How one woman is changing the face of travel in Morocco

Known for its firm commitment to sustainable and ethical travel, Intrepid Travel’s focus on diversity and inclusion has always been at the forefront of everything they do. However, while women currently make up 60 percent of the company’s global staff, only 21 percent of its trip leaders are females and this is something they are currently fighting to change.

Intrepid Travel is striving to double the number of its female tour leaders by 2020, and while this is no easy feat, particularly in nations where gender stereotypes are still deeply ingrained within the culture, change is definitely on the horizon.

After actively campaigning for female tour leaders, the Intrepid team has achieved a 50/50 gender split of new tour leaders for its team in India, and now has a team of 11 female trip leaders who are also working to inspire and empower other women to follow in their footsteps.

Zina Bencheikh is the general manager of Marrakech Peak DMC, part of Intrepid Travel’s network of destination management companies. Based in Morocco, where only a quarter of female Moroccans are in the work force and just three percent of guides are female, Zina is working hard to challenge the stereotypes and has engaged six female guides in just a year.

As Zina works with Intrepid Travel to pave the way towards gender equality in the tourism industry in her native Morocco, she tells us her story and shares her hopes for the future.

When and how did you get your start in the travel industry?

I have always dreamed of working in travel. I took an unconventional path to get there, however. I started in business and at KPMG. I found corporate finance to be unfulfilling and in 2010, decided to move home to Morocco, where I accepted the role of Finance Manager for PEAK DMC Marrakech and shortly thereafter, was promoted to Regional Finance Manager. My involvement in other areas of the business allowed me to grow and move beyond my core competencies. When a vacancy for the General Manager position was made available in June 2017, I took the opportunity to jump into this new function that I have now been in for a year.

What is it you love about working in travel?

Travel changes the way people see the world and I love that our work educates, builds tolerance and enriches lives. Travelling is what I enjoy the most about my job, discovering new places, meeting with the people who make our trips exceptional.

Intrepid Travel, Zina Bencheikh, Marrakech Peak DMC

What sort of challenges do you think face female tour operators, and women wanting to get into the travel and tourism space, particularly in your country, Morocco?

It’s challenging to be a woman in Morocco and not just in tourism. Women in the workforce represent less than 28 percent with very few in strategic positions and leading jobs. More than 80 percent of women in rural areas are illiterate and are therefore economically dependent on men. Moroccan men do not usually help around the house. The female destiny in remote areas is to get married at a very young age and become mothers.
Statistics in tourism are even more shocking as less than four percent of licensed English-speaking tour leaders are female and within that small percentage not many will lead multi day trips, instead leading day tours within the city where they live. The traditional family perception of having a mother, a wife or a daughter spending nights in hotels with a group of foreigners is the real obstacle.

Why do you think it’s important to have female tour guides?

We want travellers to experience the traditions and routines of local women in the destination and we need female leaders to create this contact. The female to female approach allows for a more open dialogue. Female leaders show their country from a different perspective too. Women in countries like Morocco have a lot of stories to tell our travellers about their day-to-day life, their place within society and within the family.

It’s also a way to empower women in general and allow us to share the tourism dollars equally between the two genders. The job of tour leading is lucrative in Morocco. A tour leader is paid between 30EUR and 100EUR a day versus a minimum salary of around 200EUR a month.

Berber, Morocco, Intrepid Travel

What have you learned from your own experience and what advice do you have for other women?

I have the chance to be well-educated, well-travelled and have a senior job in tourism in Morocco, so what I learned is that I am lucky enough to be part of a very small minority of women in my country. I feel I have a responsibility of empowering more girls and women who didn’t have the same chance. I offer opportunities for them to grow in their functions, follow their dreams and think that change is possible.

Intrepid Travel is known to have a strong company ethos, with a particular focus on sustainable travel – what is the company’s policy in regards to gender parity and how is it moving towards this?

Intrepid is open, transparent and committed to do the right thing in business. We have a core strategy of purpose beyond profit. That’s what drives me to achieve the goals I have been given by Intrepid management. One goal is to double the number of female leaders worldwide which we have been working on in Morocco quite heavily in the past 12 months going from 0 to 4 to 10 and soon 16. Intrepid also empowers our female high potentials by offering training opportunities specific to women such as the women leadership forum. Intrepid also recently committed to have the same number of females and men in our Global Leadership Team, made of 20 people in total.

How can travellers support these initiatives?

We want to increase traveller’s awareness and empower them to positively impact communities, in conjunction with the Intrepid Foundation. In Morocco we have a partner Education For All that provides a way for girls from remote villages in the High Atlas region of Morocco to access education. Travellers learn about this initiative when on their trip. They often notice during their trip that young girls in remote areas of the country often don’t go to school and would question our tour leader on the reasons for that.

Female Berbers, Morocco, Intrepid Travel

Where do you enjoy taking visitors in Morocco and what would you like them to know about your country?

I love everything about my country, it’s so diverse and rich with culture and history. What I like the most is to take them to places they would never reach by themselves, especially the remote destinations where the only accommodation they could stay in is a homestay or a local guest house. This is how the interactions with locals are encouraged and they can start to learn from the real Morocco. These experiences are very difficult to achieve if you’re not travelling with an Intrepid local leader.

Who is an Intrepid traveller and what are they seeking?

They want a real life experience, they want to live with the locals, eat with them, interact with them and learn about each other so the whole trip becomes a learning experience where both travellers and communities are “richer” for it. Intrepid travellers often like to make a positive impact – they are on holidays but they like to feel good about it. They are not seeking the comfort of a 5-star hotel with room service, but rather a place to stay where there is charm, history and hospitality. They want to feel as though they were travelling with a local friend (we often describe our tour leaders as “friends in town”).

How does Intrepid Travel, and your company Marrakech Peak DMC, make this possible?

Intrepid Travel, unlike many big tour operators, has its own network of Destination Management Companies (21 in total). Peak DMC operates the trips for Intrepid with local staff, management and leaders. This is a great advantage for them to stay very close to the ground operations and make sure the traveller experience is excellent.

Female Berbers, Morocco, Intrepid Travel

What are some highlight itineraries you have coming up over the next six to 12 months?

The women’s only trip in Morocco is an amazing experience we developed when looking for a solution to make an impact in female communities suffering from exclusion (the 80 percent illiteracy I mentioned earlier). This trip, led by a local berber mountain guide is a trek that we voluntarily decided to operate in one of the most excluded regions of Morocco where tour operators don’t really go. Our travellers are in homestays and locally owned places so we ensure that the income goes straight to the women hosting the travellers. We selected families one by one to make sure the income goes to the most in need, for example, women who are widowed or divorced and therefore without their husband’s income.
This trip is an amazing way for western women who want to challenge themselves physically and mentally. It’s really off the beaten track and in my opinion it will be life changing for both travellers and the communities.

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