In 2008, Chinese-born and U.S. educated Victor Zhao left a prominent position at McKinsey & Company’s Shanghai office to start RealChina, China’s first responsible tourism company. RealChina’s crew of expert travel guides give customers an insiders view to some of the country’s most majestic locales and then gives them the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the local people through service oriented projects. Additionally, 10% of all RealChina’s travel profits go to the local areas visited. We spoke with Mr. Zhao to learn more about how he hopes to change the tourism industry in China.
SVG: How did you get interested in responsible
Zhao: First of all, I’m a big fan of traveling and was long before I went to America. When I was traveling in China, especially in remote places, I realized that the people there were very poor and in great need of help.
Tourism is booming quickly in China; however, in most cases, touristic development means destruction of the local environment and diminishing of traditional culture at the same time. When I was at McKinsey, I worked on a project right after the Sichuan earthquake. The focus was to develop a long-term strategy for travel and economic development in Sichuan. That was the trigger for me and made me realize I could do something to make a difference.
SVG: Can you tell me about RealChina’s business
Zhao: The business model is to leverage the tourist side to benefit the local community, the environment, and the wildlife at the travel destination; on the other side, the visitors benefit from doing meaningful things and seeing real impact. It is basically a win-win model for all of the stakeholders, including the local community, the environment, the tourists, the wildlife even the local government. We work as the event/program designer, the coordinator, and the end-to-end tour service provider.
SVG: How do you choose the routes for your
Zhao: We did a lot of field studies to screen for places in western China that are good for charity tourism. They have to have a sound combination of the following: low-income local communities in need of help, wonderful landscapes, unique culture, acceptable hospitality conditions, and support from local government. We integrate these sites with other handpicked most worth-visiting places in a customized way to ensure the tours we provide are the most rewarding experience for visitors.
Even though I have run this company for only one and a half years, my partner has been in the tourism industry for more than ten years. We have several very classical tours, mostly in western China. My partner is a very experienced guide for foreigners, so we know how to serve them well. We usually try to avoid the really touristy sites and opt more for places where people can gain a unique experience. Additionally, we have a reliable network of very experienced guides and local experts in different provinces.
SVG: How do you create relationships with the people in
the areas where RealChina tours? How does the giving aspect of
your company work?
Zhao: We try to avoid giving money directly to the local people. We’d rather provide some sort of method to give them a better life. So money from trips goes to the projects that we are running.
We directly contact the local people. I have been invited by the Sichuan government to develop regional tourism. I have relationships both with the local people and governments [in the areas we tour]. We check up with them every time we visit the place, and we usually have one or two experts who either work in the local government or are locals who would like to provide help. They take care of our projects when we are not there.
SVG: What are examples of how people your volunteers
interact with the local people during tours?
Zhao: There is a whole range of activities to do. For example, we have a remote village where local people cut down trees to get heat during the winter. Visitors can plant trees where the local people have cut them down. If we have a larger group, we might build a gas tank underground in that area which will solve the long-term problem.
Another example would be to teach local students, giving them lessons that involve all kinds of topics like environmental protection. Our customers might also bring books and other things to benefit the schools. There are other fun activities such as joining the wedding ceremonies of locals, feeding yaks, learning to make buttermilk tea and chatting with senior lamas in some holy temples.
SVG: What is the ultimate vision for RealChina?
Zhao: We hope the visitors we served are happy because they had a wonderful experience. We hope the local people are happy because they got some help, and we hope the local environment is protected. (We also hope that we, as a company, survive and grow.)
SVG: How do you hope the company will grow and
Zhao: I hope more people can get involved and get used to this kind of traveling. Originally my major target was foreign visitors, but my long-term hope is that I can also inspire Chinese customers. This is not easy for many reasons, but we have just developed one set of products specifically aimed at high-end and well-educated Chinese families living big cities.
For more information on RealChina, visit their website or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.