Intrepid's Women's Expeditions offering women-led, women-only trips to likes of Pakistan, Iran, Morocco

Women in Ispanj Village, Chapursan Valley, Pakistan.
Women in Ispanj Village, Chapursan Valley, Pakistan. Photo credit: Intrepid Travel / Alex Reynolds

A travel company offering specially designed holiday packages for women in countries often considered as dangerous destinations has recently added Pakistan to its offerings.

It's the latest country to join the list of Intrepid Travel's Women's Expeditions along with Iran, India, Jordan, Nepal and Morocco.

Jenny Gray is the senior product manager at Intrepid Travel and led the creation of the Women's Expeditions, which launched on International Women's Day in 2018.

She said while women-led, women-only trips were not a new concept at the time, there was an increased demand for such trips to the Middle East, a region she was managing.

"Each country we operated in had its own unique cultural and religious factors that often meant local interaction was challenging and complex for our mixed gender groups. So there was a really exciting opportunity to create these female-only trips that opened up these destinations and experiences that were otherwise off limits to our mixed gender groups," Gray told Newshub.

"We really wanted our female travellers to have an opportunity to connect with women from all around the world and offer a really unique insight into their everyday lives and challenges. On top of that, we wanted to break those barriers of traditional tourism and provide local women with important employment opportunities to support women-owned businesses throughout the supply chain as well."

Hunza junction point of mountain ranges, Pakistan.
Hunza junction point of mountain ranges, Pakistan. Photo credit: Intrepid Travel

Gray said customers range in age from their 20s to their 80s, come from all over the world and generally leave great feedback, she said.

"Women love the opportunity to connect with other women in a real, authentic and unique way - particularly now, more than ever, after being disconnected from the rest of the world for two years," said Gray.

"What they have in common is a genuine curiosity about the world and a real openness to connect and learn with women from other cultures with different perspectives."

Morocco Women's Expedition, Intrepid Travel.
Berbers Expedition, Morocco. Photo credit: Intrepid Travel / Ryan Bolton

The Intrepid Women's package to Pakistan is a 12-day experience that starts at just under $5800, with the first departure on September 17 of this year.

It was developed in part by tour leader Aneeqa Ali, who hopes to encourage more women to travel to her country to experience its beauty and culture.

"Even the most adventurous travellers who have been all over the world don't know much about Pakistan," Ali said.

"When travellers want to visit, women in particular want a female tour guide because of the news they've heard about Pakistan; but if you look at Pakistan's tourism industry, it's like a world of men.

"I've faced these challenges firsthand and thought, 'Why not be the change you want to see in the world?'"

Nepal. travel for women.
Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal. Photo credit: Intrepid Travel / Matt Cherubino

Intrepid customers will get to experience one of Pakistan's few female-only salons in the ancient town of Gulmit, which is said to provide women with hijabs a safe and respectful place to get their haircut.

Gray describes Ali as a "fantastic local operator" who is "empowering and supporting local female businesses".

"So you have a really unique advantage on this trip to travel with a female leader through the Hunza Valley and see the communities and landscapes of the Hallowed Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains. There's a lot of remote mountain villages that we visit and stay with these really sort of unique homestay experiences as well," said Gray.

"Pakistan is just another one of those destinations that really fascinates people because they don't know a lot about it."

Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal.
Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal. Photo credit: Intrepid Travel / Matt Cherubino

Interested women should know that the New Zealand Government advises against non-essential travel to Pakistan and warns against entering certain areas of the country for any reason at all due to the threat of terrorism or kidnapping, and the potential for civil unrest and sectarian violence.

In a statement to Newshub, the company said: "Intrepid follows government travel advisories from our key traveller markets when making decisions about operating trips in destinations. As the advice may differ depending on your location, we recommend travellers consult their own local foreign travel advisory when considering if travel to a destination is permitted or appropriate for them."

Gray added: "We have incredibly experienced local leaders who are very versed in operating these trips. Our itineraries are carefully planned, we don't take unnecessary risks and we have a lot of connections with our suppliers as well. So we have a lot of confidence in the way that our trips are operated."

While the risks associated with Pakistan may have deterred people from exploring the country in the past, it's not officially considered the most dangerous nation on Intrepid's list at the time of publishing.

Iran is notorious for the danger it can pose to foreign travellers and New Zealanders are currently advised not to travel there at all by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

"Do not travel to Iran due to the potential for violent civil unrest, the risk of arrest or detention and the volatile security situation in the region (level 4 of 4)," reads MFAT's Safe Travel website.

"New Zealanders who are currently in Iran are advised to depart."

Earlier this year, Iran faced international condemnation for killing a British-Iranian national in what the UK called a politically motivated execution.

A brutal crackdown on protesters following the police killing of Mahsa Amini in recent months has also drawn global outcry, and a couple of wealthy New Zealand travel influencers were infamously detained in Iran in late 2022.

"Iran is obviously a tricky one, given recent events, and I can understand that people who were apprehensive before and maybe even more so now. That's certainly understandable," said Gray.

"Personally, I would go back in a heartbeat if the travel advice was different to what it is now. The moment we have the green light to travel again to Iran, I would definitely go back to support the incredible people over there."

Berbers Expedition, Morocco.
Berbers Expedition, Morocco. Photo credit: Intrepid Travel / Ryan Bolton

Despite the current travel warnings, Intrepid's Women's Expeditions to Iran is currently advertised on the official website.

The company told Newshub: "The safety of our travellers is of paramount importance and based on this advice and consultation with our local on-ground team, we have cancelled all departures until August 19, 2023. We continue to closely monitor the situation and reassess the safety of resuming travel to Iran around three months prior to departure."

Gray has travelled to Iran twice and loved her time there.

"When I arrived, I was very surprised to learn that we have a large team of female leaders who were representative of a large percentage of Iranian women who are fully integrated into the workforce. They're young, modern, highly educated - most Iranians, including women have one if not two university degrees. They're incredibly independent , vivacious and career driven," she said.

"When I went to a beauty salon, the hijabs came off, the coats were hung up, women had purple hair and bright red lipstick, beautifully manicured nails and American pop music blasting. It didn't matter that I couldn't understand a word of the Farsi being spoken around me because I could have been in a beauty salon in any part of the world.

"Those are the moments that I think we all travel for, where you realise that you are much more alike than not to a lot of people. You know, you connect with people in a really unique way and you realise that the women are no different to you, or your sister or mother.

"Those moments of breaking down barriers and making connections are really the essence of these trips and of travel in general as well."

Poon Hill, Nepal., Intrepid Womens Expeditions.
Poon Hill, Nepal. Photo credit: Intrepid Travel / Matt Cherubino

Although Iran can be explored with Intrepid's Women's Expeditions, Saudi Arabia cannot and won't be any time soon - but maybe one day.

"There's a lot of reasons we wouldn't rush into operating there," said Gray.

"But Intrepid doesn't boycott destinations. We believe that travel is a really important way to connect and support local people all around the world. The best way we can do that is by supporting and understanding local people - their own experiences, realities and challenges.

"But Saudi Arabia is unique and I don't think I need to go into detail when I say that it presents a lot of challenges."

As with any travel package, potential customers should carefully consider the terms and conditions of the Intrepid's Women's Expeditions before purchasing, as well as the current official travel advice.