Julio Casadiego, co-founder and CEO of the Medellin, Colombia-based tour operator, Colombia Travel Operator, is focused on transformation — in more ways than one.

The tour that the company’s website calls the “Do Not Say That Name Tour”┬átakes travelers to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s grave; to the site of an Escobar penthouse in the Monaco building that was bombed by the Cali cartel in 1988, and to various neighborhoods in a city that hardly resembles the one that in 1990 was the murder capital of the world.

In 2014, the company handled some 1,500 tourists and this transformation-of-the-city tour was a keen point of interest.

“We show them how Medellin passed from fear to hope because Medellin was the capital of the cartel in the 1980s but now it is the capital of the entrepreneurs and an innovative city,” Casadiego says. “You have to tell people what used to happen here and what it is now. That is my first attraction in Medellin.”

Still, despite the surge in tourism for Medellin, Casadiego says the city still suffers the hangover of a “bad reputation,” which must be overcome to keep tourists coming.

A Small Tour Operator Knows the Importance of TripAdvisor

For Colombia Travel Operator, which operates tours in Medellin, Cartagena, Bogota and San Andres, the challenge is to transform and grow the business, as well.

The tour operator gets about 70 percent of its business from wholesalers, including Cox & Kings and Big Five Tours & Expeditions, but Casadiego wants to get more direct business. Travelers discover Colombia Travel Operator though online travel agency Despegar, Google, Viator and TripAdvisor.

Getting reviews through TripAdvisor is a big priority for Colombia Travel Operator, and that’s a testament to the global reach that TripAdvisor has achieved.

Colombia Travel Operator’s website, which Casadiego admits could use a significant revamp, features a TripAdvisor tab at the top left of the homepage, ┬áthe most prominent position. Click on the tab and a TripAdvisor review form appears.

The tour operator is currently ranked #9 of 40 tours and activities in Medellin and the number of reviews appears to be a key factor. While the company has attracted 27 “excellent” reviews and two “very good” ones, some of its competitors have a lot more reviews.

For example, Real City Tours the Walking Tours, which is #1 of 40 tours and activities in Medellin, features 933 TripAdvisor reviews.

Although travelers can’t book a Colombia Travel Operator tour on TripAdvisor, many vet the company through the review and hotel-booking site.

Bloggers and Guides

Casadiego also works with travel bloggers in the U.S., Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Argentina but they mostly promote Colombia as a destination and not Colombia Travel Operator per se.

Being a tour operator in Colombia — or anywhere else, for that matter — isn’t easy.

Colombia Travel Operator has about 20 guides working on a contractor basis and they offer tours in English, Russian, Portuguese, German, Chinese and, of course, Spanish.

Speaking the same language as the tourists isn’t the be-all and end-all, Casadiego says. The guides also need to be trained and must learn how to tell a good story.

With the limited resources of a small company, Casadiego hopes to get the word out about its tours, which are high quality. The Skift team did the transformation tour with his company in Medellin a few weeks ago.

Now if only Casadiego’s customers would write a few more TripAdvisor reviews.

Below are pics Skift employees took on Colombia Travel Operator’s transformation tour of Medellin:

escobar grave
Escobar’s grave. People still leave flowers for the deceased drug lord.

ecobar villa
Skift staff outside the Monaco building, the site of an Escobar penthouse that was bombed by the Cali cartel in the late 1908s.

rapper community activist medellin
Dayro Hidalgo, a rapper and community activist, who led a tour of his Medellin neighborhood.

women prison medellin
A former women’s prison that is being refurbished and turned into a technical school in Medellin’s Comuna 13.

cable cars medellin
Workers who live in the mountains of Medellin use the Metro cable Line J to Aurora station to get to their jobs, saving them a lot of time in what used to be an arduous commute.

Tags: colombia
Photo Credit: Colombia Travel Operator co-founder and CEO Julio Casadiego (right). Daniel Peltier / Skift