Wild Women Expeditions is one of the leading adventure travel organizations headed by women for women. Owner Jennifer Haddow has witnessed the transformative power of travel among women and has made it her mission to encourage all women to pack and bag and head outdoors.
Wild Women started over three decades ago, what have been the biggest changes in the industry?
When we first started offering canoe trips for women only, we were kind of the laughing stock in the industry. ‘Why would women want to do that?’ ‘Oh they can’t do it on their own’ there was a lot of negativity where I think 30 years later, it’s being embraced and very mainstream now.
The face of women’s travel in the adventure travel industry (has changed). These are women who are what I call ‘Renaissance Women’. They’re retired, maybe the kids have grown up, or they are divorced or widowed. In some way they are going through a redefining of themselves so adventure travel becomes very healing for women who are not hard-body 20-years-old. They're not athletes – this stereotypical kind of magazine-type of adventure woman.
There’s been a very radical transformation I think since we started back in the woods in Northern Ontario with a couple of adventurous girls with a paddle.
Why is it important to have an outfitter like Wild Women Expeditions in the adventure travel industry?
I think in the very early days there was just this sense of women not being invited to take on leadership roles and to really see themselves in the space.
Why it was so needed was because it was so very underground. Women would get together with a few of their friends and figure out how to travel … how to go on a kayak trip or hiking trip. I think companies just weren’t responding to that interest. And I think partly it’s because of the leadership in those companies. There wasn’t really a sense of this being important.
So when Wild Women Expeditions came on the scene and had a fundamentally focused interest in women because we were women, it was creating what you wanted to see. I think why it was so important to us then and why it’s so important to us now is because women want to have space for sisterhood. Space for building community and giving women leadership opportunities and I still think that’s something really lacking in the mainstream travel world.
What do women get out of these expeditions?
I think a lot of women have a sense of there being something else for them. These women have been the good girl their whole lives. They’ve done the things, they’ve raised the family. They are looking to rekindle that connection to that wild woman they really felt when they were in their teens or in their 20s. They remembered how much they loved riding horses or they loved doing something that was more on the edge. But then a lot of women, including myself, we go through this decade of life where the focus is kind of different. It’s not really about us. I think a lot of women want to kind of connect with their spirit again. Connect with that nature-loving, passionate adventurous woman.
A big part for us is to have women lead our tours. So a lot of companies will take a group of women on an experience, but let me tell you when you go into the wilds of Mongolia and you’re being led by Davka, a badass Mongolian horsewoman who comes from a nomadic community. And you’re so supported and helped and inspired by this woman who is leading the tour. She’s in charge. I think there’s something that really awakens in us as women. We feel like ‘Oh yeah that’s right, we can do this. We can do anything.’
Where do you find these local tour guides for your trips?
As far as I know, we’re the only company in the world that all of our tours, 100 percent, are led by local women. So we don’t send Canadians over to Mongolia to take women around and show them Mongolia.
All of our tours, we work with local partners. Of course, we’re always doing what we do with local experts. And we are very, very hands-on in selecting the women who lead our tours and making sure we’re finding women who are not only qualified but really embody the Wild Women way.
We feel like we have a real critical role to play. I don’t think there are enough companies doing this, frankly. So we want to put the call, the challenge out to the industry and say look for these women. Find these women. Give them training opportunities, give them the opportunity and you will see women telling the stories of their own communities.
Wild Women Expeditions recently completed a trek on the Inca Trail using a handful of women porters. How did that come about?
We’ve been working the (Inca) Trail for the last seven years. We’ve been offering Wild Women treks on the Inca Trail and we’ve been having this conversation about increasing the visibility of women as guides. But to be honest, it wasn’t until we saw another company. We’re in a small community in the adventure travel world. So we saw some great examples of women getting hired in porter roles. And we said this is something we can support. And so we just made the effort to look into where we could get women porters.
There is a lot of barriers for women in that country in particular and on the Inca Trail so we don’t want to come in kind of guns blazing (screaming) ‘We want women!’ and rock the boat. You have to work with communities. You have to look for communities where the women are trying to forge their own path and impose it as a Western operator so I say the short answer is we’re very committed to this path, but we’re going to try to take our cues from people we work with on the ground. This is important to talk about and think about. But let’s be careful … we don’t want to create conflicts and stress for women trying to get into this area.
There’s an organization (Awamaki Tourism Academy) we’re partnering with on the ground in Peru which aims to equip porters with the necessary skills, training and financial means to advance their careers, with a particular focus on empowering women. They’ve committed to working to support local porters with opportunities to progress their careers in the tourism industry.
How do you navigate the very complicated Inca Trail porter issue?
I think the Inca Trail is a problem when companies or people think they can go and get really, really cheap trips. The porters are the ones who suffer and the wives suffer. We’re focused on is ‘Yes go to the Inca Trail, but we’re going to pay more.’
We pay around 19 percent more for our porters than the industry average. We’re really focused on paying people well and supporting organizations that allow them to advocate for their own rights. And telling our clients ‘Look, we’re not going to give you a dirt-cheap trip and have local people not getting the benefits.’ That’s where I think I want to focus more when we talk about tourism. It’s not so much about overtourism as much as bad tourism.