WildChina’s Mei Zhang: using the internet for more authentic tourism in China

AllChinaTech’s CEO and editor-in-chief Wu Nan interviewed Mei Zhang, Founder and CEO of WildChina. Mei Zhang recently published her book, “Travels through Dali: with a Leg of Ham”. In it, Zhang recounts her intriguing journey where she carried a traditional leg of cured ham as she travelled through Yunnan, rediscovering the beauty of her hometown in China.

Traveling is Zhang’s passion and her profession. She founded WildChina in 2000. It is a company taking high end travellers on bespoke tours of China. Over the past few decades, Mei Zhang has seen her hometown, Dali in western China’s Yunnan province, become dominated by tourism. Since founding WildChina, she has seen China’s internal travel industry becoming irrevocably altered by the internet, smartphone, traveling apps, and the sharing economy.

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Screenshot of Mei Zhang’s book (Photo from Travelsthroughdali.com)

Wu Nan spoke with Mei Zhang about sustainable tourism, trying to find authentic travel experiences, and how everything has been changed by the internet.

AllChinaTech: Let’s start with your background. You grew up in Dali, Yunnan. How has it changed over time? How have these changes impacted what you do today?

Zhang: I think in some ways it has changed a lot, but in some other ways it hasn’t changed at all. In its physical form, it is completely different. When people refer to Dali, there is the new city of Xiaguan which is also referred to as Dali. It can also be the old town itself, and then there’s the larger Dali prefecture – the whole wider area. I think that Dali, the new city with all its skyscrapers, never existed when I left. All the highways covering the tracks of the old Burma road, leading all the way west towards Burma, never existed before.

Dali, the old town, has become the mecca of Chinese tourism. It’s crowded with millions of Chinese travellers. There are lots of cafes and tourist souvenir shops. All of these are new.

On the other hand, if you dig a little deeper, going just 15 minutes outside of the old town, you’ll find that the farmers still plant their fields the same way. If you go during the scallion harvest season, you’ll see them washing huge bundles of scallions in the pond, with all the white stems bundled together. You’ll see them being loaded onto the tricycle, bundled and loaded to be taken to the market. It’s been that way for hundreds of years, and it’s very comforting to me to see these traditions remain.

AllChinaTech: Has the change impacted what you do, running Wild China?

Zhang: It’s becoming more challenging. When I started the business 16 years ago, Yunnan wasn’t that popular.

At that time, we also didn’t have that much infrastructure. If any of my higher end clients wanted to go to Yunnan, there was no five star hotel. Some services were not there.

At the same time, if you went around the villages, you would have a greater sense of place, without the crowds. It was easier, in that sense, to find the so-called “authentic” China. Nowadays, if people just land, and walk straight into the old town, they will say “why am I here? It’s so crowded!”.

It requires our guides to take them, literally by the hand, a bit deeper into the villages to appreciate traditions. Things like prayer paper, block printing, and so on. The culture is very strong and vibrant, but you just need to give it a bit more patience and time, and dig a bit further.

Another challenge is the competition for guide resources. Now, hotels are actually pretty nice so that’s not an issue, but the guides are making more money guiding Chinese tourists here. Yet, we require the best guides for our guests, so they can’t take our guests into tourist commissioned shops, and they need to speak good English.

They need to have a very good sense of service, and know a lot about their own culture. But these are the guides in demand – and some of them are able to simply earn more money guiding Chinese tourists.

AllChinaTech: You succeeded in going abroad, earning an MBA, working in McKinsey, and building a family. What drew you back to China?

Zhang: At first, it was a commitment. I grew up in Dali. My family are workers, and they didn’t have the money to send me overseas. I was very lucky to benefit from a (Thai) bank scholarship. When the president of the bank gave me the scholarship, he looked at me in the eyes and said: “I hope you will one day return to Yunnan. I’m giving you the scholarship as a gift to Yunnan, but I want you to come back.” That was back in 1993. A year later, I got into Harvard business school. I’d given my word, so I had to return.

I created this travel business so can people connect – I don’t see a person simply making hotel bookings. If you meet the person, then the sense of his or her destination changes completely. It’s no longer a tourist destination, it’s a place that you can connect with. You have new friends there. I do that for westerners coming to China, and I do that for Chinese going to the U.S.

AllChinaTech: Do you think that your way of doing business is a way of providing a form of escapism for disillusioned white collar workers, to take a breath of something other than city life?

Wu Nan speaks to Mei Zhang in Beijing (Photo from AllChinaTech).
Wu Nan (right) speaks to Mei Zhang (left) in Beijing (Photo from AllChinaTech)

Zhang: Yes, and no. I feel like I’m a lawyer. [laughs]

To some people, travel may be an escape from your current way of living. If you’re from the city, you look for an escape in the mountains to have solitude and tranquillity. That will recharge your soul and enable you to go back to the city. Or, if you travel to Europe, you admire some painter who has created some amazing painting, and you imagine a different life you have not taken.

