A story of entrepreneurship and love for Colombia
As I commented in my last Colombia Travel Blog entry, besides Colombia’s Pro Export and its very successful “The only risk is wanting to stay” campaign, there’s a lot of people out there working to improve Colombia’s image and helping turning it into the new touristic destination in Latin America. Last week I had the chance to have a chat with Camilo Gomez, Mantaraya Travel’s CEO and I want to share his very interesting points of view with you. Camilo is one of the pioneers in the online Colombia travel business and his story is one of entrepreneurship, faith in our country and determination.
Camilo’s family comes from San Gil, north to Bogota and close to Bucaramanga and there was where his relation with tourism began: his father Javier was one of the founder of “Rios y Canoas”, one of the first Rafting and Adventure Travel Companies in Colombia. As the other business partners were Costa Ricans, it just felt natural to start selling their services in that country as at that point in time, it was probably even more difficult to convince Colombians to travel to that area than to do so with foreigners, and that’s how, against all odds the business started. Imagine the merit! Remember this was back when huge parts of the country were controlled by narcs and terrorists. See my post on
Safety in Colombia to see how tough it was.
During that time, Camilo trained in Costa Rica and the Colorado canyon to be a professional Rafter, unfortunately due to the still unsecure situation his business had to end operations. He persisted and a new company was opened in Tobia - closer to Bogota – this time focused almost entirely in the local market, but it had to be closed in 2003 for the same reasons.
But as every visionary does, Camilo didn’t give up. Perhaps foreseeing that times were starting to change in Colombia, he decided to start saving money in order to wait for the right moment and strategy. Having a Business Degree, he started working for Citi Bank while slowly but steadily building what now we know as Mantaraya Travel. In 2005 he applied and won a founding by SENA (a government body that promotes education and entrepreneurship projects), and in 2008, at age 25 years he finally quit his “traditional job” and started dedicating 100% of his time to Mantaraya. In only 2 years of “official“ operations, Mantaraya has grown even faster than the already impressive foreign incoming Tourism yearly rate in Colombia, and has had a lot of support from Pro export which lead to Camilo traveling to many of the International travel fairs. Even more, later this year they’ll be feature in two international cable channels.
Mantaraya has loads of information available. You can plan your trip, research about destinations and make a reservation, the concept is that people visiting the website have enough information about Colombia in order to have a glimpse of what to do in the country either if they just have a rough idea of what they want or to redefine and confirm were they want to go if they’re in a more advanced stage of their trip plans. Visitors have the option, in virtually every section of the site, to send Mantaraya’s native English speakers sales staff a detailed form describing what their needs are. With this information and the expertise of their Colombia travel experts who fine tune the itineraries until they fit what the passenger wants, Mantaraya is able to put together all kind of tailor made tours. This philosophy, based in the idea that every passenger has unique needs, is the key factor of what makes the company so successful.
At least half of their passengers come from the U.S and Canada while the other half is a mix of Latin American and European, in most cases seasoned travelers who are costumed to travel abroad with the assistance of travel companies and therefore expect an international standard service and to be able to be one phone call away from their travel advisor both to feel that they’re properly being looked after and to change anything if the case merits it. Reaching such required quality service in a country like Colombia, which is just starting to open its eyes to the opportunities that international incoming tourism offers, has been a tough job that involves constant training to their providers into understanding that concepts like punctuality and efficiency are vital for their operations.
Unsurprisingly the best selling destinations are the typical ones and therefore the “safer” ones: The Caribbean, Cartagena and Bogota, but Camilo says that the Amazon and the Coffee Triangle are the next raising stars, specially for visitors from North America while Europeans prefer the Pacific Coast destinations.
When I ask his opinion on the current image that Colombia has and how safe is it perceived to be, I realize that Camilo’s position is very similar to mine: he points out that Colombia was immersed in an internal war for 50 years and the situation has been gradually changing only since around eight years ago, when the first tourists began to come sporadically, and although the country is much safer now, there are things and situations that –as in any other country – one should avoid, Mantaraya promotes the development of alternative destinations, but only sells tours in places that are 100% considered safe for travelers.
In the years they’ve been operating, Mantaraya has had no incident involving safety matters at all; on the contrary in some of the most “exotic” destinations, people are starting to realize the positive impact of having foreigner tourists visiting them and are becoming very interested in learning about hospitality. Some of the very local and picturesque restaurants in Tayrona, for instance, have organized themselves to improve security in their area.
Camilo is also aware of the fact that, if not done responsibly, the tourism industry could alter not only the eco system but also the ancient costumes of many of the inhabitants of Colombia’s most ancient cultures. For instance when the Koguis (the local tribe from La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) are in their yearly time of pray, Mantarraya does not sell the 5 day trek to Tayrona’s Lost city.
Colombia is a complex country to visit, you can go to the Andes, the Caribbean beaches and the Amazon Jungle to name a few and it’s as well giving its baby steps into being and international travel destination, that’s why it’s so important to have a local company that knows the country complemented by foreign English speaking travel advisors living in Colombia.
Camilo sees the Colombia Travel industry with optimism; we are already seeing how very big hotel chains are making huge investments in the country, a clear signal that shows a market about to blossom. As pioneers, Mantaraya has now another responsibility: to develop new products, especially in the area of adventure and nature themed tours in order to keep the pole position they have now towards competitors. “Colombia is going to be a leader in nature destinations in Latin America”, Camilo says, “Just behind Brazil and Mexico” …. and I truly believe that’s absolutely true.
For the full story with pics and all visit Colombia Travel Blog
You can visit Mantaraya’s website at: www.mantarayacom