Saudi Arabia's first women-only hotel: Is it progress?

Some say it's a sanctuary for business women. Others see it as another sign of gender segregation in a male-dominated society.

By , Correspondent

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    A sanctuary? The Luthan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, means "sanctuary " in Arabic. The hotel is owned by a Saudi princess and has an all-female board of directors.
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    Open for business: Two women check out the the Luthan Hotel & Spa during its opening in March.
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In Saudi Arabia's newest hotel, flickering candles in every corner enhance the serenity. And as you walk down royal-red halls, you'll notice something else: not a man in sight.

"It's women-owned, women-managed, and women-run – from our IT engineer to our electrical engineer," boasts Lorraine Coutinho, executive director of the Luthan Hotel & Spa.

To some, Saudi Arabia's first women-only hotel is a sign of progress, a place where women can conduct business without interference in a male-dominated society.

Recommended: 10 voices for change in Saudi Arabia

Until January, women could not check into any hotel alone unless accompanied by a male family member or they had written permission from a male "guardian." Now, the only requirement is that the hotel register the names of female guests with the police.

But others say the new hotel simply reinforces gender segregation in a nation that still doesn't let women drive.

"It's not good because maybe some people will try to make other hotels to keep ladies separate from the men," says Hasna al-Qunayeer, a professor of Arabic linguistics at King Saud University. "Always they will keep men and women separate."

Her daughter agrees.

"It's taking a step backwards," says Aseel al Bakr. "These religious clerics are trying to say that men and women [being] together could lead to adultery. And it's not true."

Located on the outskirts of the capital, the upscale 25-room hotel caters to travelers who prefer an all-female environment and want to relax in its extravagantly luxurious spa.

"We're targeting the Saudi businesswoman," says Ms. Coutinho at the Luthan, an Arabic word meaning "sanctuary" or "refuge." "The idea is to offer women in Saudi leisure facilities whilst they're business travelers."

"I enjoyed it ... I like the idea of only-for-ladies ... because I feel so free," says Fadwa al-Homoud, a physician from the eastern town of Khobar who recently stayed at the Luthan. "I can use the services ... In a regular hotel, I can't use the spa."

Riyadh, Ms. Homoud adds, "is a very conservative city ... it's a very difficult city for a woman to be alone. I prefer to stay in a place like this."

Homoud recalls how a couple of years ago she flew to Jeddah for a meeting and forgot the permission letter signed by her father. It was late at night, but the hotel refused her a room. "I said it's better to give me a room than let me stay out on the street. I'm a doctor!" Homoud says.

She had to call a male friend, who took out a room for her in the name of his business.

And last year, while staying at Al-Faisaliah Hotel, one of Riyadh's plushest, Homoud says she was constantly annoyed by hotel staff who kept asking her why she was going upstairs. "I said, 'Don't ask a stupid question! I'm a resident of the hotel!' "

Several hotel officials said that they have seen a definite increase in unaccompanied women guests since then. Danny Naludasan, guest relations manager at Riyadh's Intercontinental Hotel, said, "From what we have observed there is a significant increase" in female guests traveling alone.

And at the Rosewood Corniche in Jeddah, "We definitely are receiving more calls and have more ladies checking in," says Shamel Droubi, director of sales and marketing. "It's notable, we can feel it."

The Rosewood Corniche made news last fall when it unveiled a "dedicated Ladies' Floor," where service is provided by an all-female staff and amenities are geared to women. Mr. Droubi says that "ladies like" the seven-room floor but he hastened to explain that "it's not about isolating males from females. It's about giving to ladies their own privacy while traveling.... It's about giving an added value."

But while women can now stay in regular hotels, the gyms and swimming pools still are just for men, or available to women only during inconvenient hours. Few have spa facilities.

That's where the Luthan beats the competition. The hotel, which opened in mid-March, is far more sumptuous than a no-frills, low-budget YWCA women's hotel. Room rates range from $93 for a studio to $260. Spa treatments, which include both beauty and healthcare, are extra – and exotic. They include collagen facials, aqua healing, Reiki, Tibetan bowls therapy, sea clay, seaweed and sea algae body wraps, and Balinese massage.

There's also a swimming pool and fitness classes in aerobics, yoga, Pilates, tae bo, and spinning.

During a recent visit, the hotel was operating at only 30 percent occupancy. But Ms. Coutinho says she expected that to rise to around 60 percent during the upcoming wedding season when brides reserve rooms for themselves and their female attendants to prepare for the big day.

Indeed, Coutinho says, the hotel grew out of a bridal banquet facility previously launched by the hotel developer, Luthan Trading Company, whose 20-member, all-female board is chaired by Princess Madawi Bint Mohammad bin Abdullah.

The few men employed by the hotel are not in direct contact with guests. Apart from heavy-lifting maintenance staff, they include a male finance controller and security guards outside.

Coutinho, who is from Goa, sees the hotel as part of global trend.

"The need for privacy within public spaces for women worldwide is increasing and we're just filling a demand that already exists," she says, noting that there are women-only hotels "all over the world, from Berlin to the US," a "pink beach" in Italy, a "ladies' special" train in India, and female-only compartments on Brazilian trains.

"Regardless of where we are in this world," she adds, "I think women are finding the need to have spaces that are dedicated to themselves."

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