In my mid-thirties, when I took a round-the-world trip alone, I was an anomaly – an older single woman amid a sea of couples and younger backpackers. Today, six years later, I’d probably be queueing for wilderness camps, white-water rafting and glacier walking behind a sizeable contingent of solo women travellers my age and above.
The reason for this – as revealed by the recent Office for National Statistics’ Families and households in the UK: 2016 – is partly and starkly numerical. Those living alone aged 45 to 64 increased by 51 per cent between 1996 and 2016, and 54.2 per cent of the 7.7 million one-person households in the UK in 2016 contained one woman.
This doesn’t just reflect the statistical likelihood that women will outlive their husbands, as figures on the divorce rates show. Between 1993 and 2013 (the latest sample), divorce rates among women aged 35-44 fell. But for older women they rose noticeably – from 6.8 per cent to 10 per cent in the 50-54 age range, from 3.9 per cent to 5.7 per cent among women aged 55-59, and almost doubling among women over 60, from 1.1 per cent to 1.7 per cent.
Yet, reports from the travel industry reflect not just a numerical change but a cultural one. It’s not only that more women are going on holiday by themselves (whether with specialist group tours or solo), more of them are choosing adventurous activities.
Intrepid Travel, for example, has reported a 79 per cent rise in solo female travellers in their fifties between 2010 and 2015. And a report commissioned by Saga, published in September, notes that over-55s accounted for more than a third of spending on overseas holidays last year. It stresses that the company’s more adventurous holidays are an increasingly important part of its business plan.
The travel industry has, of course, already begun to respond. Saga added 45 per cent more rooms for singles to its 2016-17 departures and has also created small, long-haul group adventures for solo travellers. Cruise companies are sitting up and taking notice: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is waiving single supplements on some 200 European cruise departures in 2017, and this year Voyages To Antiquity offered no single supplements on a number of its Greek cruises. Other tour operators, too, are choosing to reduce the cost of their single supplements, which can be a huge barrier to solo travel.
All this is encouraging – particularly for those among us who want to continue exploring the world and taking on personal challenges no matter how old (or single) we are. But given that the vast bulk of solo travel blogs continue to be written by, and for, younger women – and given that the 55-plus female market has traditionally not been much courted in any area of life – more remains to be done.
The challenge is on for the travel industry to keep up with an inescapable social and cultural trend.