A year after climbing a Malaysian peak on her 40th birthday, British expat Julie Lewis, based in Dubai, decided that travel was the new passion in her life.
In 2003, she launched an organisation that would take women on expeditions around the world.
Called Mountain High, its first trek was to the Everest base camp with 17 women.
More than a decade later, the women-only travel organisation is still going strong. The latest expedition took place in January, with eight women crossing the Wahiba sands in Oman, trekking an incredible 115.5 kilometres by foot over four-and-a-half days.
“I thought ‘I like meeting people and travelling, and adventure travel would be just perfect’,” says Ms Lewis, who studied sports science in the United Kingdom.
While Mountain High is among the pioneers in women-only travel groups based in the UAE, the niche trend is slowly expanding. Paulomi Bhatt’s the World at her Feet opened for business in 2012.
“For women who wanted to travel but didn’t have a companion to travel with or even if they were married, but the spouse didn’t have time, we provided an alternative,” Ms Bhatt says.
About 70 per cent of the women who book her packages are in fact married.
She founded the venture in Dubai after taking a cue from her friend who started Girls on the Go in Mumbai in 2010.
“The audience used to be 50 and 60-year-olds, more elderly women, when we started in Dubai,” Ms Bhatt says. “Today we have a happy mix of all nationalities and cultures.”
These include Emiratis, Indians, Pakistanis, Europeans and North Americans in the age range of 25 to 35 years.
“As people got to know about us, the younger crowd found it a fun thing and something they can get along with,” Ms Bhatt, 44, adds.
The holiday packages offered by World at her Feet are less physically challenging than Mountain High, centred instead around shopping or culinary trails as well as exploring new cities on foot.
Next month a group of women is off to explore Iceland and Argentina in the footsteps of the former first lady Eva Peron; in June another group is heading to the Ecuador Highlands and the Amazon jungle; and this year the Galapagos Islands are on the agenda. The groups vary in size from six to 14 with a trip almost every month, Ms Bhatt says. The year she started, there were six trips.
Last year, the company took a group of eight Emirati women on a culinary trip to Morocco. The cost varies according to the destination and the activities; a six-day trip to Guatemala, for example, costs Dh8,500.
The Dubai company works through partners in the destination countries, and Ms Bhatt says it is all about finding the right partner.
“I personally meet them at international trade fairs, build a relationship, check how long they have been operating, and who else they do business with,” she says.
“We hardly work with large companies, we outsource to the little gems that have a reputation and offer personal attention.”
Ms Bhatt wants to expand the concept to major cities in the Middle East, with plans to be operational in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Lebanon via partnerships by the end of the year.
“The model is so simple, it doesn’t really need an investment,” she says. Currently, she has two freelancers who work with her.
Meanwhile, Ms Lewis, who has moved her company with her from Dubai to Hong Kong and now to Abu Dhabi, agrees.
She started it under the umbrella of a tour agency in Dubai in 2003, and a year later – when the company owners left – moved the business base to Dubai Media City.
“I broke even in 2005, and in 2007 I was flying,” she says. In 2008, she expanded the services of Mountain High to include more retreats. She also branched out into group coaching and public speaking, sharing her experiences at events by showcasing footage from expeditions and highlighting the lessons learnt.
The cost of a trip with Mountain High can range from Dh2,500 to Dh45,000 depending on the activity and the location. For mountain treks the group size is typically 16 or fewer, while she takes up to 12 people for yoga and meditation retreats.
So far, Ms Lewis has led 50 expeditions to 20 countries, including Peru, India, Iran, Morocco, the Antarctic and the Arctic with Emirati and expat women.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” the 52-year-old likes saying. “That’s where you grow and evolve.”
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