Travel

How Moroccan Women Are Taking Tourism Into Their Own Hands

Iran women-only tours
A women-only expedition in Iran. | Damien Raggatt/Intrepid Group
A women-only expedition in Iran. | Damien Raggatt/Intrepid Group

Morocco, more than just a place to see, is a place to feel. The colors, the spices, the sounds of the bustling souks (markets) and the calls to prayer -- it will overstimulate you in a way only certain special places can. Few cultural meccas are more eclectic than Morocco, located at the confluence of not just the country’s North African neighbors, but of Portugal and Spain, of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean sea.

Upwards of 10 million tourists visit every year, but most of their time will be spent in big cities like Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fes. Yet the country is as geographically diverse as it is culturally diverse, changing from deserts to rugged mountains to coastline sprinkled with surf towns. These regions outside the city centers are, naturally, not as easy to travel around by comparison -- especially for those traveling alone. And especially for women, who must navigate compounded factors like appropriate dress, and restrictions on where women are allowed to go and what they are allowed to do.

Joining a guided tour group seems like the obvious solution, but co-ed tours in male-dominated spaces still present challenges. The presence of male tourists precludes the female ones from having meaningful interactions with locals, and from seeing how local women really live. And in Morocco, the tourism industry itself is extraordinarily male-dominated; of the approximately 4,000 tour guides here, only around 4% are women. But in the past year, Moroccan women have been taking the industry into their own hands. For the first time, a travel company is now offering women-only expeditions in Morocco, led exclusively by local women tour guides.

Morocco women's expeditions
Camping and cooking in Morocco. | Ryan Bolton/Intrepid Travel

The new face of Moroccan tourism

Zina Bencheikh is the general manager at Marrakech Peak DMC, the Moroccan operating arm of global adventure travel company Intrepid Group. She is the only female head of a large Moroccan travel company. About a year and a half ago, she went to the Ministry of Tourism with a business proposition: women-only trips to Morocco, led by women tour guides.

“When I first prepared my pitch, I was thinking of the business -- I knew we could fill a lot of all-female trips,” says the 34-year-old Bencheikh. “Tourism in Morocco is booming, so we needed more guides anyway. What should I do with these women, send them away to [give tours for] another country?”

Tour guiding in Morocco is regulated; you must obtain a license to do it legally. Candidates are pre-screened with background checks and letters of recommendation, then required to pass a written and oral exam. Women weren’t prohibited from pursuing the license, but nor was anyone encouraging them to do so. Luckily, when Bencheikh proposed recruiting more female guides, the Ministry of Tourism was organizing a licensing test for the first time in five years.

“It was very disorganized,” she says. “We had less than a week to get the paperwork and tell as many women as we knew to go take this test.” Bencheikh delivered all the files for her candidates to the ministry herself because they were so short of time. “I remember the guy who was checking [the files] was so impressed. All the women had bachelor’s or master’s degrees, all fluent in English… two speak Chinese, which is a very rare language [for Moroccan guides to speak]. I was sure they’d go through. And they did.”

Thirteen women got their licenses. Bencheikh and her colleagues want to double that by 2020.

Iran women's travel
A women-only expedition in Iran. | Damien Raggatt/Intrepid Group

Tours by women, for women

Intrepid launched its inaugural women-only trips in March of this year (a nod to International Women’s Day). The demand for more itineraries and departure dates has mushroomed, sparking a hiring spree for more female guides. Intrepid Travel is currently offering women-only expeditions not just in Morocco, but in Jordan and Iran as well.

Intrepid’s focus for these trips is immersion. Each itinerary includes opportunities to learn from local women -- from cooks, artisans, artists, hairdressers, and business owners. Those women, in turn, earn various commissions from the expeditions, for their time spent hosting and/or teaching participants. So your money is being funneled directly into the communities you visit, directly to the women you meet.

“[The expeditions are] made in a way that profits the local women, in places where women are not empowered at all,” Bencheikh says. “They’re the ones who earn income out of the trip.”

