Rise of the 'wander woman': Solo travel rising among 'superboomers'
Solo travel is on the rise among females and 'superboomers,' according to two recent industry surveys. (Photo courtesy Kim Francois)
Published Wednesday, June 3, 2015 8:39AM EDT
Four years ago, at the age of 53, Kim Francois' life took a sudden sharp turn. Her plan of retiring with her husband of 30 years to a sunny locale in Mexico was abruptly pulled off the table, as she separated from her long-time partner.
Faced with this new reality, the retired Air Canada flight attendant and building designer decided that she needed to shake things up, and set out on a new plan: challenge herself and see the world.
"I found myself facing this solitude and I had to choose how to go on," she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview from Ottawa.
"I wasn't ready for a rocking chair, I wanted to inspire my granddaughter and make her proud. So my motto became 'challenge yourself.'"
Since then, Francois has set out on several adventurous journeys that have taken her to nearly every corner of the earth to try almost every type of activity.
Over the past four years, she has raced ATVs through the desert in Morocco and drank tea with a maharaj in India. She worked in an orphanage in Peru and trekked to Machu Picchu. She rode horses in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan and even ventured to grand heights in Canada, rappelling down Toronto’s City Hall for charity.
"This wasn't part of my life plan," she said with a laugh. "I wasn't supposed to become Indiana Jones, but it seems like I have."
Rise of the 'solo traveller'
Francois is among a new group of solo travellers that are slowly changing the travel and hospitality industry.
According to the 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions Study, solo travel is on an upward trend. This year's study surveyed more than 13,600 travellers over the age of 17 from 25 different countries.
It found that the incidence of travellers who travelled alone on their most recent overseas leisure trip had increased to 24 per cent in 2015, up from 15 per cent in 2013.
Solo travel has almost doubled among affluent and first-time travellers, and has increased among the so-called "Superboomers" – adults over the age of 44 – to 18 per cent, up from 16 per cent in 2013.
Prof. Gabor Forgacs, from Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said the rise of solo travel is a reflection of changing population trends.
"The travel industry looks very carefully at demographics, and tries to understand people's changing travel patterns," he told CTVNews.ca. "They noticed that there's a significant growth in single households; there are more people living alone than ever before, so logically there's a change in travel patterns."
But it's not just single people who are driving the change, Forgacs said, noting that many people who are in relationships are simply opting to vacation alone.
"Even people in relationships, more frequently than ever before, are electing to take a solo trip," he said, noting that different hobbies and interests usually lead couples to take separate holidays.
"Maybe one of the partners wants to swim with the dolphins, while the other partner prefers hiking… neither should abandon their dreams," he said.
And the industry is eager to capitalize on this growing group of travellers, by offering special packages, tours and accommodations geared towards single people, he said.
For example, several cruise companies have started offering state rooms designed for those travelling alone, and some holiday companies that sell packaged vacations have started to waive the single supplement fees that are typically charged to solo travellers.
Forgacs said there are even a few companies that have begun to offer single-sex holiday trips, where all of the participants are either female or male. The purpose of these types of trips is not for meeting a romantic partner or hooking up, but to simply travel without the pressures of "trying to impress anyone."
"They're not interested in finding a partner, they're not interested in flirting, they just want to let it all loose," he said.
Another emerging travel trend is the rise in solo travel by women.
In a TripAdvisor survey of more than 9,000 women this year, 41 per cent of respondents said they've travelled alone before. However, that figure spikes to 74 per cent when combined with the women who said they're planning on travelling solo in 2015.
When asked what was the greatest factor driving them to travel alone, 54 per cent said they preferred the freedom, and 35 per cent said they valued the independence and challenge of travelling solo.
Francois was reminded of this last point during her most recent journey to the Son Doong Cave in northern Vietnam.
Discovered in 1991, the cave has only been open to the public for two years. It is the biggest cave in the world, with some parts of it measuring more than 80 stories high. A drone video shot from inside the cave recently went viral, showcasing its spectacular beauty.
But touring Son Doong isn't for the faint of heart.
People wishing to visit must be in good physical health, as exploring it will involve climbing and descending steep inclines in harsh conditions. Just getting to the cave involves a 16-kilometre hike through the steamy north Vietnamese jungle.
Still, when Francois heard about Son Doong she knew she had to at least try.
"Fewer people have been to space, and fewer people have climbed Mount Everest than have been in this cave so far," she said. "It's quite a unique experience, and I wanted to do it."
So she applied, and once accepted, she packed up her belongings and made the 48-hour trek to northeastern Vietnam where she faced the toughest conditions she's ever experienced.
From crossing fast-moving rivers to climbing up hilly terrain, Francois said just hiking to the cave pushed her to her physical and mental limits.
But when she and her tour group reached Son Doong, she realized it was all worth it.
"It was a surreal moment … it was what I imagine astronauts must feel like, where your mind cannot quite envelop where you are," she said.
"What is that moment like? It was a mind-blowing experience… you just cannot believe where you are. It's that beautiful, that spectacular and that frightening."
Francois spent a total of five days in Son Doong, crossing its rivers, climbing through its underground jungle, and exploring its crevices.
Now, safely back home in Canada, she said she's already looking forward to her next adventure. She even briefly looked into applying for the Mars One mission to the red planet, though she ultimately abandoned the idea after considering her two daughters and three-year-old granddaughter, who she calls the “light of her life.”
Francois said that while she appreciates that many will read her story and become inspired by her travels, she's just doing what feels right for her.
"I don't just want to sit and grow old," she said. "I'm just not ready to say 'OK, I've done everything… now I'll just sit back and relax.'
“I want to keep challenging myself … there were times on this last trip, honestly, where I thought ‘I’m going to die down here,’” she said.
“Sometimes you have to go through the darkness to get to the light, and I'm glad I got through."