Off the south-east coast of continental Africa lies the island country of Madagascar, a legendary land of unique vegetation and oddly majestic creatures. Here, the otherworldly landscape includes dry desert regions and dense tropics and an abundant range of animal life that is matched only by the vibrant Malagasy culture. Whether it’s in the crystal-clear waters edging the stunning beaches, in the cultural beauty or the delicious cuisine, just “immersing” yourself isn’t enough. This place deserves a plunge.
Which is exactly what Monique van der Heijden did when she founded Mora Travel in March 2000. After several years of living, studying, and working in Switzerland, the opposite of Madagascar, she resigned from her job and travelled to the island for the first time.
With the planned intention of visiting for one year, she volunteered at a Malagasy orphanage and, two years later, (still on the island), she founded Mora Travel. First as a sideline and then, as the project continued to grow, a business employing local people and providing an inlet to travellers and adventurers visiting the island for the first time.
Madagascar is a treasure trove of life and a testament to its colourful range of diverse shapes and extremes. It’s like an entire continent where Mother Nature has enjoyed millions of years just letting out her creativity. And, like anyone discovering Gaia’s creative art studio, Monique is as keen to share it now as she was when she first started.
“It’s an extraordinary island that grabs hold of you and surprises you, no matter how long you’ve lived here,” she says, “This is why I love it so much and why I get such joy from introducing visitors to this unfamiliar and one-of-a-kind place.”
WHAT MAKES MORA TRAVEL UNIQUE?
The personal touch sets Mora Travel aside from many tour operators operating in Madagascar, going so far as to make sure, whenever possible, to offer and discuss sales and tour plans in the maiden language of the customer. In the office they communicate in Malagasy, French, English, German and Dutch and they understand communicative Spanish.
“Madagascar is unfamiliar territory for first time visitors and this can be daunting as there is a lot that can be missed if you don’t know it’s there,” she explains, “We’ve found that it puts a person at ease if they can speak their mother tongue and it also allows them to open up and explain in detail what it is that they’re looking to see and experience.”
Additionally, the agents at Mora Travel make in-trip follow up calls with customers to see how things are going. This way, it gives the customer that piece of mind that their needs are being looked after. Also, if something isn’t quite going according to plan, it allows the agents the opportunity to make amendments and tweaks. With many years of discussing tours and adventures with clients, Monique and her team know the importance of paying attention.
“We cannot overstate the importance of listening to what customers say,” she tells us, adding, “Creating tours is not a guessing game, it is a listening exercise. We listen at the start and make sure we know what the client is looking for, then we follow up during the trips to make sure that we’ve listened well.”
Eleven full time, locally recruited team members keep the business going, not including the seasonal drivers and guides that work with them on the front lines. The team are hand selected and share a love of their country and their industry. And, according to Monique, they only recruit locally, relying on the strong Malagasy influence.
TYPE OF TOURS
“Our tours of Madagascar highlight the extraordinary wildlife, natural spaces, and welcoming people of our diverse island,” she says, “Working with individuals and groups, we offer bike tours, tours led by tropical ecology experts or experienced guides as well as walking tours. We pride ourselves on sharing in-depth local insights and providing incredible experiences.”
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL. MORE THAN JUST A TREND.
To ensure that they can offer the best service, Monique and her team keep a finger on the pulse of the travel market and have noticed some interesting trends over the last couple of years involving not just what people want to see but also how they book.
“Before Covid trips to Madagascar were planned months or even a year in advance,” Monique reveals, “Which gave us plenty of time to plan and sketch out the perfect tours. Nowadays some of the bookings come in mere weeks before arrival.”
Also, they have noticed that the demand for responsible travel is on the rise, which makes Mora-Travel, as the first completely Travelife certified tour operator on Madagascar particularly happy. Clients have an expectation of spending time interacting with local communities in a beneficial way. And a preference to work with operators with a demonstrative respect for the community and animal welfare.
“This is great because change to tourism flows upstream from the tourists,” Monique explains, “We can see the change is coming up slowly, but consistently.”
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
The other change that’s been noticed is that more travellers are willing to step off the beaten track than prior to Covid. Selecting special, not classic, itineraries that provide the mud-in-your-boots journey experience. These sorts of travellers also want to spend more time engaging with one or two regions instead of flying all over the country to grab snippets.
“Some people are asking for itineraries without inland flights, which is a challenge due to the infrastructure,” she says, “But challenges like this keeps us coming up with new itineraries and staying creative.”
On the office front, front end client management will see a development this year, with a new CRM being put into place as well as a re-launch of the Travpact Madagascar website, an idea that the team worked out before Covid with interns : www.travpactmadagascar.com
“We’re also looking forward to launching our specialized themed trips that include biodiversity tours suiting smaller groups and can offer a more intimate look at Madagascar,” she says, “This country keeps giving us more to show, so we have to keep changing things up.”