G Adventures finds interest among tourists for China and Tibet adventures is comparable to destinations such as the Egyptian pyramids. But border crossings can trip up plans
At the mention of Tibet, Toronto-based travel entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip reacts with a breathless, "Oh, God."
He isn't trying to begin a discourse on dharma and deities in comparative world religions. He's talking about earthly matters, namely restrictive travel visas and erratic Chinese government controls over Tibet, which have made operating tours in Tibet exasperating, if not occasionally impossible.
"There have been times when they've just closed the border completely, and without any notice. We've had passengers on their way to the border in Nepal, on a trip with us, and the border closes. It happens regularly," said Mr. Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures. Started in 1990 as a travel company to fill the gap between backpacking and more mainstream travelling, G Adventures now offers an array of group tours. The company has approximately 2,500 employees and 23 offices around the world.
Prayer flags in Tibet. (photo: Sacha Mlynek/G Adventures)
"It's a customer service nightmare for us, when we have a group of people who have paid us to go to Tibet, they're in Nepal about to go across the border, and the border closes," he said. Yet, interest in Tibet and China as a whole is huge, he added, with demand comparable to other bucket-list destinations such as Machu Picchu in Peru or the Egyptian pyramids, locations with similar political uncertainties and business difficulties.
He described China's travel industry, if not the larger service sector, as having previously been closed in many ways to a company such as G Adventures, which seeks to maintain standards comparable to its other world destinations, and therefore wants to ensure that its tour guides are paid fairly and its local operators are properly licensed and insured.
Though Tibetan destinations may still be problematic, the service sector in China is now showing a new openness and maturation, Mr. Poon Tip said, allowing G Adventures to make significant in-roads on the company's own terms.
In fact, the Conference Board of Canada sees a limited easing of restrictions in the service sector generally.
"China's service sector remains relatively closed to private investment compared to the manufacturing sector, but there are some signs that some restrictions are loosening," said Julie Adès, senior economist at the Conference Board's Global Commerce Centre. "For example, restrictions were relaxed on services such as e-commerce and finance, under China's 2015 foreign investment industrial guidance catalog. And China's most recent five-year plan had the opening of the services sector among its objectives."
Also pushing this, is the simple fact that service industries are growing in China, providing an obvious market for foreign companies, if China were to open those industries further to foreign direct investment, she said.
For years, G Adventures had found itself up again the Chinese government's insistence on controlling the movement of visitors by making travel companies use government agencies. "And that didn't fit the values of our business, because government agencies, in turn, weren't paying fair wages to their employees," comparable to other countries, Mr. Poon Tip said.
"For years, we were not in China. It was this ridiculous thing that we were this big travel adventure company that had no tours," he said. "But I have to say that once we crossed all of those hurdles, China has actually become a very co-operative place. And it's been, I won't say easy, but it's been a success story for us, after literally years of finding an operating model that would work."
G Adventures specializes in itineraries that attempt to show sides of the country less seen by tour groups. "It should be said that the way we do our tours, we promise them [our customers] unique and authentic things. It takes them off the beaten track, and the Chinese don't like that. It's no problem if you run a tour to Shanghai or Beijing, to see the terracotta soldiers, the Great Wall of China," he said.
It's the more alternative kinds of trips, involving hiking, biking and interacting with locals that can be challenging to run. "Everything else we do in the world is made much more complicated there," Mr. Poon Tip said.
About 10 years ago, G Adventures tried a new approach. It had previously relied on local operators, but it needed more control over the quality and management of the tours. Getting the licenses to operate tours continued to be cumbersome, taking up to two years. So, around 2007, the company began entering into joint ventures with local companies, with G Adventures owning a minority stake, but having equal voting shares.
Yet difficulties continued. There was "a huge difference in business operating standards, business culture, cultural differences in terms of what the business values. Because we're talking about the service industry, we value our people," Mr. Poon Tip said, adding, "We were literally getting letters from our employees in the region, saying they weren't being treated fairly. The companies there didn't value employees in the same way."
Mei Zhang, chief executive officer and founder of Beijing-based WildChina Travel, noted, for example, how costs among local Chinese tour operators have traditionally been kept low by economies of scale, with large tour buses and with the practice of guides and drivers not being paid daily wages. "Instead, they were paid when clients were taken to commission-paying shops, and [the guides and drivers] took a cut from the enforced shopping," she wrote in an e-mail.
This has now been banned, but there are many ways in which tour operators still circumvent the ban. "When it comes to enforcement, there is still a bit of a ways to go," she noted. WildChina, on the other hand, pays its guides itself, as does G Adventures.
The ability to address quality-control problems and pay local operators directly came as regulation improved and the industry continues to mature.
"It started around 2012. Once we were there, we started hiring our own people. We are still using local services, but we can contract them with our own people. The people that work for us, that deliver our tours, are actually now employed by us," Mr. Poon Tip said. This means that those contracted employees are not only on G Adventures' payroll, but can now be trained and are in closer communication with the company through its Beijing office.
That communication is key, because the company is so dependent on social media, which can also be problematic in China. "All of our tools are within Facebook, Twitter. We even have our own internal communication for our sales forces, and at times we've had to do these workarounds to get connected to our systems," he said.
And so, even though the travel industry can be seen as part of the maturation of China's service sector toward foreign companies operating there, particularly for companies off the beaten path, the process of openness is still new. And it can be fleeting, as with the various travel restrictions in Tibet.
"It's always touchy," Mr. Poon Tip said.