching from the tropical mangroves of the Bay of Bengal right up to the foothills of the Himalayas, passing tea fields and plantations along the way. It’s in these foothills that one woman has made history – by becoming the first woman in her indigenous Lepcha tribe to work as a mountain tour guide.

“This path came naturally to me, because I’ve been trekking since childhood and I have knowledge of this area,” says Jangu Lepcha. “I’m blessed to be surrounded by the Himalayas, rivers, forests and birds. All of this motivates me. I’ve wanted to do something like this since my childhood.”

Jangu’s main profession is developing and promoting homestays to tourists visiting her home village of Pedong and the surrounding area. She works as an ad hoc guide for guests travelling to the northern regions of West Bengal, responding to a gap she spotted in the market for a female, English-speaking guide. Capitalising on her lifelong love of nature, she first developed an interest in eco-tourism – and her business concept – while working on a tourism project in Siliguri (three hours’ drive south of Pedong).

“I realised that I could promote and conserve my own rich Lepcha culture through eco-tourism,” she says. “My father always instructed us in our culture and tradition, so I grew up very close to my indigenous culture. We have a unique way of living. The way we dress, our food identity, living habits, architecture.”

But working as a female tour guide was such a novel concept in her community, that Jangu set herself up as a self-employed guide and homestay consultant without even telling her family about her ambitions.

“I don’t know if they would have supported me initially, because I did it completely alone,” she says. “They knew I was into tourism but they didn’t know the passion I had. When I finally told them, they had different expectations – but now they understand and are proud of me.”

The Lepcha tribe, reliant on agriculture, river fishing and foraging medicinal plants from the region’s forests, had different expectations for Jangu, too. But her work has already made an impact on the community’s mindset.

“When I started working in tourism, my people didn’t know what a homestay was and were reluctant to have visitors,” she says. “But since I’ve helped them, homestays and tourism here are becoming very popular.”

It’s just as well, because Jangu is about to launch the project of her dreams: Miknaon, a wellness-oriented homestay in Pedong, due to open in October 2021.

“Being a Lepcha in this region, we own land from our ancestors,” she says. “I want to invite guests from all over the world, be their guide, let them come here to eat good food, do activities, yoga, hiking and be healthy. This is my future goal.”

Afghanistan’s first female tour guide: Fatima

You never know when inspiration might strike. When Fatima was eight years old, she was working as a shepherd – just like many children in the Lal wa Sarjangal district of Ghor province. This mountainous area in Hazarajat, central Afghanistan, relies primarily on agriculture, with families working the same land that Genghis Khan’s Mongol army grazed its horses on, in the early 13th century.

Credit: Untamed Borders
Credit: Untamed Borders

“It may be a little strange to many readers, but running on those high hills after animals was when I was first introduced to guiding and leading a group,” says Fatima (whose surname is omitted for safety reasons). “It was a tough experience, but guiding so many sheep and cows to find their food and enjoy life was a pleasure, too.”

But a long journey lay ahead before Fatima would lead her first group of tourists in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, for adventure tourism operator Untamed Borders in 2020. Age 23 now, she was lucky to receive an education as a child. Designated the least-developed country in the world by the UN, Afghanistan is a challenging place to grow up female: women’s employment opportunities and literacy rates are low, with 2.7 million girls out of school in 2018.

“My family permitted me to participate at a school whose roof was the scorching sun, seats were hot sand, and that most girls were strictly forbidden to attend,” Fatima remembers. “Luckily, I learned basic reading and writing.” It was this foundation that allowed her to continue her education, including English classes from charitable organisations, until it led her to undertaking a journalism and communications degree from Herat university. She caught the attention of Untamed Borders via her posts about Afghan history on a Facebook travel diary group, and led her first tour in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic disrupting trips to Herat.

Fatima’s two sisters followed a more traditional path. They were both married by age 15 and never learned to read or write. And when Fatima first told her parents her plans to become a tour guide, they were firmly against the idea. “I’ll never forget the eyes that looked at me strangely, the people that said, ‘you’re a girl and can’t do it’, or ‘it’s too dangerous’. But no one can stop me from doing what I love,” she says. “What is more beautiful than giving insights into the history, culture, food and traditions of my country?”

But as the first Afghan woman to do the job, no one was more aware of the difficulties ahead than Fatima.

“Before I started my career as a female guide, I often read tourism sites that would discourage women to travel in Afghanistan,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘if it’s dangerous to visit Afghanistan as a tourist woman, how is it possible to be a woman tour guide?’ This was very upsetting to me.

