Mexico’s Zipolite beach was advertised in an article as an expat-filled sandy 1960s utopia perched on the sunny Oaxacan Riviera. Picturing Joan Baez and John Lennon lookalikes sunning themselves on batik blankets, I booked a bus ticket from Oaxaca City to Zipolite and a room at the article’s recommended hotel.
But upon arrival, I found a strangely lonely beach and several men who persistently followed me around, offering drugs and demanding companionship. It was far from Shangri-La for a woman alone, and I began to wonder if travel books and articles, written mostly by men, failed to properly assist and prepare female travelers.
Women shouldn’t have to fear for their safety, or spend their vacation time searching for things specific to women ignored by their Lonely Planets and Rough Guides. In a brave new world where women are traveling just as much as men, we need to provide productive and thoughtful travel advice for women.
Women’s guidebooks would employ female writers to write both from personal experience and armed with statistics from studies. Women’s travel apps, meanwhile, would crowdsource from the hivemind of women who ardently love to travel. Rather than the Lonely Planet “Women Travellers” section, which spans only three paragraphs for an entire continent in my poor South America book, these guidebooks and apps would provide a wealth of information that would prepare women to get out there and joyfully travel, risks and all.
Here are the reasons why we need travel guidebooks and apps for women now.
When my friend and I prepared to travel to South Korea together, I purchased the Lonely Planet Korea book and automatically turned to the buried back section in every Lonely Planet called “Women Travellers.” I always gasp-laugh when I see how short the section is, but for Korea, it says merely this: “Korea is a relatively crime-free country for all tourists, including women, but the usual precautions should be taken. Korea is a very male-dominated society, although it is becoming less so.” I’m guessing that Airdre Mattner, an Australian woman who was drugged, abducted and raped while on vacation in Seoul in September 2015, as well as any other survivors of rape (to give you an idea about average yearly statistics, 22,034 rapes were reported in 2011 in South Korea, according to the Korea Herald) would dispute the latter part of the second sentence after experiences with the police. VICE reported on police sexism regarding rape in South Korea, but my Lonely Planet had almost nothing to say that would’ve prepared me and my friend for how to deal with police or the system, or what the laws were. If you’re not an American with a powerful embassy to help you in that particular country, you have no other guidance. And according to these countries, you’re the criminal if you’re raped.
Rape laws vary widely across the world, as do the rape cultures that form the de facto laws that rule daily life. India, which has seen its rape rates go up in recent years, has implemented emergency helplines, resource cards at immigration entry points and GPS tracking systems in taxis, but has seen a politically conservative resurgence that has perpetuated rape culture. Furthermore, the problem of few private toilets has exacerbated the rape crisis in India, and would be an important factoid for female visitors to know, especially if they are considering doing volunteer work in areas where private toilets are rare. However, I have never seen a Lonely Planet or Rough Guides book do any of the following things: detail national rape laws, list hotline numbers, give pointers on how to deal with police, note how to say “I’ve been raped” and “I want a lawyer” in the native tongue, give the website of a nonprofit offering legal assistance, or provide resources to begin prosecuting or documenting a rape in that particular nation. “Just go to the embassy,” is the refrain, but embassies can be harder to get fast help from than you think.
Guidebooks, in my experience, have utterly failed in regard to harassment, as well. “Don’t go to bars or nightclubs alone, for one—this is an activity only undertaken by the most brazen prostitutes in the region, and you will be considered fair game,” The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget informed me. Not only is the phrase “fair game” completely sexist, but many friends have told me that this is totally false in many areas. I also find the phrase “brazen prostitutes” to be insensitive in its framing of sex workers (the phrase “brazen hussy” rang through my ears). Why would I trust someone who writes this way, especially a man who has never experienced street harassment, on how I should conduct myself?
The following statement on harassment in the same book left me head-spinningly confused: “Don’t be sarcastic or scream if approached, as the man in question may feel that you are showing him up in front of his friends and get more macho and aggressive. However, don’t be afraid to seem rude; even the mildest polite response will be considered an indication of serious interest.” In other words, women are supposed to be rude and not even mildly polite, but are to be careful not to appear sarcastic (or they may be “fair game” … ?). Women are being told to toe the line, rather than how to travel boldly while taking calculated risks, which is what all travelers do.
Women’s guidebooks would eschew vague generalizations in favor of documented reports on various cities and regions, as well as develop a star system for the level of comfort and safety attributes at various bars, hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. An online and mobile app companion to these women’s guidebooks would allow reviews from other travelers on levels of sexual harassment and update readers on new developments, such as additional lighting, posted anti-harassment policies or local news reports. Particular bars have been reported in repeat instances of women being drugged with rohypnol, and a star system and reviews for female travelers would alert them to such major problems, as well as to factors such as uncooperative bar management that refuses to review video surveillance or doesn’t have any at all.
Why don’t we have the travel Yelp for women? I’m willing to bet that more than a few big female venture capitalists or millionaires would be happy to incubate such a startup.
Photo by Wang He/Getty
Illness often strikes when you least expect it, and a vacation is the worst time to get sick. But as any woman who’s ever gotten a urinary tract infection knows, a UTI is a special form of hell that requires the constant availability of a restroom, which can be difficult to find while on the move in a foreign country (and that’s just one of the many gynecological problems a woman could face). Not only could women’s guidebooks detail the most easily-accessible public and pay restrooms, but they could detail the general procedures, hours, national health care info, insurance options, contact info and locations of local urgent care and OB/GYN clinics and emergency rooms. Reviews by women who have utilized these services could be posted to online apps.
