Anne Majumdar

Last year, Intrepid set a target of doubling its number of female tour guides by 2020 – but in some countries like Morocco, that’s easier said than done.

But when the group celebrated achieving of a 50:50 gender split in new tour leaders in India last year, Zina Bencheikh was inspired.

Responsible for all Intrepid Group trips in Europe and North Africa as the general manager of Peak DMC Marrakech, Bencheikh was convinced they could replicate the success and even top it in Morocco.

Only a quarter of female Moroccans are in the work force, and only 3% of guides are female.

“But when we look at Morocco in comparison with India, it is far more advanced in terms of women’s rights and the woman’s place in society,” she told KARRYON.

“So I was thinking that if India has managed to do it, then we should really be able to do better than that and have some higher numbers.”

However, Bencheikh swiftly recognised the extremely strict regulations around tour guiding licences as her major obstacle.

“When you understand the problem, then you can tackle it properly,” she said.

Her first stop was the Ministry of Tourism last September where she presented a need for tour leaders in general rather than just women. She urged them to reopen the accreditation process to enable younger people with a more adventurous style of guiding to find employment.

Her mission was helped by the fact that other local tour operators were also in need of new guides – particularly those with Mandarin language skills as a result of a booming Chinese inbound market.

In February, the testing process for guides was held for the first time more than five years allowing women to get qualified.

“This was how we got to push to get as many women as possible to pass this test and this is how we started to get some good numbers,” Bencheikh explained. The company now has 16% female tour guides.

But Bencheikh is confident more progress can be made, with education to play a major role in shattering the commonly held idea that a career in tourism is not suitable for a woman.

Tackling the issue at an early age is the key, according to Bencheikh, especially with women the main caregivers in the household.

“If you empower women, give them access to education, to work and to income, we know this will have a much bigger impact on education and the new generations than if you were to do the same thing with men,” she said.

But it’s not just the more conservative areas of the country that need to be addressed, it’s also the company’s own staff.

While many of the male tour leaders are supportive of the shift, others remain stuck in a more old-fashioned mindset, Bencheikh revealed, adding that it’s an issue the company is tackling in a sensitive way.

Image credit: Intrepid Travel

So, what’s the message for consumers?

Bencheikh explained that the introduction of female tour guides offers travellers a  perspective of the country while offering female travellers a different sense of security.

It also means it can now operate trips exclusively for females – something which has so far proved popular with the first departure in October now sold out and plenty of interest coming in for future women-only groups.

It’s great news from a business point of view, but it’s not just about that. The idea of a purpose beyond profit is central to Intrepid, and now it’s become a major part of Bencheikh’s own life.

“I have a responsibility to people who may see me as a role model – a Moroccan woman, married with kids but still having a career,” she admitted. Helping to motivate women in the office or female tour leaders by setting an example is another helpful way of challenging the status quo.

“I think this is a responsibility I now have although I didn’t realise this until very recently.”

 

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Have you ever travelled with a female tour leader?