How sustainable travel is empowering women and changing lives in Morocco
Intrepid Travel’s initiatives are creating economic opportunities for local women and girls through partnerships with organisations like Education for All.
by: Angela McManus
30 Oct 2023
Intrepid’s 15-day adventure through some of Morocco’s most spectacular regions takes travellers on a journey to awaken the senses
Advertorial from Intrepid Travel
Travel can be a powerful force for good, as Intrepid Travel is demonstrating through its sustainable tourism initiatives in Morocco. By partnering with local organisations and investing in opportunities for women, Intrepid is empowering local communities and changing lives.
I’m not sure what I was aware of first when I stepped in the doorway and walked up the steps—the rhythmic beating of the drums, hands clapping and voices singing, or the mouthwatering aroma wafting out from the small kitchen. In the hallway, there were warm greetings, kisses on both cheeks, and before I knew it, glasses of hot mint tea were being poured as we sat down on benches covered in rugs and brightly colored cushions.
I’d been offered a rare insight into how some Moroccan women spend an evening at home with friends. There were smiles, gentle inquiries about family, and compliments, quickly followed by uproarious laughter, tales of shared experiences, and bonding you’d never experience on a regular sightseeing trip.
Zineb Soufahi opens her home, and kitchen, in the Marrakech medina to small groups of independent travelers from Intrepid Travel, giving them an unforgettable taste of real life for women in Morocco today. It’s an encounter that will stay long in their memories, a fascinating glimpse of life inside the walls of a local home. More importantly for Zineb, it’s a way to earn money, support her family, and achieve a level of independence.
That’s more significant than ever since a powerful earthquake hit the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech in Morocco on 8 September, killing more than 3,000 people and affecting hundreds of thousands who either lost their homes or family members, or were injured. The Intrepid Foundation immediately launched a disaster appeal, working with two of their partner charities who are already operating in the affected areas. Zineb and her family were relatively lucky—there was damage to their home, but they’re living in temporary accommodation until repairs are carried out.
Zineb’s work with Intrepid brings into sharp focus why tourists should keep coming to Morocco to support its people and the economy. Morocco is one of the major destinations for Intrepid in terms of the number of travellers and staff on the ground. This bond between Intrepid and Morocco is underpinned by Zina Bencheikh, managing director EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) of Intrepid, who is herself Moroccan. “Intrepid is so close to this country; there’s a personal connection,” she says. “Some of the areas worst affected by the earthquake are heavily reliant on tourism.
Thousands of families work in the industry, running guest houses and restaurants or working as tour guides. Many have lost their homes or family members. We have to remember that the travel industry can have an amazing, empowering impact on these communities and that’s why we need to return as soon as possible where it’s safe to do so. Most of the country wasn’t impacted by the earthquake, and as a responsible tour operator, we know the worst thing that could happen to the country is if people didn’t come here on holiday.”
A decision by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to go ahead with planned annual meetings in Marrakech in October, just weeks after the earthquake, was a clear signal that Morocco is open and welcoming visitors. From the IMF to Zineb, everyone has a part to play in the future of tourism here. Zineb used to work as Zina’s housekeeper, and when her family moved to Casablanca, Zina suggested that Zineb consider hosting groups of travellers as a new way to work.
If you empowera woman, youempower a village
Zina Bencheikh,Managing director, EMEA, Intrepid
“She’s doing really well, to the point we need another two or three Zinebs now, there’s so much demand,” smiles Zina. “That saying if you empower a woman, you empower a village – it’s so true.” Zineb is one example of how Intrepid is changing not just the way we travel, but the sustainable economic opportunities for those who work in the wider industry. And at the heart of that work in Europe and North Africa is Zina. Born in Marrakech, she grew up in Canada and studied and worked in the UK and France before returning to Morocco. Zina started her career in finance and worked as an auditor before joining Intrepid’s Morocco office as finance manager with seven members in the team. Now, 13 years later, she’s responsible for a region stretching from Iceland to South Africa, and there are more than 400 people in the team.
“We’re uncommonly set up as a tour operator as we’ve vertically integrated,” she explains. “We’ve got sales and marketing selling trips and we have our own operating offices around the world that we call destination management companies. Intrepid has built them as we grow and this makes all the difference. It enables us to have our own tour leaders, accommodation, and resources that we source locally.” That freedom to grow and expand is the perfect environment for Zina’s can-do attitude. About 80% of the staff in Morocco are women and opportunities for them are ever-evolving.
“I’m lucky to be working with Intrepid because it’s a very open company, very modern, there’s no gender discrimination,” she says. The year she became a general manager, Intrepid’s company goal was to double the number of female guides. While working towards obtaining B Corp certification, the travel brand realised there was a disproportionate number of men in relation to women. B Corp certification is awarded to businesses which meet high standards of verified performance, accountability and transparency. These corporations are leaders in the global movement for an inclusive, equitable and regenerative economy. Intrepid had some work to do to meet these standards, already achieved by businesses including Patagonia, Innocent Drinks and Ben & Jerry’s.
Not thinking about cultural issues, Zina said she tackled the problem with a logical brain and the simple question: where are the women? Intrepid was already a leader in sustainable travel and well respected in Morocco, but the figures, finally revealed to Zina after lobbying the Ministry of Tourism, indicated that only 4% of the entire pool of tour guides in the country were women. “But 25% of the workforce in Morocco is female, so there was a massive discrepancy,” says Zina. “Why are there not more women tour guides? Then I realised what was wrong. In other countries you can go to university, get a degree and become a guide. In Morocco you have to wait for a test to be organised by the Ministry of Tourism but that can take years, decades even. One of our female guides took the test and qualified in 2018, but the test before that was in the late 1990s. So we had to start lobbying for another test, otherwise how do we find the female guides? At first the government was sceptical but we said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll bring the women to sit the test.’”
