A walk on the wild side

Updated: 2012-01-06 07:46

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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A walk on the wild side

Zhang Mei, the founder of WildChina, aims to provide well-off tourists luxury travel experiences. [Provided to China Daily]

'Cinderella' gives rich tourists a peek into less well-known parts of China

Harvard-educated entrepreneur Zhang Mei has been able to turn her favorite hobby, exploring the wilder and more remote parts of China, into a thriving business.

Zhang's company, WildChina, puts together personalized tour itineraries that include visits to less-visited parts of the country, where guests embark on adventurous treks, stay in stunning mountain lodges or attend out-of-the-way festivals.

More than 5,000 people annually sign up for WildChina tours, half of them from the United States and willing to pay a premium for a once-in-a-lifetime trip that takes in the lesser-known rural wonders of China.

"Originally, WildChina was to become an information platform for travel adventure operators but that didn't take off because the people in places like Chengdu were not online at the time," she says.

"My staff started picking up the phone and started putting together services, so we were forced into becoming a tour operator. We wanted it to be high end. We were not going to do a backpacker experience. We wanted to make sure that if people go to the adventure lodge then the sheets are white and clean, and that there is a proper cup of coffee."

The mainstay of the operation is well-off US tourists who are prepared to pay handsomely for a specially organized China tour. A typical itinerary would include a week doing the big-ticket items in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an, and another seven days venturing into the panda-habitat wilds of Sichuan province, roaming the rugged hills of Yunnan province, or attending a nomad festival in Guizhou province.

WildChina can tailor-make trips - at a cost. One group happily paid $1,500 (1,150 euros) per person per day to attend the Yushu Horse Festival in remote Qinghai province, an event in which sees hundreds of nomadic herders gather to race their steeds, trade goods and party heartily.

"There are a lot of religious dances and cultural events, and locals come from far away dressed up in beautiful jewels and gowns and pitch a tent, and the whole family stay there for a week," says Zhang, 40. "Usually a tourist's nearest access to that would be a hotel in town, which is not great quality.

"We set up these luxury Tibetan tents in the area with a great view of the mountains. Each couple has a toilet tent and for the whole group we have dining under the stars, shower tents and solar power, and a chef from the nearest town. During the day you rough it on exhilarating hikes, watch the horse racing and visit monasteries and then at night you have comfort and luxury."

The operator herself has been to many of the fairs and festivals that WildChina clients attend - and hiked most of the mountain trails featured in suggested itineraries. Zhang was born in rugged Yunnan, and there she might have stayed were it not for one fortuitous event where, as a young university student, she acted as an interpreter at a banquet.

The host, a Thai banker, was impressed by Zhang's easy command of English, and ability to translate even the jokes, so much so that he offered to pay for her education overseas, via the bank's scholarship scheme.

"It was a real Cinderella story," she recalls. "I wasn't even supposed to go to the final goodbye dinner. I was tired, bored and wanted to go home, but one of the officials persuaded me to go. The president of the bank said he would give a speech and the official interpreters said: 'This is not on the agenda and we are not doing it.' So they gave it to me.

"The banker made jokes in English and I translated and everybody laughed and that is how he could judge whether my translation was working or not. Afterward, he came offstage and offered me a job but I told him I wanted to study.

"He then offered me a scholarship and said I could go to any school I wanted. He recommended five schools that I should apply to; one was Harvard Business School, which I had not heard of at the time. I rode my bike home that night and I was crying and crying. I couldn't believe it."

The keen student shone at Harvard, later returning to China to work for the giant McKinsey management consultancy. It was not long before Zhang's independent spirit, inevitably stifled by the rigidity of the corporate world, surfaced once again.

Zhang began to formulate a plan to turn her favorite hobby, exploring the wilderness regions of China, into a viable business. WildChina was launched, originally with the aim of being an online agency that linked international travelers with local operators. It quickly became apparent that the wilderness operators in China were not exactly geared up for the brave new world of the Internet, and Zhang was faced with the prospect of doing it all herself.

The company was started with $50,000 from her own savings and another $70,000 raised from investors. Most of the initial costs went on hiring capable staff: Zhang wanted it to be a slick and professional outfit right from the word go, with a target audience of wealthy US tourists.

Now that business is well established, Zhang is looking at targeting newly affluent Chinese clients. WildChina already has a nucleus of high-end Chinese who are keen to explore more of their own country in style; Zhang's latest project is to launch a company that will tailor-make adventurous overseas tours for them.

"We are talking about 1 million people who have net worth of more than $1 million; when they reach that level then they start to travel at the high end," she says. "They are very wealthy and they don't lack the money to travel. What they lack is inspiration; they don't know where to spend the money. There is a lack of one supplier or service that caters to them.

"I can imagine the overstressed Chinese businessman, or movie star, wondering how they can escape from all the noise and stress of the city. I play the role of the conduit that brings all these choices to people such as a small jungle lodge in Costa Rica that I know, or a private island owned by the magician David Copperfield which has a series of private villas that costs $35,000 a night and takes up to 12 people. Before I lived overseas I was not aware of these kinds of places."

For the past few years, Zhang has been based in Washington, shuttling to and from Beijing. But late last year, she and her US husband and three young children moved back to Beijing, with the aim of pursuing the affluent, outbound-travel market more aggressively.

Being back in China also allows easier access to her home province, in the southwest. "I love going back to Yunnan; I find living, breathing real villages more interesting. I take these amazing hikes; I still feel an adrenaline rush on every trip I go on," Zhang says.

"Also on top of my list is Guizhou in the southwest. It is so unknown, in the middle of nowhere, but it is one of the last paradises on Earth, with incredible scenery and village hamlets with traditional architecture lifestyle clothing and artefacts. I have a calendar, and they have a festival almost every day."