Publishers are beginning to capitalize on the popularity of travel guides by and for women – photo by Kelly Westhoff
New Guidebooks Target Women Travelers
By Kelly Westhoff
The travel industry is just waking up to the economic power of women, says Marybeth Bond, writer, editor, speaker and women’s travel guru extraordinaire.
She knows of what she speaks. Her female-focused travel guide, 50 Best Girlfriends Getaways North America, sold through its first print run in six weeks and sent her publisher scrambling. Women’s travel is on the rise, around the world.
Released in the spring of 2007, Bond’s guide is hardly Lonely Planet material. It’s organized not by chronology or geography, but by theme.
One chapter outlines top spots to take your girlfriends for a big birthday blowout, while another suggests resorts and spas to host an all-girls pampered reunion.
Bond organized her guide thematically to facilitate how many women think about travel.
“Maybe not on the surface, but women understand the transformational power of travel,” Bond explained. “Women tend to travel to help them through life’s passages. They go when they’ve been dumped, after a divorce, a bout with cancer.”
“I got over my own mother’s death by hiking in the Colorado Rockies with my girlfriends,” she said. “Travel really is a chrysalis for change.”
What Women Want
“Typical guidebooks give too much information,” Bond said. “My book doesn’t list everything to do in a city. What I tried to do is act as a filter, understanding that women are capable of doing their own research and exploring. Instead of saying, ‘Here’s a store you should go to,’ I tried to say, ‘Here’s a good neighborhood to walk around in.’”
Marybeth Bond at the Taj Mahal
According to Bond, women travelers are tuned in to some key factors: safety, service, lighting, noise, and décor. For this reason, she took care to weed out rotten elements.
“For a woman, it’s often better to have a meal that is an “8” in a beautiful setting with good service and bright streets than to have a meal that is a “10” with bad service and dark parking,” she explained.
Bond compiled her listings based on personal experience. “I’ve visited, hiked, biked, eaten, shopped, slept, you name it, in 90 percent of the places in the book, and the remaining two spots my sister did,” she laughed.
But seriously, Bond’s passport and resume are overflowing with stamps and credentials. She has backpacked around the world by herself, edited six collections of women-penned travel essays, been quoted in the nation’s most widely-read newspapers and dispensed travel advice from Oprah’s couch.
As her first travel guide did so well, a second is due out the spring of 2008, this time titled <Best Girlfriends Getaways Worldwide .
“I’m really a gypsy at heart,” Bond said. “I don’t have an inheritance. I do travel on a budget and I do want to share with women what I’ve learned. I want to save them time and money.”
Power of the Purse
“Women are more independent and confident than they’ve been in the past. And more of them have the income and the means to travel,” said Bond.
“I’ve got figures that say the average adventure traveler is a 47-year-old woman!” she exclaimed. “Women account for 70 percent of the adventure travel industry, and it’s no wonder when you consider that the number of tour operators that are now working exclusively with women has risen 300 percent in the past 10 years. And I don’t mean gay travel. These are women-only tours.”
While the tourism industry ramped up their focus on female travelers seasons ago, the publishing industry was slower to take notice. However, it appears the purchasing power of women travelers has finally registered with the book world. In 2007, four different guidebooks hit the stores specifically aimed at women.
Theresa Rodriguez Williamson with a monkey in Thailand
Teresa Rodriguez Williamson wrote Fly Solo: The 50 Best Places On Earth For a Girl to Travel Alone. The title was released in February 2007 and by September it had entered its third print run. It’s being marketed as far away as New Zealand and translated into Korean.
Beyond her author credits, Rodriguez Williamson is also the founder and editor of TangoDiva.com, a woman-oriented, online community that dispenses travel advice and encourages women to take solo journeys.
Tango Diva was founded in 2004; Rodriguez Williamson relied on her years spent living abroad and traveling alone to craft the site.
