Pure. Wild. Sustainable.
Long-distance travel. Stefan Moosleitner (pictured above left) was a manager in the media industry and an independent entrepreneur. But his true passion is travelling. Now he curates extraordinary and sustainable adventures - in a country more associated with civil war and drug cartels than with ecotourism: Colombia.
Colombia doesn't need to look in a mirror to know who is the most beautiful on the entire South American continent. The country doesn't even need to invoke Gabriel García Márquez, who confessed his affection for Cartagena, the port city on the Caribbean coast, in his epic of the century, Love in the Time of Cholera.
Indeed, Colombia is more diverse and multifaceted than any other nation on the continent. "Land of contrasts" is what many destinations call themselves in glossy brochures. The Latin American country is indeed: it has coasts on both the Atlantic (Caribbean) and the Pacific. Some of the more than 100 beaches are still largely untouched. Behind them, the mountains rise almost 6000 meters into the sky. They are a paradise for active holidaymakers who enjoy hiking, cycling or exploring the ruins of long-dead cities.
Bogotá scores with a lively cultural scene. Medellín is the city of eternal spring. In the lush and green rainforest, jungle adventures and eco-lodges beckon. In short, the country is a still largely undiscovered dream destination that is just awakening from its slumber.
Stefan Moosleitner's personal place of longing lies 300 kilometres south of Cartagena on the Gulf of Tribugá: secluded beaches where sea turtles bury their eggs; lush mangrove forests that are nesting grounds for many bird species; humpback whales that give birth to their calves in the Bay of Utría; on land, countless species of butterflies and other insects. "When I first saw this piece of earth, where few people live largely in harmony with nature, it almost took my breath away."
When Moosleitner then found out that there was comfortable and sustainably managed accommodation there in the form of the Lodge Punta Brava, it was clear to him: this is where he would bring guests. But not just for snorkelling and lazing around, for canoe tours and jungle treks. No, they should make a difference: roaming the rainforest together with biologists, documenting amphibian and reptile species. With an inventory of the rainforest of Choco, which is one of the regions with the greatest biodiversity in the world, provide ammunition to the environmentalists. "Because the region is in danger. In the village of Tribugá, at the main mouth of the river, there are plans to build a large deep-water port."
Economically this may make sense, ecologically it is a disaster. "Mapping, which is an important pillar of the conservation concept, is already taking place," Moosleitner informs us. "At the end of the year, I will take clients to the area for the first time. Because before you can protect something, you have to know it."
How does a German come to champion sustainable, meaningful tourism in a country that many associate only with drugs and civil war? Moosleitner knows the prejudices. He knows that many people think of Colombia in terms of drug cartels, guerrillas and paramilitary wars. They know the film about Pablo Escobar, who as head of the Medellín cartel rose to become one of the most powerful and brutal drug barons and, until his violent death in 1993, one of the richest people in the world at the time. But they just don't know that the crime wave that peaked in Colombia after the mid-20th century has subsided in modern times.
And they may also not have noticed that a peace agreement was signed between the government and the paramilitary FARC in 2016 that, while not perfect, has just begun a process of reconciliation.
"Tensions in the country are decreasing," Moosleitner explains. "Crime is down significantly, kidnappings are down 90 percent, more than three million tourists visited Colombia every year before the pandemic."
Yes, there are still scams, thefts and even robberies, he said. "But the state and the tourism industry are working hard to make the country an even safer destination." The trend is pointing in the right direction, whereas Venezuela, once popular with holidaymakers, is increasingly mired in chaos. If you take the usual precautions in Colombia and use common sense, i.e. don't go out on the streets with ostentatious watches and expensive jewellery, you can experience a dream holiday here away from mass tourism.
"The fact that I myself was drawn to South America probably has more to do subconsciously with my father, who has since passed away, than I would like to admit." After the war, his grandmother had told his father that he, the eldest of five children, was one hungry mouth too many.
The boy then walked alone across the Alps to Genoa, hired on a barge, and found himself in South America, where he stayed for more than two years. He came back with a whole boatload of animals, from monkeys to jaguars, which he caught himself and then sold to zoos in Germany. "We've always had very unusual career paths in our family," Moosleitner says with a twinkle in his eye.
His own began in 1993 at the prestigious INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. "I came from the automotive industry, did my MBA and was supposed to go back there. Then there was a German Day at the school, where CEOs of German companies were invited. The first person to reach out to me was the then head of Gruner & Jahr, Gerd Schulte-Hillen. I replied: 'Moosleitner.'" - "Know it, know it," the latter said, apparently remembering uncle Gerhard "Peter" Moosleitner, who had once founded and popularized the well-known popular science magazine "P.M. - Peter Moosleitner's Interesting Magazine."
"Two days later, I had the invitation to interview with Axel Ganz in Paris, who was managing the publisher's foreign business from there." For Moosleitner, it's his entry into the media industry. Among other things, he develops an investor title for the French market, hires at Future-Verlag with sheets such as the business magazine "Business2.0" or the men's magazine "T3 Techlife". "It sounded exciting to me, international." The young manager becomes a member of the board and is allowed to build up the German business. Just six months later, the publishing house successfully goes public. "When the New Economy bubble burst after two and a half years, we had to unwind everything. It was a hot ride and a great adventure."