But I think as you travel more and more, you develop a different sense. The next sense of travel, for me, is going back to familiar places, and discovering beauty there. By which I mean, Beijing itself – the hustle and bustle, the cold, grey cloudy city, a forest of steel and glass – has lots of beauty to it. It has many things and people that are worthy of travel and discovery.

AllChinaTech: The internet has changed the way we live. It has changed how we travel and do business. Has Wild China applied some sort of technology to the way that you do business?

Zhang: In my book, Dali with a Leg of Ham, many of the people I wrote about are very common people. I wanted to write a book about common people. One of my characters is a cheesemaker, another one is a folk singer, and the other is a ham and salt maker – all these are common Yunnan people. When you travel with Wild China, we arrange everything for the customer. Aside from accommodation and so on, we also try and arrange encounters with these sorts of people.

Now, with the internet, people are booking everything by themselves online. They go to the classic sites, like the three pagodas. Then, they ask themselves: where is the culture? How can I experience the culture of the local people?

We’ve created a platform called NewUGo as part of this.The platform brings together individual craftsmen or farmers with local experience providers, and with city travellers that are seeking these kinds of experiences.

What’s unique about it is that the service providers are professional tour guides. They’re local residents that give you a slice of their life, for you to have a peek at what it’s like. All of these transactions are done online by themselves, on the mobile phone. Technology has made it possible.

How can a farmer still be working in the field and respond to this request if he is in his 60s? If he cannot, we can request to have his son or nephew to help out. And it works!

AllChinaTech: You mentioned the sharing economy. For us, writing about startups in China, many of what we write about are unknown in the West. We’ve written a lot about startups in the travel sharing economy. So how is WildChina different from this sort of sharing economy? The idea of these places is that it creates a very cheap way to travel, whereas WildChina is a high-end experience.

Zhang: They don’t conflict, they are two forms of travel that exist in parallel. When a typical WildChina traveler comes to China or when Chinese families go abroad, they most likely seek unique luxury hotels because those are the ones that give you rest and pampering that our clients like. Yet, most of these clients, if I were to describe them, are very busy people, executives, or newly retired but very sophisticated travellers. They may just have 10 days in China, or maybe the Chinese travellers may just have 10 days in the U.S. They want everything to be planned out so that they are using their time effectively.

At the same time, the online sharing economy – in China, we call it the diaosi jinggji [“loser economy”]. It’s gotta be cheap if it’s online, so it’s gotta be diaosi. It’s gotta be massive volume, or else you can’t make a living. It’s very price driven. When it’s price driven, eventually someone is going to be cheaper than you, so you have to continually drop prices, and therefore services drop below a level that my clients expect.

Does tourism and commercialization come at the cost of authenticity? (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)
Does tourism and commercialization come at the cost of authenticity? (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

AllChinaTech: Let’s talk about your passion. You said that there is an obligation to help the locals. In that sense, your business also helps to promote the local economy. How do you see the process of opening that very authentic culture to the West? On one hand, it’s beneficial to the locals, but on the other hand, how do you maintain authenticity in a tourist environment?

Zhang: Tourism development is good for local economies, that’s my bottom line. However, it needs to be done better. It needs to be done with more care. I also feel that as a traveler, you always look for those moments when you find traditional craftsmen still living in a simple way, or making pottery in a way that it has been for thousands of years. This is the sort of thing that people label as authentic culture. As a traveler, you condescendingly or arrogantly wish that this would never change, that the person would never change.

But I don’t think that’s fair. I think everybody wants a better life. Everyone wants to have an iPhone. If they want to do that, they have to lift the income levels of these areas. Before I started my company 16 years ago, I worked with a local government advising them on tourism development. I proposed a high-end approach to protect the sensitive biodiversity and cultural diversity of Yunnan. The government looked at our plan, and they said that it was too hard. They told me: “I know it’s good, but we don’t have the right people, the right capacity, or the right investment.” The impact of a small scale high-end economy won’t be as big. So they did not take our plan.

Instead, the government went for what I would call the “Lijiang model” – mass tourism, growing very quickly, big buses, and so on. Now, 15 million people visit Lijiang every year.

The local residents have come from 500 dollars per year to thousands and thousands of dollars a year. That’s better for their living. If I were from Lijiang, I would want that. But at the same time, I truly believe that tourism itself somehow destroys the beauty of travel, the serendipity of running into a new artist, or meeting a charming little boy by the roadside – those kinds of opportunities are quickly disappearing.

But, nowadays, with the internet creating the sharing economy, the people-to-people sharing opportunities are becoming more and more accessible. The industry in general is going through a transformation where they need to create different product lines to meet different market segments, and a more sophisticated interpretation of local culture is required. I think that’s good. That’s where it should be.

In general, I’m a very pro-economic development conservationist.

(Top photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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