WITNESSING firsthand the effects of environmental damage on the planet prompted Egyptian mountaineer Omar Samra to set up green travel company Wild Guanabana, now the young adventurer is spreading the word with new offices in Dubai.
Launched in Egypt in 2009, the alternative travel company specialises in creating highly personalised, life-changing travel experiences – ‘sustainable, ethical adventures for people who want to learn more about themselves and the world’.
Wild Guanabana has been certified as the Middle East and North Africa’s first carbon zero travel company and, understanding and appreciating that the natural environment and the host communities in which it operates are equally vital to the long-term success of its business, the company ensures all its journeys are carbon neutral.
Samra became the youngest Arab to climb Mount Everest when he tackled the world’s highest peak in 2008 at the age of 27 and it was his experiences in the world’s wild places that led him to set up Wild Guanabana.
'My reasons were personal. I’m a climber and have travelled to 60 countries. The sort of travel I do takes me to remote places – when you’re climbing you go to the ends of the planet and I have seen firsthand what is happening,' he said.
'Talking to people round about where I am climbing who will say ‘that glacier used to come all the way to here’, it becomes obvious the impact of global warming and environmental damage.
'I was an investment banker for eight or nine years but when I decided to start this company I knew I wanted to be free to put into it the values that I believe in in terms of sustainability both social and environmental.
'Wild Guanabana is not an ordinary travel company. We are daring, different and green.
'Our fun and ethical journeys offer travellers meaningful emotional connections with the destinations and cultures they encounter. We are highly motivated to deliver our fresh concept of travel throughout the GCC region and are confident our new markets will respond favourably.'
In fact the company’s sustainability message is two-pronged taking account of social as well as environmental responsibility.
Samra explained: 'I like challenges, that comes from my climbing, and aspiring to be carbon neutral was certainly a challenge as it’s something that hasn’t been done in this sector in the region.
'But you have to be aware that it’s not just about carbon offsetting – if that’s your approach you can charge more for the travel and buy more carbon credits – but for us what’s also very important is the designing of trips which are low-carbon in their nature.
'We work with a recognised consultancy to calculate the CO2 emissions of all our trips and work to keep that aspect of our travel as low as possible before thinking about carbon offsetting.
'And in carbon offsetting we are currently working with a project to introduce energy efficient stoves in rural Kenya. This means replacing open fire stoves, which are neither environmentally friendly or energy efficient, with clean-burning stoves that are both and are also economical so they’re readily available.
'This is a project we’re very committed to and we want to see it spread.'
In fact carbon offsetting projects are graded with industrial offset, such as wind farms, working out substantially cheaper than the project Wild Guanabana supports which is considered ‘gold standard’ as it is also socially sustainable.
And in terms of social sustainability, the company is also committed to the welfare of staff and the communities in which it travels.
'The whole concept of responsible travel means making sure everyone who’s involved with our trips is paid proper wages, sometimes above the market rate – this is something I feel is very important as, again, I have had personal experience where this is not happening. For example, when climbing, you might find a porter who’s carrying 20kg for seven days but isn’t actually getting a wage – he’s doing it in the hope of a tip.
'We also ensure people involved with us have proper training and can look at career progression as well as insurance so that they are covered if they become ill.'
It’s an approach Samra says is not simply ethical but also makes good business sense .
'The people who are providing the services are more fulfilled, it’s a good way of doing business but it also translates into better service from people who are proud of their jobs, which in the long run translates into good business sense,' he said.
Since its launch, the figures revealed the company was drawing around 20 per cent of its business from the GCC market, prompting the opening of the Dubai office.
And, though Samra admits that so far it has been the lure of the unique journeys on offer rather than the company’s green credentials that have attracted Arab travellers, he is hopeful that an ongoing process of education will bring about change.
'In truth, the idea of carbon neutrality is not one that has gained a big following here yet. It’s not like the US and, more recently, Europe where people are regularly specifying sustainability as an aspect of their trip planning,' he said.
'But what we are offering is not only carbon neutral, our trips are also unique. I really believe in the transformative power of travel and these are life-changing journeys.
'The way our travellers are able to interact with the local landscape, nature and people and the experiences we offer are what is bringing people to us. That’s our hook but, as they are travelling with us, they are learning about the sustainability and environmental responsibility side of the journey so we are educating at the same time as providing a business service.
'However, sustainable travel will only grow when people are asking for it and what we are trying to do is get the message out there.
'In the scheme of things we are a small company and, for want of a better word, we want to shame the big players into adopting more sustainable practices, we want them to see that it doesn’t just make environmental and ethical sense but also economically it’s good business sense too.'
Every Wild Guanabana journey is designed with first-hand knowledge of the destination and personalised attention to each traveller’s needs. In addition to its individual journeys, the company offers a fresh and inspiring take on the typical corporate experience with its unique, fully tailored corporate offsite, training and incentive journeys.
Wild Guanabana also creates educational journeys for students and ‘voluntourism’ (volunteer tourism) journeys under its ‘Wild Learning’ moniker. To date, the company has organised 21 trips to more than seven countries, including Peru, Argentina, Costa Rica, Tanzania, Morocco, Nepal and Turkey.
The next journey, scheduled to coincide with Eid Al Fitr, combines Zanzibar’s best-kept secrets with an amazing yoga experience.
And the company is also scheduled to run its second ‘Right to Climb 2011’ journey, a charity expedition to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise funds for The Right to Live Association, a mental disability charity in Egypt. Taking place from August 31 to September 7, the trip will be guided by Samra himself.
Wild Guanabana’s first Right To Climb expedition, held last year, raised more than $150,000 for The Right to Live Association and successfully guided all 26 participants, and first-time climbers, to the summit.