Moosleitner by no means looks back on those wild times with negative feelings. He loves the thrill, the challenge, is used to it as a competitive athlete when adrenaline flows through the body. "I had financed my studies with ice hockey. Later I completed twelve marathons and eight Ironman distances."
At the Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii, he meets the owner of a young US running shoe brand and starts to build up the European business with a colleague from Germany. He sees the opportunity to combine his passion for the sport with professional goals. Looking back, the manager says: "SporTrade was a failed attempt to build a marketplace for new and especially for used sporting goods."
"After that, I tried rather frantically to find my real purpose." Alone, the realization doesn't materialize. "Then I ran into a friend again who I hadn't seen in 15 years. She advised me to just let go and tune in, which sounded unimaginable to me. Things would come to me on their own. And they did. I woke up one morning in 2013 with a clear vision of what I really wanted to do: show other people the world. And to do it in my own and special way."
The idea for inspired travel, which would later become Purewild Ventures, was born. "As an active person, I've learned how much more I experience when I venture a bit out of my comfort zone while traveling and take on things I might not otherwise dare to do. This often happens automatically when I immerse myself in a foreign world, nature and culture. Adventure isn't always the biggest physical challenge, it's a bit of the unknown, which you should have an open mind to."
Part of the business model is also to offer customers access to well-known conservationists, adventurers and extreme sports enthusiasts. These include, for example, Ian McAllister, who works to protect rainforests on Canada's west coast and was named one of Time magazine's "Leaders of the 21st Century" for his efforts. Others are the South African animal rights activist Sean Privett, the Antarctic adventurer Alejo Contreras or Joe De Sena, the inventor of the "Spartan Race", the largest extreme obstacle race series in the world with more than one million starters every year.
Moosleitner says of the US entrepreneur and author: "Rarely has a person fascinated me so much. He lives his values 100 percent and doesn't deviate one step from his course."
The concept catches on. But then the virus breaks out. Moosleitner is in Colombia's capital Bogotá in early 2020 when the lockdown comes. Suddenly, time stands still. After an initial, brief period of shock, he uses the quarantine to reflect on the future of travel. No, the pandemic would not mean the end of tourism. And yes, sustainable tourism with the motto "Before you can protect something, you have to know it!" would be more relevant than ever afterwards. "Only those who have seen the Amazon rainforest with their own eyes will commit themselves against deforestation. Only those who have come face to face with a bull elephant on a walking safari will stand up for the protection of Africa's wildlife," Moosleitner is convinced.
Tourists, he says, are therefore of great importance. "If they stop coming, endangered ecosystems will be left to poachers and loggers. But it is also clear that the trips of the future must be designed to be sustainable, immersive and respectful. Then they have the potential to protect ecosystems, preserve cultures and support local people."
When Moosleitner talks about "immersive" travel experiences, he means, above all, immersion in the world of local people. To this end, he organizes individual adventures tailored to the capabilities of each client, often in the mid five-figure euro range. For individualists, he also developed a Purewild app that provides ideas for trips with sustainability aspirations and makes it possible to plan these tours yourself.
"Colombia is the perfect country for this. It has so much to offer visitors, such great potential for development. We developed the app because we are convinced that this way we can reach far more people and win them over to the idea of sustainable adventure travel." With the app, interested people can, for example, go on a virtual trip to the Gulf of Tribugá in advance. They find eco-lodges that really deserve the name. And they get suggestions for activities that make it possible to experience places, cultures and people off the mainstream - always with the option of leaving their own comfort zone in the process. Moosleitner works exclusively with partners who share his ideals: using locally grown food, saving energy, being as CO2-neutral as possible, involving the surrounding communities and creating jobs for locals.
The app will initially be funded by commissions from vendors, from lodges to e-bike rentals. Later, users will pay dues to use it when they realize it not only provides inspiration, but offers many tangible benefits and useful tools, according to the motto: "Travel is more than leaving home."
Is that someone returning to the media industry in a roundabout way? Colombia aficionado Moosleitner waves it off: "No, I've arrived where I want to be. But I have learned a lot in the publishing industry. That can be used for what I'm doing now. Purewild is a very personal project. Inspiring other people and getting them excited about something - that just has a lot to do with content and well-lived stories." If the start is successful, he wants to quickly open up other exciting world regions.
So far, his own funds and capital from friends have sufficed to finance these projects. "But in the next step, we want to raise a seed round in the low single-digit millions to consistently develop the app further."
First up, though, is Colombia. Are there really that many people there interested in sustainable tourism? "The gap is wide," Moosleitner admits. "In part, there is no awareness of it at all among the population. But on the side of those responsible for tourism, there is a lot of movement here. Colombia could become a role model for sustainable travel experiences with its intact nature and biodiversity."
The ex-media manager knows: It is a race against time. The faster the public can be made aware of endangered natural paradises like the Gulf of Tribugá, the better the chances of preserving them.
Author: Dr. Günter Kast