The first travel company to employ female tour guides in Morocco, Intrepid now sometimes sees its staff poached by other travel companies. “It’s funny, it makes me smile,” laughs Zina. “Change is happening.” She adds: “Whether working in the office or as tour guides, we see that women are treated equally, they receive development and opportunities to grow, from interns all the way to management.” The ripple effect of this thinking means not just opportunities for women like Zineb but for young girls living in remote mountain villages whose education ends at primary school. High school is too far to travel to, so they stay in their village with limited options but to marry young and have children. Donations from the Intrepid Foundation help to fund Education for All, a charity that has built boarding houses close to schools that offer girls a safe place to live and study, pass their exams and move on to university. It’s yet another link in the chain of sustainable travel supporting gender equity.
One of those girls whose life changed thanks to Education for All is Zahra Ait Boumessaoud, a 26-year-old who now works as a sales consultant for Intrepid in Marrakech. Zahra is one of five siblings, and her education was due to finish at the age of 12, but the charity’s support meant she could carry on studying, finally going to university. “Education for All came at the right moment. If I hadn’t gone to stay there and carry on my education, I don’t even want to imagine what my life would be like,” she says. “I know I’m lucky. Other girls my age who didn’t get the chance I had to finish their studies are now married with kids. My family is very proud of me, especially my father. Where I was and where I am now… he said it feels like a dream.”
The foundation supports other grassroots projects around the world that make a meaningful impact, from Seven Women—providing educational classes, skills training, and income generation programs to empower women in Nepal—to Patinaai Osim, supporting Indigenous Maasai women to create sustainable livelihoods in Kenya. “Encouraging opportunities for women is all about sisterhood,” says Zina. “The travel industry globally employs one in 10 people and 54% of them are women versus 39% in the wider industries. It’s an industry that attracts more women than men, so if you support the travel industry, you support meaningful work for women. The devil is in the detail though. You will find many unpaid or low-paid jobs and no leadership positions. So there’s a lot to improve. Meanwhile, more than 80% of travel purchases are made by women. So if you’re doing the right thing by women, you will attract more customers. And if you do that, you have a better business.”
Empowering women in travel is a hot topic, which Zina will discuss with the First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, at London’s World Travel Market, one of the biggest industry events, which runs from 6-8 November. Looking to the future of travel, when we ask Zina to name the three key issues that will have an effect, she only has one: climate change. She says there’s no easy way to change the business model of the travel industry, but it has to be done. Citing research on the car industry by a consumer behaviorist, Zina believes that the travel industry should take a similar approach by leading, rather than relying on customers to request the change to more sustainable travel. She adds, “This is something we’re working on now. We have to extend the season in Europe, so we’re thinking we’ll have more trips in Spain and Italy in November and December. We’ll have people going north more; we’re already seeing a boom in Scandinavian countries, and Iceland has never done as well. Finland, Norway, and to some extent the Baltics are more popular because it’s less hot. Meanwhile, places like the Middle East and North Africa in summer may eventually become no-go areas.”
As lobbying of the Moroccan government continues to create jobs for more female tour guides, the future for women in the industry is looking brighter. Zineb tells me she hopes to expand her work with Intrepid, reaching out to more families and eventually expanding her homestay program to include women in other towns in the Atlas Mountains, but first and foremost, they’re repairing the damage to their home and hope to be back in it soon. There’s an important message here for anyone planning to travel, and it comes in the words of a well-known quote: “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” For Zineb and Zahra, and the many women like them in Morocco and elsewhere, travel isn’t just about seeing the world—it’s about making the world a better place to live in. And Intrepid’s mission to encourage women’s empowerment in the travel industry is a big step toward making that happen.
Building Bright Futures
One of the charities in Morocco supported by the Intrepid Foundation is Education for All. The charity was set up to ensure girls from remote villages in the High Atlas region can continue their studies. More than 80% of women in the country’s rural areas are illiterate. Among the barriers to education are the long journeys to reach schools, and cultural attitudes which mean some girls leave school at a young age, often after primary school.
That’s where Education for All comes in—providing a way for girls to access education and set them up for an empowered life and career. Set up to provide access to education for girls in remote rural areas, they are a home away from home for girls aged 12 to 18. The girls are given three meals a day, hot showers, cosy beds, computer access, and the support of a dedicated house mother. This provides everything they need to settle in and thrive in their studies.
The girls benefit from additional study support and return home to their families at the weekend. The results speak for themselves, with the girls achieving school test scores more than double the national average. House mother Khadija Oukattou said the charity provides a safe, family environment for the girls to study. “We motivate them and try to give them confidence,” she said. “When they leave, they go on to university, some have doctorates, others masters degrees. We’re very proud of them. This is another life for the girls, they develop whole new personalities. It’s what we dream about.”
For every traveler who visits Morocco with Intrepid, the Intrepid Foundation makes a donation to Education for All on their behalf. It’s no surprise that when many travelers find out more about the charity’s work, they make a donation of their own. There’s peace of mind for anyone who donates through the Intrepid Foundation, knowing that the money goes directly towards supporting the girls through secondary school and bringing a generation of women out of the cycle of illiteracy, poverty, and early marriage.
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