“Then I realised that I am the one who has to create this safe space. Tourist women are role models of courage and change. Women tourists matter, and as a woman tour guide, I matter too.”

In the future, Fatima aims to use her qualifications to work as a professional journalist as well as a guide, while uplifting women along the way. “My next plan is to establish a tourism organisation for empowering female tour guides,” she says. “I am the first female tour guide, but I don’t want to be the last. Afghanistan needs new guiding leaders with new perspectives, who have open minds and open hearts. This need is more crucial for Afghan women. I will do my best to be an agent of change and inspiration for individuals facing similar challenges that I faced as a tour guide and woman journalist.”


From ‘sanitagged’ luggage to facial recognition at boarding – 10 travel technologies you can expect to see post-COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on travel. The risk of human-to-human virus transmission has never been so much in the spotlight, and the travel industry is having to adapt quickly to a new world of airport health screenings and contact-free security. We take a closer look at the new travel technologies shaping the way we travel.

Touch-free tech

The development of touchscreen technology has infiltrated the travel industry in the past decade, with touchscreen check-in gradually replacing staffed desks and touchscreen TVs on the back of each long-haul seat. But without sanitising screens after every use, they can be a hotbed for virus transmission.

Enter the era of ‘touchless’ tech, which uses biometrics to verify bookings and identity. That could mean increased mobile boarding passes and a transition towards iris scans and AI facial recognition, and away from scanning passports and IDs. Facial recognition boarding practises are already being implemented by Delta Air Lines and are being tested by United Airlines. Biometrics testing is underway at airports in Canada, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Singapore and Spain, too – and only looks set to increase.

Pre-booked security

Permanently skipping airport security queues. Sounds like a dream come true, right? But social distancing is near-impossible when the process requires passengers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and share plastic trays for their bags and shoes – calling for an end to long lines and the advent of smart queuing technology.

“In order to stop over-crowding, airport queues will become by appointment only. We may move to a reservation-only society, with people who used to make last-minute plans being forced to adapt.”

Dave Thomson, Head of Product and Design at Skyscanner

Montréal-Trudeau International Airport has begun asking passengers to book their own security screenings, eliminating the need for a queue. But it could go a step further. Luggage screening of the future could be done by different kinds of computer vision systems, eventually removing the need for a centralised security screen. Watch this space.

‘Sanitagged’ luggage

Airline marketing strategy firm Simplifying predicts a future of ‘sanitised travel’. Luggage will have to be spray-disinfected and then ‘sanitagged’ on the check-in belt before being put on the plane. Hand luggage will be quickly sanitised via UV rays or fogging while in the X-ray security machine.

Singapore’s Changi Airport is already implementing the sanitisation of trolleys, check-in kiosks and security trays with a long-lasting antimicrobial coating to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Countless airports are not only increasing general hygiene but are also implementing automated hand sanitiser pumps.

Autonomous payment systems

Shop conveyor belts and tills are all potential virus hotspots. The introduction of digital payment systems, straight from your phone could eliminate the need for tills.

“The world will go mobile and contactless at an incredible rate. “The thought of handling paper tickets and paying with cash will quickly become things of the past.”

Dave Thomson, Head of Product and Design at Skyscanner

Robots could even be used to deliver purchases to shoppers and shoppers could browse options using virtual reality, or holographic, technology. All you need to do is sit in your socially distanced area and let your duty-free purchases come to you. Relaxing much?

Health kiosks

Imagine if viruses could be detected during travel? With effective health testing incorporated into the security process, that could become a reality. Temperature checks are becoming the norm for travellers going through international airports. How can travel tech streamline that process and make it more effective?

South Korea’s Incheon International Airport is deploying temperature-taking robots in solo kiosks, while thermal screening in Hamad International Airport, Qatar, is implemented by robotics and special helmets. Investment in automated technology, for all travellers, minimises the need for human contact throughout the security and health screening process.

Disinfection robots

No matter how much airport sanitisation takes place, there’s an element of human transmission that can be eradicated by the use of cleaning robots. Hong Kong International Airport was the first to trial full-body disinfection booths and Intelligent Sanitisation Robots, capable of killing 99.99% of bacteria and viruses in the air. Cleaning robots are deployed throughout Singapore’s Changi Airport, using a misting attachment to disinfect carpets after vacuuming.

Clinically tested disinfection robots have become more commonplace in hospital and laboratory settings – and look to migrate increasingly into airports, too.

