Business

The high-climbing travel industry boss

  • 9 March 2015
  • From the section Business
Media captionMountain-climbing travel boss Omar Samra now has his sights set on going into space

Omar Samra was 24,000ft (7,300m) up Mount Everest when he discovered the dead mountaineer.

"It was early in the morning, and one person from another team went ahead of us. When we got close to him we realised that he died about 10 to 15 minutes beforehand," he says.

With more than 250 people having perished trying to climb Everest, due to accidents or illness caused by the high altitude and low temperatures, Mr Samra says he shouldn't have been surprised.

Yet he was struck down by fear. "I was so scared that I couldn't move," he says.

Ultimately able to compose himself, and knowing that nothing could be done for the man, Mr Samra and his group continued their ascent of the world's highest mountain.

A few days later, on 17 May 2007, Mr Samra, aged 28 at the time, became the first Egyptian to scale Everest.

It was the fulfilment of a dream he had held for 12 years, and reinforced his belief that though hard work, and beating his fears, "a person can achieve whatever he wants, and reach anything he sets his mind to".

It is a personal ethos that he applies to both his working life - as the founder and owner of Wild Guanabana, one of the fastest-growing travel companies in the Middle East - and his continuing mountaineering exploits.

Sense of belonging

Born in London to Egyptian parents, the family returned to Egypt when Omar was just a few months old.

Image caption Mr Samra was the first Egyptian to reach the top of Mount Everest

Diagnosed with severe asthma when he was 11, a doctor told him that it should go away when he was in his 20s, but only if he started to exercise. And so he began running, and then playing basketball and squash.

However, the sport he instantly fell in love with was mountaineering, which he tried for the first time aged 16 at a summer camp in Switzerland.

"It was my first time seeing and walking in snow," he says. "The whole mountain world was alien to me, but the strange thing is that I also felt that I belonged there."

Image caption His business, Wild Guanabana, gets its customers from across the Middle East

There and then he decided he wanted to ultimately climb Everest.

Yet returning to school and then university in Cairo, where he studied economics, Mr Samra had to put his mountaineering on hold until upon graduating he got a job with an investment bank in London.

He says he would work 17-hour days, and then spend all his money going on holidays climbing mountains around the world.

Such was his general wanderlust that after two and a half years at the bank he quit to spend a year backpacking around the world.


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The Everest expedition followed, as did getting a master of business administration (MBA) qualification from London Business School, as Mr Samra started to explore the idea of starting up his own company.

Image caption Omar Samra has been chosen to go up into space

Moving back to Egypt, he realised that instead of a lucrative career working in finance, he wanted to help more people do what he loved - go on adventure holidays.

So in May 2009, he started his travel firm Wild Guanabana, renting a room at his dad's office in Cairo, and using his savings of $25,000 (£16,000).

"The money was going to last me a year in a worst case scenario," he says. "I said I'd wait for a year and if I failed then at least I can say I tried."

Two months after starting the business he got his first customer, a Lebanese woman who wanted to go to Peru on her own.

Other customers soon followed, and he started to advertise organised tours, such as walks in the Himalayas or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.

Despite the 2011 uprising in Egypt, Wild Guanabana continued to grow steadily.

Polar expeditions

Today Wild Guanabana, which takes its name from an exotic fruit, has a second office in Dubai, and a third planned for Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

Mr Samra says its turnover is now growing between 20% and 30% per year, and the 10 full-time members of staff are joined by 30 freelancers. He also has one outside investor.

Image caption Omar Samra skied his way to the South Pole last year

Meanwhile, customers come from across the Arab world, and as well as organising holidays for members of the public, the company arranges trips for corporate, school and university parties.

But despite the busy day job, Mr Samra still makes time to go on his own extreme holidays.

Next month he will be skiing to the North Pole, which follows a similar journey he made to the South Pole last year. And he has already climbed the highest mountains on each of the seven continents.

He also hopes to become the first Egyptian to go into space after private American space travel business AXE Apollo advertised free seats on its first flights, which the company hopes to be able to launch in the coming years.

Mr Samra and 22 other people were picked from more than two million global applicants, and have already been put through initial training at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"I'm never scared of failure, even when I'm in the mountains. You can simply do things wrong several times until you get it right," he says.

"It was the same with the company. I knew that if it didn't work one way, I was so convinced and determined to make it happen, that I would simply tweak it until it did work."

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