After amassing an email list 30 thousand strong, she decided there was a ready audience to support a book about solo-woman travel. Thus, Fly Solo was born. Each chapter highlights a different place Rodriguez Williamson considers ideal for a woman to travel alone.
Fighting Fear with Information
Because Rodriguez Williamson uses online quizzes to help maintain contact with her Tango Diva readers, she is able to take a grassroots pulse of women travelers.
“We’ve found that the number one reason women don’t travel alone is fear. They fear for their safety,” she said. “But this is what I find so interesting: They can’t really say what it is they fear. The highest scoring answers aren’t rape or mugging. Instead, responders say things like, ‘I don’t know what to do when I get off the plane.’”
“That sounds more like insecurity than fear,” said Rodriguez Williamson. “Women’s travel concerns are based on their lack of knowledge. Part of what I want to do with Tango Diva and Fly Solo is to alleviate these insecurities. If women have the knowledge, they will go.”
“Women tell me they overwhelmed by Lonely Planet and Fodor’s,” Rodriguez Williamson said. “There’s so much information it’s like turning a hose on in your face. In Fly Solo, I try to bring it on gently. I start each chapter with why I think that place is great, include some historical facts and cultural know-how then highlight unique places to see.”
Fly Solo isn’t stuffed with hotel or museum listings. That’s because Rodriguez Williamson was mindful of the fact that today’s women have many resources at their fingertips for finding travel information, like Tango Diva.
Registered members of the site can post their travel questions and collect responses from other women travelers. More than 6,000 women are swapping travel advice on the site’s forums, which are password-protected to ensure online member safety.
Through her website and her book, Rodriguez Williamson hopes to empower women to tackle the globe. “I want to say to women, ‘Give me a few days of your life and let me transform it by putting you on a plane,’” she said. “I promise you will come back a changed person.”
Beth Whitman with new friends in India
Dealing with Cat Calls
Beth Whitman also wants to encourage women travel the world solo. Her book, Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, was published in March 2007.
Even though Whitman has motorcycled from Seattle to Panama and backpacked the Pacific Rim by herself, she avoided pushing specific places as women-friendly in her guide. Instead, she filled its pages with advice to arm women with travel tips applicable to wherever they might wish to roam.
For example, every woman who travels alone will have to deal with sexual innuendos.
“When you travel alone, you don’t have someone to buffer you from all the stares. All the looks, all the comments, are directed at you,” Whitman said.
Inexperienced female travelers tend to get caught up in the drama of street calls, Whitman said.
“Women feel the need to be nice,” she explained. “We think, ‘Someone said hi to me, I should say hi back.’ But if you do that, if you say hello, you open yourself up to contact and it snowballs from there. That’s when the questions start: Do you have a boyfriend? Where are you going?”
“You don’t have to engage with everyone you come across,” Whitman stressed. “At home, you don’t feel this need. If you’re walking by a construction project in the U.S. and a man calls out, you don’t stop to say hello.”
“The problem is that when you get outside your country, when you get outside your comfort zone, you lose track of what the rules are and you don’t want to be perceived as rude.”
One is the Loneliest Number
When she isn’t traveling or writing, Whitman is teaching. She leads workshops in the Seattle area that teach women the ins and outs of travel.
Through her workshops, she’s learned that a fear of loneliness keeps many women from traveling solo.
“Women are social creatures,” Whitman said, “and their biggest fear in traveling alone is that they will feel completely isolated.”
“In reality, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Solo travelers are like magnets. They attract one another,” Whitman said. “When I travel on my own, I become bolder than I normally am. I go up and insert myself into tour groups. I say, ‘I’m traveling alone. Can I sit with you?’ People always say yes.”
Confidence is the biggest attribute women stand to gain from traveling alone, Whitman said.
“When you step outside of your little box and succeed, you realize you can do anything you set your mind to,” she said. “If you can get yourself to Paris and back, you start to think maybe you can learn to change the oil in your car. And the thing is, you can.”
