How an island tourist built a travel agency

It is the picture that launched a travel agency. The digital photograph, capturing the stunning beauty of Gigantes Islands from the vantage point of public relations and marketing consultant Aphrodite Cruz, became a trending item on Facebook and helped bring tourists to the northern part of Panay.

Aphrodite Cruz looks at the white sand bar of Gigantes.
Enchanted by the beauty of the Visayan islands, Cruz, 27, left the comfort of the air-conditioned office of a Makati City-based public relations company a few years ago to explore more of the Philippines.  “I have always loved traveling. I’m the kind who needs to be moving around all the time. I just can’t stay put in one place. The big mole on my left foot can attest to that. I especially love the Philippines, and if given the chance to live again, I would choose the Philippines over and over and over again,” she says.

While she had a good job and a kind boss in Makati, she had to follow her heart to see more of the  Philippine islands, the kind of environment she has been longing for.  “In my experience traveling around the country, I can say we truly are a lucky bunch,” she says.

Cruz and a resort manager remind tourists to keep Gigantes Islands clean.
“If you are brave enough to let go of things that don’t make you happy anymore, you will be rewarded.  I am very happy with what I am doing right now,” says Cruz, who was born on Feb. 14, 1988 and named after a goddess in Greek mythology.

Cruz, who grew up in Manila, currently lives in Sikatuna Village, Quezon City but frequently travels to Roxas City as a marketing consultant of Pueblo de Panay, a modern business district in Roxas City.  She graduated from the University of Santo Tomas in 2009 with a degree in AB Journalism and shortly after college, began her  career in public relations under the mentorship of Gerry Zorrilla, a well-known and respected figure in the Philippine PR industry.

“In the first quarter of 2014, I left the corporate world completely and decided to venture into PR and marketing consultancy because I wanted to work on accounts that are so much closer to my advocacies in life such as responsible tourism, countryside development and environment preservation,” she says.

The love for travels across the Philippine archipelago led her to Capiz province, which she found to be an ideal gateway to many idyllic islands in northern Panay.  As a marketing consultant of Pueblo de Panay, Cruz saw an opportunity to establish a travel agency that will promote the “less visited, but equally beautiful islands” of the Visayas.

When people asked her why she decided to launch her dream of establishing a travel agency in Capiz, Cruz says it is where the opportunity is right now.  “Most of the travel agencies in Roxas focus on ticketing and booking. We decided to focus on tours, despite the challenges.  You have to talk to a lot of people, from LGUs, community and tour guides. There is a lot to be done in Capiz but I am very hopeful. I have been around Capiz, visiting the waterfalls, beaches, islands, caves.  It is a beautiful province waiting to be marketed,” she says.

Together with her partners Victoria Hariette Ong Banzon, Hyacinth Ong Viterbo and Daphnie Ong of Roxas City, Cruz conceptualized and established Las Islas Travel and Tours on March 7, 2015.  “My dream of operating a travel agency started even when I was in college and I planned to put up my own by the time I reach 30. I just consider myself very lucky that I met my business partners earlier than expected so the realization of the dream was fast-tracked,” she says. “I am thankful to have business partners who are very competent and highly-principled.”

“We saw the need to put up a travel and tours company at the seafood capital to actively promote Capiz province and other neighboring destinations with high tourism potential like Gigantes Group of Islands in Carles, Northern Iloilo and Antique province,” she says.

Las Islas specializes in pre-arranged and custom tour packages around Panay Island in Western Visayas, with a primary focus on Capiz province, home to majestic waterfalls, unique cave systems, and long flowing rivers; and the Gigantes Group of Islands in Carles, Northern Iloilo, which boasts of virgin white-sand beaches, beautiful limestone formations and rich aquatic biodiversity.

Cruz says Gigantes Islands became the solid anchor of their tour packages.  “It is very hot right now and we want to make Roxas City the gateway to Gigantes Islands.  When you take a look at the map of Panay Island, although Gigantes Island is a part of Northern Iloilo, it is closer to Capiz. If you are coming from Manila, it is better to book a flight to Roxas City, where it will take only one hour and a half to Gigantes,” she says.

