Before heading off on a recent voyage aboard a luxury yacht in Qatar, five guests happily gave up their mobile phones.
The Qatari women then sailed off on a boat staffed entirely by females. Uncovering their hair, they danced to Arabic music played by a female DJ.
Later, they removed their abayas, donned swimsuits and relaxed on the yacht’s deck, eating lunch prepared by a female chef from a five-star hotel. If they had wanted to scuba dive, a female instructor could also have been arranged.
The luxury boat hire is just one of several female-only recreational services popping up in Qatar to cater to women inside the country, as well as tourists from across the Gulf who are uncomfortable socializing with men.
Other ventures include guided desert tours and international trips just for women.
Pink Lady Charters
One of the newest services is a yacht rental company.
Recognizing a gap in the market when it came to segregated socializing activities, Pink Lady Charters has started offering all-female cabin crews for tours ranging from two hours to overnight stays, placing a premium on privacy to attract all-female clientele.
The firm is already planning to introduce more yachts in the coming months to meet demand, said Katie Tucker, Pink Lady’s sales manager and one of its three crew members.
Speaking to Doha News, she added:
“You will (usually) find a yacht with female deckhands, but with a male captain. This (company) is completely unique because we have Bianca, our female captain.
“At the moment our customer base is more local but we have received a lot of requests from other GCC customers, especially from Saudi Arabia.”
Charter trips with Pink Lady range from two to 12 hours and rates start at QR6,500, more expensive than the typical mixed-gender rental.
The company also provides overnight trips on its two-story, two-bedroom watercraft for groups of women to visit neighboring islands, the UAE or Bahrain.
“Men are everywhere, so it’s nice to come here and not worry about what I do or what I wear,” Aisha Ahmed, 19, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, said.
“These services don’t require much; they’re safe, private and accessible – three things most Qatari girls are always looking for,” said Aisha Al-Saad, a graphic design student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.
Al-Saad, who recently marked her 20th birthday on a Pink Lady yacht, added: “I am hoping to celebrate more parties here again.”
By the numbers
Though not everyone can afford a luxury boat tour, companies do have a financial incentive to cater to more conservative visitors in Qatar, simply because there are so many of them.
In the past five years, the number of people visiting Qatar from other Gulf states has doubled to 1.3 million, according to Qatar Tourism Authority’s Annual Tourism Performance report.
Last year, some 44 percent of the near-three million visitors to Qatar were from the GCC and more than one-fifth of those were from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi visitors have been increasingly attracted to Qatar as a holiday destination due to the tourism offerings here which respect the social and cultural norms of many people from the country.
That effort has been paying off.
Last month, Qatar was named the fifth friendliest country to visit for Muslim travelers by an international index that tracks “halal-friendly” tourism, while Singapore-based HalalTrip listed Doha as among the top 10 cities to visit by the “trip advisor for Muslims” in February.
For those feeling adventurous, local tourism startup Tartebkum Holidays offers all-women trips to different countries around the world.
Noora AlAmri, a Qatari mother of eight and Tartebkum’s owner, holds guided tours to destinations like Sri Lanka, Austria and Japan to Arab women over 18 years old.
Speaking to Doha News, she explained:
“There are a lot of divorced women and widows who want to travel and explore the world but have no one to take them because in our culture, most women can’t travel alone.”
In Qatar, local women under 25 years old must secure exit permits from a male relative before traveling.
Both AlAmri and Pink Lady staffers are personally involved with this approval process and assist customers with the paperwork.
Tartebkum also takes local groups of women on Qatar desert safaris to Al Ghariya, Al Zubarah and Sealine.
“Catering specifically to an untapped local market like Qatari women, I would have a unique advantage that no other travel and tourism company in the GCC could possess,” AlAmri said.
AlAmri added that she understands the cultural restrictions some Qatari women face.
“Most people find it shameful for women to go to these places (deserts) because they are open,” she said. “I try to arrange indoor private areas during these trips where the ladies can really enjoy themselves and not worry about cultural stereotypes.”
Dana Al Ansari, 29, an employee at the Museum of Islamic Art, went on a Sealine trip with Tartebkum and will travel to Japan this month with the company.
“An all-girls’ trip is way more fun than traveling with men. You feel more at ease and you can connect with other women,” she said.
Although Tartebkum’s customer base is mostly Qatari, AlAmri plans to expand her operation to elsewhere in the Arab region.
She said she hopes Qatar will introduce more female-only travel services to accommodate women’s desire for privacy. “If there’s one thing that women here need, it’s enjoying leisure services in private,” she said.
Not all of Qatar’s female-only leisure and tourism services involve luxury rentals. In 2013, Alijarah Limousine introduced Qatar’s first all-female limousine service.
“We searched the market before introducing this female service and we still see demand for female drivers,” Mervin Macasset, 36, marketing officer at Alijarah, said.
“According to the culture, most of the time, women want to be driven by ladies. They don’t want to be driven by men,” said Cecilie Wanji, a 35-year-old Kenyan driver who has been working at the company for three years.
Reem Nasser, 38, a stay-at-home Qatari mother of five daughters, has used Alijarah for more than a year. “I can count on them to take my daughters to school … and I don’t have to worry about them being alone with a male driver,” she said.
Though Uber in Qatar operates under Alijarah, it has no female drivers nor plans to introduce them, Macasset said.
Would you use any women-only services? Thoughts?