Pack Your Lipstick
Whitman so believes in the power of travel for women that she started her own publishing company, Globe Trekker Press, to print, market and distribute her book.
Wanderlust and Lipstick is the company’s only title right now, but that will soon change.
“The book has done well enough to convince me I’ve hit upon a market that is underserved,” she said.
Whitman has two new titles planned for the fall of 2008. One is a mother’s guide to traveling with children. The other is a woman’s guide to traveling in India.
Both will be published under the Wanderlust and Lipstick brand. “I want women to know that they can have wanderlust and femininity. They don’t have to give one up to get the other. They can get out there and have both.”
Stephanie Elizondo Griest with children in Mexico
Travel is a great way for women to connect with their femininity, agreed Stephanie Elizondo Griest, avid traveler and author. Her most recent title, 100 Places Every Woman Should Go (Travelers’ Tales), was released in February 2007.
“My book is about how to celebrate being a woman,” she said. “This is a pro-woman travel guide.”
Indeed it is. One chapter lists the sexiest lingerie shops around the globe. Another outlines exactly how to go about getting a Brazilian bikini wax in Brazil. Still another lists women bookstores across the USA.
There are chapters about goddess sightings, famous women artists, and — of course — food, like a chapter devoted to finding the best ice cream in the world.
“The book is meant to be an idea generator and hopefully it will empower and support women, too. I tried to highlight women business owners, women legends and women leaders,” said Elizondo Griest.
The Real Faces of Women Travelers
In the year that 100 Places Every Woman Should Go (Travelers’ Tales) has graced store shelves, Elizondo Griest has traveled the country giving author talks.
“These haven’t been traditional book talks,” she said. “They’ve turned into interactive workshops about how to travel as women.”
Elizondo Griest was surprised by the crowds her book drew. In Portland, Maine, she said, 45 people attended her author talk.
Some of the women making up those crowds were already fans of her work. They were familiar with her travel memoir, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, or the numerous appearances her name has made in the pages of Travelers’ Tales anthologies. Other women attended the readings because they were travelers hoping to pass a few hours with a fellow globetrotter.
However, across the country, the majority of women showing up to hear Elizondo Griest talk about travel were women who hadn’t traveled yet, but dreamed of doing so. This surprised her.
“Most of the women were between 40 and 70 years old. They were recently divorced or empty nesters. They were at transition points,” she said. “They wanted to travel but were scared. They wanted to know how to take the first step.”
“It was really touching for me to watch them look around see they were part of this network of women who also want to, or already are, traveling. A lot of them had real breakthroughs, realized they really could do this,” she said.
“Women are seeing travel as a metaphor for life,” said Elizondo Griest. “They see it as a liberating thing to do and that is really infectious.”
Author Kelly Westhoff at a cooking class in Vietnam
Famous Last Words
Still not convinced that you can get out there and take on the world? Here are some persuasive last words of advice from the guidebook authors themselves. If you need further inspiration still, swing by their websites.
From Marybeth Bond:
“Don’t stay home because you don’t have a travel companion, because your friends don’t have the time, money or inclination to go. Pretend like you’re gutsy and just go forth and go. There are other women out there. I promise.”
From Teresa Rodriguez Williamson:
“A language immersion program can be a great experience for a woman who is traveling alone for the first time. The school will arrange your room and pick you up at the airport or bus station. They fill your morning with classes and plan activities every night like cooking or dance lessons and lots of them have free Internet access. The school and other students provide a built-in community.”
From Beth Whitman:
“If you’ve never traveled alone, take baby steps. Choose a new restaurant and go out for lunch by yourself. Take a weekend trip closer to home. The key is to step outside your comfort zone and that doesn’t have to mean leaving the country. A newly-divorced, woman from Iowa might find New York City to be just as foreign as India.”
From Stephanie Elizondo Griest:
“All women should travel to their motherland, wherever that is to you. It can be deeply moving to be surrounded by people who look like you, to learn about the roots that dwell within you.”