For me, even finding pads was a challenge in a small town in Cuba, because I didn’t know where to look or how to ask in Spanish (of course, my Lonely Planet Cuba lacked these phrases in its language section). Finally, by searching several stores, I found a few small, expensive packages on a bottom shelf in a small grocery store. Some countries do not offer tampons, often because of outdated, sexist views on the hymen, and Midol might be available in some countries in tourist zones.
For pregnant women or mothers traveling, meanwhile, bathrooms with changing tables and friendly spaces with nursing rooms should be mapped. Any complications or emergencies may be especially frightening to treat. If circumcision is typical and automatic in that country, information on how to communicate regarding that procedure should be readily available to women, in case she goes into early labor. These books and apps could also detail the labor customs in specific countries, as they can vary drastically. Women’s travel guidebooks could detail everything from pregnant-friendly customs in public spaces (for instance, Brazil has separate checkout lines at the bank, post office and grocery store for pregnant mothers and seniors) to the availability of a midwife, a water birth or an epidural.
A woman who is living long-term in a country may need to have an annual exam, a mammogram, STD treatments or vaccinations. She may need to obtain or refill her birth control, and would need to know local laws regarding birth control. If she needs an abortion, she might need a translator or a multilingual clinic that will walk her through the papers and the process. Certainly an updated list of the laws regarding birth control and abortion would be helpful, plus a list of the regions and cities where there is access to abortion.
Unfortunately, women’s bodies across the world are highly monitored, and knowing how to dress for the occasion can be helpful. I wasn’t sure before I went to Turkey how liberal I could go in my going-out attire. I was woefully unprepared during a night out on Istanbul’s busy Istiklal Street as I thought it would be fairly conservative but instead found that the fashionable women there rivaled NYC’s Meatpacking District in their strappy dresses and high heels. On the converse, I was underprepared for Istanbul’s mosques, where I had to strap the mosque’s velcroed floor-length skirt around my waist to cover up my already knee-length skirt. During my first trip to Mexico, I experienced some uncomfortable stares and harassing comments when I wore short shorts. Women in Mexico’s interior seldom wear shorts, especially short shorts, and they were all I had brought in preparation for the heat of late May. And in Japan and Korea, only relatives told me that for modesty, I’d have to wear a long T-shirt on top of my bikini at the beach, especially because of my tattoos.
Travel guides for women could detail the most common code of conduct regarding wardrobe, without adopting body-shaming language. The guide could detail what religious spaces expect in terms of attire and where to buy clothing for specific purposes, such as bathing suits, nursing bras and maternity clothing.
Dating customs are diverse. I remember feeling culture shock despite growing up in a Korean-American household, when I tried to learn how to date in Seoul for my study abroad year. Not only did booking clubs completely confuse and repulse me, but also the Korean propensity for structure reared its orderly head when it came to dating. There was “sogaeting” (a one-on-one setup via a friend) and “meeting” (a more casual group date), and later there was “bungaeting” or “lightning dating” (spontaneous meetups via online apps). In countries like South Korea, gender relations mean that dating as a woman is very different from dating as a man. In a booking club, the woman is supposed to pretend that she is refusing, and be faux-dragged by the waiter-matchmaker to the men (remember what I said before about rape culture?), and an element of that absurdity pervades dating in general. If you had not been told this beforehand as a woman visiting Korea, you would probably be utterly confused.
If you’re queer, the situation is even more complicated. The Independent reports that research done by the ILGA says that LGBT relationships are illegal in 74 countries. Travel guidebooks usually make a nod toward LGBT dating with a tiny section, but often lean toward writing up more gay clubs and parties than lesbian clubs or parties. Some information on underground parties, insider language and covert signals of lesbian communities would most certainly be helpful in these nations.
Whether the need is condoms, “love motels” or sex toys (which are illegal in quite a few countries), knowing the laws and where to go would be helpful information to many women.
Some temples like this one in Tamil Nadu don’t even allow women to enter, and in Saudi Arabia, sport is so restricted for women that they have formed underground running clubs. If you’re about to study abroad, do a fellowship, transfer for work or otherwise spend an extended amount of time in a nation that is restrictive toward the movements of women—even if the country is liberal—knowing the events and clubs geared toward women would be helpful. Women’s guidebooks could provide opportunities for bonding with other women at the women’s fitness club in Indonesia, women’s belly dance class in Bahrain, women’s research institute in Korea, women’s pop-up museum in Australia, women’s library in Scotland and feminist nonprofit to volunteer at in Afghanistan.
It’s surprising to me every time, but I’ve been encouraged to “take the easy route” on more than a few occasions (and not by my friends, who know my propensity for potato chips and Netflix). Travel guides who’ve just met me, who haven’t even asked about my level of experience, have pushed me toward the easy route because that’s what they think is suitable for women. But, foolhardy creature that I am, I usually go for maximum adventure—it’s why I travel. I want the white water raft heading for the rapids, not the gentle stream, and I don’t want to be told by a pushy guide that I can’t handle it when I’ve done the same class of rapids before and loved every exhilarating, frightening moment of it. How am I ever supposed to scale up if I’m never given the chance to take risks and advance?
Just like being a female customer at a car dealership, you’re going to get some flak just for being a female adventurer. Guidebooks for women would detail the female-led and feminist adventure tours and general tour companies that don’t ask women to take the backseat to men who drive the safari Jeep. These guidebooks would also adequately prepare women for foreign adventure travel, with info on where to rent motorcycles and motorcycle gear that fits women, what gear to bring that they won’t find abroad, and how to negotiate with those who question or limit their ability to do adventure sports.
Dakota Kim is Paste’s food editor and a frequent solo traveler whose family has her in their phones as “Carmen Sandiego” and “The Vagabond.”