AI security systems

The changing landscape of travel tech due to COVID-19 has accelerated the implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Machine learning techniques in advanced body scans could be used to detect threats, like explosives and firearms. Japan’s Finance Ministry is already investing in this kind of technology. The ministry aims to introduce an AI-based system over the next 10 years that will detect contraband via AI-analysed X-ray images.

What does this mean for travellers? Well, a much faster security experience for one. AI screening platform Evolv Edge, already in use at Oakland International Airport in the US, can screen 900 people in one hour.

Socially distanced dinners

Research has shown that during the lockdown, people missed visiting restaurants and cafes more than any other social activity. And although the Swedish government famously didn’t impose a strict lockdown, the prevalence of COVID-19 has still affected the hospitality industry. Summer hotel bookings have dropped dramatically and local people have been avoiding restaurants and cafes.

One hotel in the Swedish town of Lidköping came up with an ingenious solution to both problems. Seeing a 70% drop in business, the hotel manager of Stadshotellet decided to offer something new: private pop-up dinners in the hotel’s empty rooms. The 67 Pop Up Restaurant takes bookings for private groups of up to 12, operating a bit like room service but with fancy cutlery and linen. It’s a cute idea that could take off as social distancing continues.

Hotel TV apps

In a hotel room, what’s the surface area that every single guest will touch? The TV remote, of course. The COVID-19 pandemic has hugely impacted the hospitality industry and hotel owners and teams are coming up with solutions to minimise the risk of spreading bacteria and viruses.

Smart TV and cloud management company Otrum has devised a Virtual Remote Control for hotel televisions, which encourages the use of in-room interactive services while prioritising health and cleanliness. Using their smartphone, guests scan a QR code from the in-room TV, which unlocks a remote control app on the phone – and when you check out, it automatically disables. Easy peasy.

Self-unlocking cars

As soon as you land in a new destination, the first thing you do is make an immediate, secondary trip to wherever you’re staying. That might mean taking a train or a bus but often means picking up your hire car. The car rental industry is going to great lengths to ensure that this process is as risk- and hassle-free as possible, by investing in ‘self-unlocking’ vehicles that don’t require keys to be passed from person to person.

Rental company Sixt has made it possible for customers to order, collect and deliver a car without direct contact with its staff. Vehicle keys are left in lockers that are accessed via your mobile phone. There are already mobile-controlled unlocking systems on the market, in use by city rentals company Zipcar which allows a car to be unlocked via its app. We can expect many more contact-free, travel tech solutions as we become accustomed to the new normal in travel.


The butchers and cheesemongers behind the plant-based revolution

Under shiny glass bell jars on the counter, mould-ripened camembert sits beside slabs of orange-hued cheddar. The east London shop has all the hallmarks of a traditional cheesemonger, from its walls lined with refrigerators to its lightly pungent scent. But there’s one major difference. Look closer at the labels and the camembert is spelt ‘Shamembert’; the blue-veined gorgonzola is labelled ‘Veganzola’. La Fauxmagerie is Europe’s first vegan cheesemonger, and no dairy has gone into the making of any of its products.

Veganism has gone mainstream in Western countries over the last few years, as proven by the surging popularity of plant-based meat replacements like The Impossible Burger and alternative milks made from soya, oat and coconut. While these are becoming increasingly accessible in the mass market, a new wave of artisan makers are on the rise, appropriating traditionally meat- and dairy-based industries for a more environmentally conscious age.

At kebab shop Vöner in Berlin – the city with the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey – traditional-style doner ‘meat’ is made with wheat protein and served with classic pita bread and tahini. Plant-based ‘butcher’ shop No Bones sells protein-based ‘cuts’ in Sao Paolo, while Australia’s first vegan charcuterie shop, Suzy Spoon’s, opened in Sydney in November. The trend has inevitably swept the United States, with plant-based butchers thriving in MinnesotaCalifornia and North Carolina, to name a few.

What’s unusual is that many of the most successful of these innovators have roots in dairy or meat farming. One of La Fauxmagerie’s initial suppliers, Sumear Safdar-Robins, worked as a dairy cheesemaker near Bristol, UK, before deciding to apply the same traditional cheese-making skills to produce dairy-free cheese.

Amsterdam-based vegan cheesemaker Bran Vanstone – who blends nuts and tofu into versions of gorgonzola, ricotta and parmesan – spent every school holiday as a child working on his grandparents’ dairy farm in Devon, south-west England. It was that in-depth knowledge of the industry and its products – rather than a backlash against the dairy industry itself – that was the base his vegan cheese business, Willicroft, which he launched in 2018.

