Redefining the Way Women Travel in India

F5 Escapes is a unique start-up company committed to
enabling and ensuring safety of women-only travel in India. Founders, Malini
Gowrishankar and Akanksha Bumb started the company with the premise to change
the perception that India is an unsafe travel destination for women. Today they
curate many experiences for single and group female inbound tourists and also
keep the local economy alive.

CSP caught up with the founders of F5 Escapes on why they
took to entrepreneurship, what drives them, and out-of-the-box ideas to promote
responsible tourism in India:

Image source: F5 Escapes

What inspired you to take up entrepreneurship and why tourism?

Akanksha: Travel planning has been a passion. I wanted people
to experience India in a way that forms a connection and not just as a tick on
the box. Tourism in India is an exciting place to be. It is challenging, no
doubt, but that is all the more reason to be in this space. Entrepreneurship
gave me the freedom of experimenting and approaching an itinerary in a
non-conventional way. Building something from ground up and creating a work
culture that is unique and reflects our shared values, is what keeps us
motivated.

Malini: Travel and giving back to the community are things that
keep me going. Hence entrepreneurship, that too in tourism, was a natural
choice for me. The choice of women travel weighed heavily in the fact that
India wasn't considered a women-friendly destination and the time was ripe to
solve that problem.

In your eyes, what is
the best that India has to offer in terms of experiential travel?

Akanksha: If it has to be one thing I pick, it will be people.
We are a beautiful chaos. India is such a diverse country and every nook has a
different story to tell. Although the people are so different from one another
– even within the same state boundaries – the warmth is consistent. Once you
start immersing yourself in the lives of your hosts, your experience becomes
layered, multi-faceted and so much more emotional.

Malini: For me, it is the mind boggling cultural diversity
again, over and above the rich geographical diversity and ancient history. No
other country has such a unique combination of features and I truly feel
honored to represent and showcase India in the travel arena.

Yes, Padhaaro Mhaaro Des. Vaango!

Image source: F5 Escapes

Your motto is to
redefine the way women travel in India through F5 Escapes. Can you explain?

Akanksha: Growing up, I never thought travelling as a woman
will be difficult or any different from travelling as a man. My naïveté stemmed
from the fact that as a young woman, I was accorded the same freedom and
confidence at home as my male counterparts. It was only when I looked around at
my female classmates and colleagues and saw their and their families’ inhibition
to go out alone, I realised that I was raised as an exception. When I started
travelling on my own, I understood some of their fears and inhibitions. Travel
for women needs to be redefined in India, not because women lack capability,
but because our mind-sets and general infrastructure do not support our free
movement. As a country, we are still not used to seeing a woman on her own; and
as women, we are seldom taught or encouraged to be on our own. F5 Escape’s
approach is two-pronged – change the mind-set that still isn’t very comfortable
seeing a woman by herself and create support systems, safety measures and a
vetted list of vendors to enable a safe and comfortable journey.

Malini: Interestingly, my life had been the other extreme and
that's what made me take up to travel. I grew up in a very protected
environment where I was not allowed to venture anywhere in the same city on my
own, let alone travel to somewhere else by myself. I know for a fact that it
takes tremendous guts to take that first step. The presence of a support system
like F5 for women can accelerate this process of claiming their own space and
help them feel way more confident in the process. The rest, Akanksha has
explained very well.

Image source: F5 Escapes

In your assessment,
from which country does India get the maximum amount of interest and why?

Both: Based on the data we have, the USA has been a major
contributor to inbound tourism. A lot of first generation NRIs – across
countries – have a great interest in rediscovering their roots. This segment is
also potentially more open to experience authentic local tourism.

What are the ways in
which India can become tourist friendly and offer to the world distinct value
propositions?

Akanksha: Civic sense. As a country we have failed so many of
our heritage monuments and natural landscapes. 
Most of our hikes are littered with plastic. Some of our monuments are
defaced with spit marks and graffiti. As citizens, we need to be more aware of
how we dispose of what we consume and how we leave a place we enjoyed, intact
for other to enjoy it as well.

From the government and civic bodies, we need better waste
management systems and not just in cities. Most of India’s tourist destinations
are smaller towns and they just don’t have the wherewithal to handle the waste
that tourism generates; mountains especially.

Malini: Clean toilets - there is a lot of work to be done in
this area. Natural loos, compost toilets, etc., I am sure would find acceptance
among tourists as long as they are clean and hygienic. Embracing technology - a
tourist will feel much safer in a country if they have access to local
amenities - police, hospital, judiciary, etc. With the connected world that we
have, time is ripe to cut thru the red tape and make important services
accessible to tourists via technology. 
Encourage problem solvers - encourage more and more problem solvers /
travel entrepreneurs - ensures that the benefits of the various schemes
actually reaches the folks who deserve to be helped.

Image source: F5 Escapes

What are the
increasing or changing areas of interests for inbound international tourists
vis-a-vis India?

Akanksha: I would like to believe that tourism is getting more
local in terms of experience.

Malini: I strongly agree with Akanksha. With travel
infrastructure becoming standardised across the world, local experiences are
the key differentiators of the future. I think language based tourism can be a
great idea. For example, someone from Japan can come to Tamil Nadu to study
Tamil. India is home to some of the most ancient languages in the world and we
have a ripe opportunity there for the future.

Medical tourism and
film tourism seems to be lucrative and are picking up. Your thoughts?

Both: As long as the money flows back to local operators and
the practices are ethical and unexploitative, why not!

What ought to be done
to enable the soft skills of the labour force in the Indian tourism industry?

Both: Sensitisation. The one thing we hear the most from our
foreign and domestic clients is that they get stared at a lot. The curiosity of
seeing someone who looks very different or even seeing a woman alone, results
in stares. It is often harmless and occurs just because it is not commonplace.
Sensitising the workforce about interpersonal communication – verbal and
non-verbal can go a long way in making India a women-friendly country for
travel.

Image source: F5 Escapes

What would be your
recommendations for India to tap into the potential of social media to attract
inbound tourists?

Both: Responsive tourism boards. Encouraging local operators.
Regular meets of stakeholders and more ease of doing business.

If you were to suggest a possible campaign for tourism in India, what would it entail?T

Think
Beyond the Taj Mahal!