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Travel is a category that seems to lend itself naturally to social networking. Visiting a new place is a highly experiential event, often documented by photos, and which benefits from recommendations from those who have lived or visited there previously. That’s pretty much the social trifecta. And yet, social travel and local discovery startups have struggled mightily to catch on. As we have documented in the past, the category is a veritable graveyard of companies, all of which have struggled to gain traction, or to monetize whatever audience they did develop.

This pretext makes it all the more interesting to learn that Los Angeles- and Buenos Aires-based Urbita appears to have struck a chord among online users, surpassing a stout 7 million monthly unique visitors just five months after pivoting in February of this year. What’s more, 35 percent of these visitors are recurring month-over-month. The site, which launched as a travel marketplace in January 2012, has since altered course, becoming a social network for discovering and sharing first-hand local information. The idea is that users share the best that their hometown has to offer, as if it were a public mashup of Foursquare and Yelp, and then visitors experience these locations through the recommendations of locals.

So why is Urbita so popular, and can it be the company that disproves the prevailing wisdom which advises against travel social networks?

One thing that sets Urbita apart from its competition is its decidedly international audience. The site has been available from day one in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, which allowed it to gain a foothold in Latin America. Urbita is already the number five travel website in Brazil, according to co-founder and COO Pablo Grandinetti, and is popular elsewhere across the continent. This language diversity could have its downsides, however, as much of the content created on Urbita is only applicable to a fraction of its audience. But at present it’s a major growth driver.

By virtue of this international audience, Urbita has grown to cover more than 180,000 worldwide cities, offering a combination of places, photos, videos, maps, and local recommendations. Most importantly, according to co-founder and CEO Pablo Kleinman, is that the platform is equally well represented “off the beaten path” as it is in major destinations, which is a rarity for most travel sites. As a result, Urbita can be valuable no matter where in the world a user finds themselves – with a heavy emphasis, today, on the Americas. This may just be an interesting way to spin the fact that most people don’t live somewhere interesting enough to visit, but it speaks to the breadth of the less than six month old platform.

The company recently launched a sister site Travideos.com, which, as its mashup name implies, hosts travel video content and makes it searchable. The site surpassed 1 million monthly unique visitors just four weeks after launch in June of this year. It’s unclear at this point how, if at all, this fits into the broader Urbita value proposition, but its further proof that the company is capable of driving audience around the travel and location category.

Urbita, which has 13 employees, raised $650,000 in Seed financing earlier this year following its graduation from Montreal’s FounderFuel accelerator. The round included Canada’s Real Ventures, Real Assets, FounderFuel, Beyond the Rack CEO Yona Shtern, Scopely Chief Business officer and former Zynga GM Andy Kleinman (who is the brother of founder Pablo Kleinman and Urbita’s Chairman), and other angels.

The young company is already beginning to monetize via an advertising- and leadgen-supported model. Urbita recently launched a partnership with Priceline’s Booking.com and is in discussions with Google about a similar relationship, after being proactively approached by the search giant, according to Kleinman. Its next major milestone will be the launch of the Urbita mobile app expected later this month on iOS and Android.

Of Urbita’s 7 million unique visitors, 40 percent arrived organically, 50 percent were generated via AdWords, and 10 percent were referral-based, according to its founders. The question becomes, with these paid user acquisitions, how well are they converting into recurring active users, and how valuable are their eyeballs to advertisers and leadgen buyers. The company declined to disclose such details.

Kleinman and Grandinetti will also need to find ways to incentivize users to continue creating content, once the allure of bragging about their hometown and their unique personal taste wears off, and before network scale once again incentivizes participation. For foursquare, the trick was gamification, via badges and mayorships. Yelp offers prolific reviewers VIP status that comes with various perks of its own. Urbita has yet to reveal any such incentivization mechanism, but will likely need to to keep the momentum rolling.

As I alluded above, the travel category is a crowded one, both with the current crop of would challengers and with the carcases of those which have come – and failed – before them. Currently, Dopplr, Gtrot, Gogobot, Posse, TripLine, Trippy, TripTrotting, and a half dozen others all offer various flavors of social travel recommendation and discovery. Like Urbita, most have pivoted from having users document their destinations, to instead emphasizing they document their hometowns – a necessary engagement driver, based on the fact that most people travel only one or two times per year, max.

But none of these sites have attracted 7 million monthly unique visitors, from what I can tell, and few have found sustainable monetization models. The former makes Urbita a standout, at least from an audience perspective. Whether the company can capitalize on its international reach to keep that audience engaged and then monetize it to a sufficient degree to keep the lights on is another matter entirely.

People are unlikely to stop traveling, and there are no shortage of interesting local destinations to discover, both near and far from home. As such, the social travel platform seems like a problem begging to be solved. The obstacles to doing so are significant and have yet to be adequately addressed by anyone, but the rewards for the first company to do so stand to be enormous.

[Image credit: Stew Dean, Flickr]