Cheesed off

But there’s been backlash from the other side. Though largely small-batch and independent, many plant-based producers come under fire from the farming industries to which they’re providing alternatives. La Fauxmagerie’s launch in 2018 courted controversy when dairy farmers sent the vegan cheesemonger a letter, claiming that using the word ‘cheese’ for dairy-free products went against EU legislation. But their attack didn’t dissuade co-owner Charlotte Stevens.

“We consider our products cheese,” she says. “Cheese is fermented fat, and our cheeses are made with the same probiotic and bacterial cultures used to make dairy cheese. It’s just that the fat we use comes from nuts and soybeans. But the white exterior of the Shamembert is exactly the same mould that grows on a camembert, aged in the same cave environment.”

Thanks to the shared process, the Shamembert’s flavour and texture is impressively close to that of its dairy inspiration, particularly when baked. Its almond and shea butter base, infused with truffle oil and begging to be dunked into with crusty bread, melts into the same shiny goo as a Normandy camembert.

Far from undermining the work of traditional farmers or converting everybody to veganism, Stevens is simply keen to provide a viable vegan alternative for cheese-loving flexitarians who are concerned about the environmental impact of agriculture.

“No one wants to attack farmers, but we can’t really escape the fact that animal agriculture is a big contributor to soil erosion and climate change,” she says. “When I became a vegan due to dairy intolerance, I didn’t feel like I could have a dinner party and put a supermarket vegan cheese on a cheeseboard. But with these artisan products, I can. If we can get 20% of every cheeseboard in the country to have a vegan option, we’ve done our job.”

Netherlands-based Jaap Korteweg has even bolder ambitions. A ninth-generation cattle farmer, he decided to become a vegetarian when he witnessed the mass culling of livestock during the swine fever and mad cow disease epidemics of the late 90s. He opened a butcher’s shop in The Hague as The Vegetarian Butcher, followed by a pop-up restaurant called De Vleesh Lobby (‘The Meat Lobby’), before creating a supermarket-ready range of vegetarian ‘meats’ made in a factory. The line was recently acquired by Unilever. His masterplan? To become the world’s biggest butcher – meat and plant-based combined.

“Factory farming is not sustainable,” he says. “We use the animals as machines. Welfare isn’t important and we eat too much meat for our health. The only reason we eat meat is because we like it.” With the help of chefs, scientists and other farming professionals, he set out to create realistic meat substitutes to rival the real thing. His What the Cluck ‘chicken’ pieces, Unbelievaballs ‘meatballs’ and vegetarian Holy Cow Burgers were all showcased at a vegetarian pop-up at nose-to-tail butcher’s shop Hill & Szrok, in east London last autumn. It wasn’t the only meat-centric business to try out plant proteins in the capital: Smithfield Market, the UK’s largest meat market, began selling vegan burgers shortly after, for the first time in its 800-year history.

Looking to the future

Despite some pushback from the old guard of meat production, all converts to plant-based alternatives agree that the current global culture of intensive farming can’t go on. Countless studies back up their argument: recent research by the journal Science shows that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact. Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%, yet currently, 86% of all land mammals are either livestock or humans. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of mass extinction of wildlife globally.

“Plant-based meat is seven times more sustainable than beef in terms of land, energy use and water,” claims Korteweg. So what’s next? Stevens believes that EU subsidies for meat and dairy farming will eventually have to come to an end, making the cost of meat skyrocket. As a consequence, plant-based alternatives will come into focus and become more financially accessible.

“Technology wise, vegan artisan products are currently being made by a couple of people doing experiments on a small-batch basis,” she says. “With investment, this would easily scale up. People worry about vegan products because the Amazon is being deforested for soy farms as well as cattle farms. But 80% of that soy goes towards animal feed. Now, soy is grown in the Netherlands and the first UK farm has just started to grow it.” It’s a sign of things to come: experts predict that by 2040, most ‘meat’ will either be lab-grown or plant-based, rather than produced by animals.

Ever ahead of the curve, Korteweg’s got a madcap idea up his sleeve. “I have a plan to make a cow from stainless steel, with four stomachs,” he grins. “I’ll make milk and cheese from grass – without using cows, but using the same process. I hope that within five years it’ll be on the market.”

If anything can be learnt from the ninth-generation farmer, it’s that farming – and humanity – is ever-adaptable. Seeking out these veggie innovators on your travels, whether in Berlin, Sydney or Minneapolis, is a great way to see how food culture is evolving across the globe – and to have a taste of things to come.