Walking On the Wild Side

Founder of pioneering ecotour company WildChina, Mei Zhang combines an entrepreneur's brain with a conservationist's heart





When Mei Zhang told her bosses at McKinsey & Co that she wanted to take time off from her high-paying consulting job to travel, they were surprised £o say the least.
"They thought I was crazy. I would be forfeiting half a year's pay," says Mei, who was pulling in US$100,000 a year at the time. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to travel." In fact, the six-month backpacking trip through Africa and Asia that followed led the 30-something Chinese native to a fresh and challenging career path, one that broke new ground in China's lumbering travel industry.
Mei was born in the scenic town of Dali in Yunnan province, the daughter of an electrician and a teacher. She moved to Kunming at the age of ten, graduating from Yunnan University in 1992 with a degree in English. Her big break came when a Thai banker, whom she had worked for briefly as an interpreter, offered her a scholarship to study in the US. Gaining an MBA from the Harvard Business School, she was hired by McKinsey & Co as a management consultant and moved to Hong Kong.

She'd come a long way, and by any account was a success story, but her journey was far from over. During her leave of absence she traveled first through South Africa, where she impressed by the country's beautiful national parks, hiking trails, wildlife, and excellent small bed & breakfast lodges. " I was amazed to see how beautiful a country could be," she recalls. "I still hadn't been to many places in China, and I could only imagine how beautiful China must be."

She decided to put this right, beginning with a backpacking trip along the Silk Road, which proved to her how backward the tourism industry was outside major tourist sites. From Kashgar she traveled in the cab of a goods truck to Tibet over the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, a nightmarish trip over 6,000m passes for five days. Mei knew that traditional Chinese tourism would never cater for such an experience, but an idea began to form in her mind to help others see the China she had experienced.

Her six months up, Mei returned to Hong Kong just as McKinsey began a pro bono project for the Nature Conservancy on the economic impact of tourism in her native Yunnan province. Fortuitously, this gave her both a good look at the natural beauty in her own backyard, and the challenges facing tourism development in China. While working on the project Mei visited a picturesque mountain area that a Chinese developer had leased from the government. She was shocked when she learned that he planned to build a cable car and new highway to the breathtaking site.
Mei was convinced that there was a far better way to utilize China's extraordinary natural wealth without destroying it, one that would also have greater benefit for local communities too. A simple business model-similar to those she'd seen in South Africa and Nepal was the way forward, and thus, shortly after returning to Hong Kong, Mei quit her comfortable job and went ahead with her plans to start a travel business in China, headquartered in Beijing.

WildChina officially came into being with just ten employees in August 2000, with Mei adopting a business plan unique to the travel industry in China. Making use of her consulting skills, Mei cut overheads through use of the Internet as a main platform, and worked with existing travel agencies around the country, encouraging them to improve their services in return for a bigger portion of the financial return. "I felt that local operators didn't have to be squeezed, and that I could still make a living," she says.

She soon learned, however, that changing the ingrained habits of the local tourist industry would not be easy. "Local agencies weren't used to working at the detailed level that I was asking for," she says. "Understanding of service standards is different here, and local agencies need a lot of tweaking and coaxing." Her experiences taught her that WildChina needed to adopt a very hands-on approach. Local tourist agencies are therefore closely screened to choose the most promising ones. Guides are handed a WildChina code of conduct that prohibits accepting any commission from shops and restaurants, and from making unscheduled stops at roadside souvenir traps, while drivers are instructed to pull over to the side of the road when members of the group see something interesting. Mei says her local partners are often amazed by the amount of effort WildChina puts into making a trip a success. "They never thought you could do things this way. We have to show them that what we are doing really works. Unless we can convince them of that, it won't work."

WildChina rarely works with the central government, instead focusing on local governments. "We work directly with tourism bureaux or nature reserve management offices to develop our products. This way, we communicate directly with the service providers on the ground, and at times train the guides ourselves." WildChina also tries to show tourism developers that radical changes are not needed to attract tourists. "We tell them, 'You don't have to spend half a million yuan to put up a white-tiled hotel, you have a beautiful village.'"

WildChina's trips are far removed from those traditionally offered by local travel agencies-they involve a level of commitment and effort which attracts more adventurous clients. As well as cultural trips, natural wilderness trips get you close to nature in remote settings, for example trekking in northwestern Yunnan province or biking the Silk Road. But the company has also recently begun to offer visits to remote nature reserves and wetlands. Whitewater rafting in Yunnan and Tibet as well as trout fishing in Xinjiang are also being added to the list. "Things like rafting, biking and scuba diving require a different level of technical experience," says Mei. Staff members are being sent to the US to be trained to offer such activities next year.

A new area of growth is nature reserve management. Mei says reserves are coming under increasing pressure to become self-sufficient, something that is "in conflict with the mission of a nature reserve", which should be solely to conserve nature. China's nature reserves lack capital and experience in ecotourism and management, areas in which WildChina is rich. "Someone can build a beautiful nature reserve, but if they can't market the reserve properly, it won't last, " she adds.

China has a reputation for poor environmental management, and this is an area where Mei considers WildChina can have a positive influence. "It is unfortunate but true in some areas, and I am afraid that the answers are still to be found. More and more people, including government officials, are becoming aware of environmental problems, but it is hard to strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation. The challenge remains to develop a workable model."

WildChina sets a good example to other Chinese companies by training its staff and guides in environmentally friendly practices and procedures, such as minimum-impact camping by complete removal of camp garbage. Mei and her colleagues also meet with local officials to discuss ecotourism models, and speak at conferences or organize training sessions on related topics.

The company is also thinking about managing WildChina branded lodges, offering comforts that cannot now be found outside of star hotels in major cities. Mei says demand is growing, especially among increasingly well-heeled local travelers who are beginning to discover the beauty of China, much as she did years ago. "Local friends are starting to say `If I take a holiday, why do I have to go to Europe?" She is now considering opening sales offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but is conscious this might signal that the niche market WildChina created is becoming something larger, perhaps even mainstream.

"I hope WildChina's form of ecotourism stays niche, because only that way can we deliver a truly unique and environmentally friendly way of traveling," Mei says. "However, I am completely for the idea of working with local or central governments to develop a mass ecotourism business model. Developing a good mass ecotourism model will be crucial for China to satisfy growing tourism demands while limiting environmental impact to specific areas."

Its partners sometimes complain that WildChina is too demanding, to which Mei replies, "It's better that we are demanding rather than the client. And when things go right for our clients, it's worth all the effort." In a country whose tourism potential is so vast, but where the consequences of massive tourism growth rest on a knife edge between wild success or chaos and environmental disaster, tourism leaders such as Mei Zhang are a treasure as valuable as any natural beauty spot. 

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney