Asia Travel Matures, By James Ruggia
New products feature experiences with authenticity and depth When asked why she named her company, “WildChina,” founder Mei Zhang answered “because we push the boundaries of travel into the frontiers of the imagination.” Isn’t it enthralling to hear a China tour specialist talk that way about a destination which, despite thousands of years of compelling history and elegant art, has been reduced to ordinary by a too-regimented tour product?
China, indeed Asia in general, is finally attracting the kind of passionate travel professionals whose imaginations are up to the challenge of showing off the rich destinations they’re representing. In the early- to mid-1960s, when mass American tourism overseas was taking off, the most common form of American travel to Europe (the most popular destination at the time) was one based on sightseeing. Americans reduced Europe to a journey of 12 days in a motorcoach across an equal number of countries, where they would obediently disembark and admire the Colisseum one day and the Eiffel Tower the next.
At first, that was more than enough, but as time rolled on and the market matured, American travelers began demanding a more intimate and authentic experience. Now we’re seeing similar market maturation in American travel to Asia. Stop-and-click monument gawking has gone the way of the Edsel. Experiential product is emerging all over Asia to meet the demand of travelers looking for something more authentic than a hotel cultural show. According to Zhang, the business travelers who pioneered American travel to Asia come out of a sophisticated psychographic. As leisure travelers, they demand experiences in Asia that are both penetrating and authentic.
“Throughout China, even in the smallest towns, you’ll find Americans working on behalf of global companies. The word-of-mouth of these people who know China in-depth, among each other and among their friends and family in the U.S., is lifting the standards of travel to China,” says Zhang. “And the Chinese are finding more sophisticated ways to present their country and their culture.” WildChina (888-902-8808, www.wildchina.com) works directly with travel agents, paying 10 to 15 percent commission, depending on volume. It also works with such wholesalers as Country Walkers and Geographical Expeditions. WildChina offers the popular destinations (Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Guilin) in an in-depth way using the kind of engaging, highly skilled guides that are rare in China. “We train our guides thoroughly to be knowledgeable, but we stress that they emphasize the significance of what they’re describing and apply the soft touches of service. We don’t want them reciting facts,” says Zhang. WildChina combines these popular destinations with explorations of what Zhang calls the “real China” in more rural provinces, such as Sichuan and Yunnan. “The Great Wall and Xian’s Terra Cotta Army are things you need to see,” she says, “but they should be in balance with more intimate experiences.” A 12-day, land-only program such as “Journey Across the Wild Frontier,” from Sichuan to Yunnan, is priced from $3,050 per person, double.
Tour companies are also finding an enormous new inventory of more intimate and authentic luxury lodgings. One such product is the Linden Centre (www.linden-centre.com/dev) , which opened in October. For more than 20 years, Brian and Jeanee Linden traveled in Asia, first as students, then as executives and later as partners in their fine art galleries in the U.S. In many ways they exemplify the type of Americans that Zhang describes. “My dream,” says Brian Linden, “had always been to create a venue dedicated to learning, sharing, and exploring the culture and history of China.”
The Lindens chose a classic example of Chinese regional architecture as the home of the Linden Centre, and then worked for years on an authentic renovation of the complex. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, it will offer historic villas outside the ancient city of Dali, and will be used as a base for theme-oriented programs and short-term cultural immersions. The Centre offers daily excursions to villages, tea plantations, alpine lakes, and Taoist and Buddhist temples. Guests can choose to stay for short-term, all-inclusive immersion packages starting at $150 per night; or two- to three-week intensive cultural programs directed by leading experts in their respective fields.