It's a woman's world
Forget about guys trying to satisfy their wanderlust by seeking fun and adventure. In Hong Kong, leisure travel is becoming a woman's pursuit. Nimble travel companies are offering customised packages such as flower-appreciation tours, but the gender gap is most striking among solo travellers.
'Travel agencies have shifted the focus of their marketing plans to women customers. When we arranged talks and seminars at the International Travel Expo, organisers told us to hold more activities targeting middle-class women,' says online travel agency manager Billy Ko Tze-kai.
Ko, who also founded Travellife.org, a popular website that links about 20,000 members, says Hong Kong women are bold travellers.
'About 60 per cent of solo travellers from Hong Kong are female,' he says. 'The ratio is even greater - seven to three - when it comes to tougher trips. One of our women members has been to 98 countries, mostly on her own.'
The trend is partly driven by young single women with few commitments and significant disposable income.
Website content manager Kannie Kan Chun-man is among the most energetic travellers. With 20 days annual leave, she goes abroad as often as five times a year in addition to making short trips to the mainland every month. In the past few years, 28-year-old Kan has climbed mountains in Nepal, visited the Sahara and backpacked across Europe and Asia.
'I prefer to seek out lesser-known places,' she says. 'I want to discover new spots off the popular routes and share my discoveries with people. That gives me plenty of satisfaction.'
The English-language graduate says that while many of her male friends focus on careers or lose themselves in video games, women would rather travel, often alone, as they are financially secure and independent-minded.
'There are now more career options,' she says. 'In the past English graduates only became teachers but I have had several different jobs in the past few years and none are related to teaching or even English.
'Also I am not under pressure to support my family. Maybe in the past, women planned to get married when they reached 30 and had a baby. But nowadays it's not a big deal to stay single and, without the pressure of maintaining a family, we have more money and flexibility to go ahead with our plans.'
Sociologist Petula Ho Sik-ying says for some women in their 20s and 30s, travel has become a way to achieve self-affirmation.
'It's not easy to find a good, permanent job now. With poor prospects for advancement ... this batch of educated women may not see a future and get restless. Also due to changes in the population structure and different expectations, it isn't easy for them to find a boyfriend or husband either,' she says.
'In a way they feel if they can achieve [travelling alone], nothing is impossible. They are showing themselves that they can cope with an alternative lifestyle.'
The trend is reflected in the growing number of travelogues published by Hong Kong women. Their insights and travel tips are widely discussed in a burgeoning community of young female travellers with a feisty attitude towards family and life.
Vivian Lee Yuk-lan's account of her experiences, Little Shoes and Big Backpack: One Year Working Holiday@Australia (below), is among the most successful. When she first gave a talk about her travels two years ago, she attracted more than 100 people, most of them young women. Since then, Lee, who is revising the third edition of her book, has held similar gatherings every two months, attracting an average of 50 people each time.
Like a number of women her age, thirtysomething Lee was more interested in personal fulfilment than security. So near the end of 2001, she quit her job in sports administration to seek fresh challenges.
'It was a very good job, an iron rice bowl. If I had stayed a bit longer, I could have been promoted to a senior position,' she says. 'But I asked myself what I wanted from my life. Would I be content doing this for the next 50 years for the sake of stability and comfort? I wanted a job with people, not documents.'
Unable to find satisfying work in the wake of Sars, Lee got a working holiday visa and flew to Australia in July 2004 with just HK$5,000.
The first month was a struggle and a revelation. Plans to work as an office temp came to nothing and, as the money dwindled, Lee wound up begging for a job at a food court. 'There was a Turkish kebab stall and I asked the two women running it to give me a chance and offered to work one day for free [as a trial],' she recalls. 'I didn't know where the nerve came from.'
Gaining confidence, she later found other jobs and saved enough after a few months to keep travelling.
Lee, who has since completed a master's degree in counselling, says it's often more difficult for men to set aside their career plans and vanity to take on odd jobs as they travel. 'They may not be able to free themselves from the [traditional] burden and image imposed by society,' she says.
Citing an Australian family she met in which the husband was the homemaker and the wife worked, Lee says travel has given her a new perspective on womanhood and family life. 'It gives me another point of reference besides that of my mother and other Hong Kong women.'
Although Kan's backpacking experiences inspired her to write novels rather than travel books, she hopes her work will encourage readers to visit the places she wrote about. 'I did some serious research, reading many books and checking out countless websites when compiling travel tips [included in her novels],' she says.
For Vivian Cheung Wai-yee, travel was a life-changing experience that began as therapy. A former producer on RTHK political satire programme Headliner, she started going on long trips as a way to cope with grief after her husband died of cancer two years ago.
Her recently released account of travels in Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands - A Housewife's Adventures in the South Pacific (far left) - has proved so popular that she's working on sequels about her experiences in Australia, Antarctica and South America.
Cheung, 45, says that she first visited Fiji to kill time. 'It was a chance for me to leave Hong Kong as everything reminded me of my late husband. I didn't travel for fun but to escape from reality and the South Pacific seemed to me quite a surreal destination.'
Yet one travel opportunity led to another. Three weeks after returning to Hong Kong, she was on her way to Antarctica and then Australia before joining an overland expedition across South America. To the grieving widow, the long journeys provided opportunities for quiet reflection.
'That solitude, that kind of feeling that nobody is going to disturb you, is appealing,' she says. 'It makes me feel as though I can communicate with a higher spirit and maybe even with my husband.'
Her book was a way to encourage other women suffering personal loss and tragedy, says Cheung, who is delighted it helped cheer up a friend in difficult circumstances.
'[My friend] had to take care of her husband [who was ill with cancer] and raise her children, so she had no chance to take a long trip. But after she read my book, she said she felt like she had gone to the islands of the South Pacific with me,' she says.
'The book is about an ordinary person reaching out for her furthest dreams ... No matter who and how old you are, don't let [age and identity] become obstacles to what you want to achieve.'