Cruz says aside from being a travel agency, Las Islas also has an art gallery and a souvenir shop.  “We want to provide a venue for Capiznon artists to showcase their works,” she says.

Cruz is so committed to Las Islas that one time, because of the lack of available tour guides, she did the work herself, guiding the tourists and serving them food.  “I would do anything for my baby,” says Cruz, who remains unmarried.

With the strategic location of the travel agency just right across the Roxas City transport terminal, it has drawn a lot of walk-in customers.  The Facebook page of the company has also generated dozens of inquiries.  “We invested in social media and became known by word of mouth.  That is why we take care of our customers. They will be your brand ambassadors,” she says.

Las Islas handles tours in groups, although Cruz says individuals are also welcomed to join the group tours.  Customers include students, office workers, family members and groups of friends.  “Anybody can join.  We also have private tours. We have day-tours and overnight tours.  We prepare everything-- food, tour guide, boat and van for island hopping,” she says.

She says Las Islas offers reasonable rates, despite the strong demand for their tour packages.  “With strong demand, we had to turn down some guests, because we could not accommodate everybody.  We don’t want to compromise quality.  We really put a premium on taking care of our customers,” she says.

Cruz says she envisions Las Islas to be something more than a travel agency.  “We want to make Capiz popular, to give Capiz a new image. We aim to bring to the forefront of the Philippine tourism industry Capiz province, which is less promoted and visited,” she says.

She says aside from Gigantes Islands and Capiz province, “we are continuously looking for destinations to promote, such as Siquijor, Sibuyan islands and Carabao Islands.”

Las Islas also embraces responsible tourism, she says. “We want to promote less visited islands, promote responsible tourism and promote one’s own country. We don’t want to hear any Filipino tourist say ‘I’ve never thought there is a place like this in the Philippines’.  First thing, it is offensive to our country.  The Philippines is an archipelago. Don’t be surprised to find amazing white-sand beaches and blue crystal waters here,” she says.

She finds her work challenging and exciting at the same time.  “The truth is, there simply is no typical day in the office and even on weekends, work keeps me busy. One minute, you’re entertaining multiple client requests and the next you’re in the island troubleshooting a crisis or building rapport with new suppliers and business partners. The tourism industry never sleeps. It’s a very fulfilling 24/7 job,” she says.

Cruz says Las Islas plans to add more tour packages to promote other beautiful islands, “especially those that aren’t being visited and explored as often as, say, Palawan, Boracay, and Cebu.”

“We also plan to reinforce more ecological practices during our tours. Right now, we are exploring the possibility of strictly implementing the zero waste management scheme,” she says.

She says “in five to ten years or so, Las Islas Travel and Tours will be one of the major key players of responsible tourism not only in the Visayas, but also throughout the Philippines.”

“I am a big believer of responsible tourism. As a tour operator, we have a huge responsibility for the destinations that we promote. Las Islas Travel and Tours is more than just a business venture; we aspire to create a community of responsible and environmentally conscious travelers by educating clients about proper garbage disposal, waste segregation, environment conservation and preservation, and the protection of our seas and unique biodiversity while at the same time helping clients enjoy a destination’s majestic attractions, both man-made and natural,” she says.

She advises aspiring entrepreneurs to start a business that is very close to their heart. “Putting up your own business is time-consuming, mentally-draining and physically-exhausting. It will test your patience and perseverance. It will reveal your character. That’s why it has to be something you’re really passionate about. It has to be something that’s aligned with your vision in life. You have to be in it not just for the income, but also for the outcome,” she says.

“When all else fails, passion will be your motivation to keep going. Las Islas is my first thought in the morning, and my last thought at night. When I sleep, I even dream about it. It’s truly the most beautiful and most rewarding thing when your career and passion come together,” she says.

On Filipino tourists who have yet to see other parts of the country, Cruz says “there is no better time to explore the Philippines than right now.”

“I urge every Filipino, especially those in their 20s, to travel, get lost, get high, and get to know your beautiful Mother Land,” says Cruz.

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