China's tourism market is booming, generating more than $500 billion last year and poised to more than double, to $1.2 trillion, by 2023. Mei Zhang's WildChina caters to China's new class of high-end domestic tourists, bringing to life previously inaccessible parts of the vast country. Instead of large-group packaged tours that, Mei says, "overwhelm the destination rather than letting the traveler be overwhelmed by the destination," her boutique agency takes small groups on highly customized adventures with knowledgeable guides.
Trips include retracing trade routes on the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road and hiking through bamboo forests with park rangers to understand giant pandas' habitat. The Western-educated Mei has expanded internationally along with her customers' tastes. Last year, WildChina, which has earned multiple industry accolades—from Condé Nast Traveler's "Top Travel Specialist" to Travel+Leisure's "A-List Travel Agent"—brought Chinese tourists to 18 countries, including Bhutan and Costa Rica.
Wherever the destination, Mei says her goal is creating "life-changing experiences" for independent-minded adventurers. The sort of experience she had after Harvard Business School when she spent six months exploring the route of the old Silk Road on her own. "For me, travel is a time to both look inward and outward," she says, "a time to externally observe the landscape and to think and rest and learn internally."