Another clear benefit of women-only trips is that participants feel more at ease; they can rely on local guides to familiarize them with the customs and expectations that might be placed upon them as they tour the country.

“Obviously one thing is the dress,” Bencheikh says. “In big cities like Casablanca and Marrakech, you can dress in shorts and T-shirts. But in the remote areas, in the mountains, you should not, because it’s a bit shocking there. It’s a respect kind of thing. But everywhere, there’s always a risk of getting harassed… no matter if you’re in a scarf or pajamas. That’s really the most annoying thing. That’s why people like to go in groups of girls -- they feel much safer than just going by themselves.”

Bencheikh says all travelers should be wary of public displays of affection, too. In Morocco, it’s not customary to hold hands or kiss in front of others. “There’s also a big issue with homosexuality here,” Bencheikh says, “so two girls or two boys have to be careful; we don’t want [anyone] to be offended.” Intrepid is determinedly inclusive, but they have to work within the local laws of each destination. If you’re unsure how their gender identity and expression might be a factor, you can reach out to the bookings team and they’ll work with you individually to address your LGBTQ travel needs.

Here’s a rundown of the women-only tours Intrepid currently offers:

women-only tours Morocco
Women learn traditional cooking techniques in Morocco. | Damien Raggatt/Intrepid Group

Morocco: Women's Expedition

Cost: Starting at $890 for eight days

The expeditions to Jordan and Iran are mainly cultural, but the Morocco trip is more active -- several days include between four and seven hours of walking.

“With Morocco, there’s hiking,” Bencheikh says. “You’re walking for a week with a lot of local interaction, doing activities in the communities, working and cooking with women -- trying to live their life basically. We don’t go to Fez, but we go to places that probably no one else goes to.”

This trip sets off from Marrakech but focuses on rural areas (but no matter where you are, you’ll still have a hot shower every night). The itinerary includes a stop at a women’s rug-weaving co-op in Talsanant; a lesson in baking khobz (the staple Moroccan flatbread you’ll see at every breakfast); learning how to prepare traditional couscous; hiking into the M’goun Valley and visiting a local village; a night of Berber music and dancing in a remote mountain village; and makeup classes in traditional henna and kohl.

The trek also employs the country’s first-ever female muleteer -- the person who accompanies the mules and helps carry your bags. “We hope to have more,” Bencheikh says. “We hope she trains her daughters.”

women-only tours Iran
Women learn traditional cooking techniques in Iran. | Damien Raggatt/Intrepid Group

Iran: Women's Expedition

Cost: Starting at $2,426 for 12 days

The Iran tour starts with a picnic in one of Iran’s women-only parks, which are among the only places women can gather outside without a hijab (you’ll be wearing one yourself during the trip, along with full-length pants and sleeves). You’ll also experience the full cycle of an Iranian family meal, start to finish -- shopping at a bazaar, cooking and then eating at a family home in Tehran. Then there’s bread-baking, a tour of a beauty salon, a trip in the women-only cars on public transportation, and meeting with the scarf shop owner to learn more about the hijab.

camel caravan Jordan
A camel caravan in Jordan. | Peter Wollinga/Shutterstock

Jordan: Women's Expedition

Cost: Starting at $1,538 for eight days

The Jordan tour takes you to places that might not otherwise be possible for women to visit alone, like desert camps in Wadi Rum that are operated by men. Among other things, you’ll learn traditional henna and kohl techniques, take a family-run cooking class, tag along with a shepherd and see how you fare milking goats, and spend an afternoon relaxing in mineral mud pools at the beach.

“We have a purpose beyond profits,” Bencheikh says. “There are many trips that make a lot of money, but these trips create a oneness, challenging female travelers to realize how it can be difficult to be a woman in other countries. But also to give the women who host them perspective on what it is to be a woman, to open their eyes and worlds. And hopefully they can see if you are educated what you can do, how you can earn your own money. We didn’t create this to go on a new trend. But people have liked the concept.”

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.