The Hipster Tour Groups Winning Over Chinese Millennials


SHANGHAI — For most young Chinese, there is nothing less cool than a package vacation. Traditional travel agents offer everything they’re hoping to avoid, from 5 a.m. starts to unexpected stops at overpriced souvenir stores. But Fu Wenxian thinks he can convince millennials to give group tours another try.

The 36-year-old is the founder of 54traveler, a travel company that is shaking up China’s $880 billion tourism industry by creating all-inclusive vacations exclusively for travelers under 45 years of age.

There has been an enormous increase in the number of young Chinese traveling independently over the past decade, with 44% of vacationers in their early 20s choosing to arrange trips by themselves, according to a 2018 report by consulting firm McKinsey. This has come at the expense of tour operators, as travelers tire of being herded around on coaches and given little time to explore the places they’re visiting.

But 54traveler is bucking this trend and offering young travelers a third way. Its culturally immersive tours are designed to appeal to millennials who crave authenticity and unique experiences.

“Mainstream Chinese tour companies are like standardized coffee chains such as Starbucks,” says Fu. “We are more like a private café studio: We have an independent spirit and unique culture.”

Inspired by Australian travel guide publisher Lonely Planet, Fu set up 54traveler — the name also means “I am a traveler” in Shanghai’s local dialect — in 2009, and the company now offers tours of remote regions across China, as well as nearly 20 overseas countries, including relatively niche destinations such as Georgia, Iran, and Morocco.

The Shanghai-based firm channels a similar backpacker-style ethos to Lonely Planet, encouraging travelers to go off the beaten path and mingle with locals. Whereas tours of Spain offered by China’s leading travel companies include tickets to flamenco shows and dinners at paella restaurants, 54traveler arranges dancing lessons from flamenco bailadores and cooking classes from local families in Valencia.

The packages are hardly suitable for those on a shoestring budget — a Spanish tour offered by Ctrip, China’s largest online travel firm, costs 14,000 yuan ($2,000) including flights, while 54traveler charges 16,000 yuan plus travel costs — but many Chinese millennials are willing to pay extra for a better experience.

More than 30,000 young Chinese traveled with 54traveler last year, the company says, and there appears to be significant potential for further growth. McKinsey predicts that high-end package tours will be among the fastest-growing segments in China’s tourism industry over the next few years. Several copycat startups have already emerged to compete with 54traveler.

“Our website has been duplicated, our tours have been copied, and even our company name has been ripped off,” says Fu. “But the culture and spirit we have cultivated over the years can’t be copied.”

Fu Wenxian, founder of 54traveler, shows Sixth Tone the company’s mission statement at its office in Shanghai, July 22, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fu Wenxian, founder of 54traveler, shows Sixth Tone the company’s mission statement at its office in Shanghai, July 22, 2019. Fan Yiying

Spirit and culture are qualities that 54traveler takes extremely seriously, Fu says. For him, the key advantage of a group tour is not convenience or value for money, but the ability to share experiences with fellow travelers. This belief comes from personal experience: As a student, Fu met his future wife and 54traveler co-founder, Zuo Huimin, on a 48-day trip to Tibet in the Southwest.

“Young people today have been to many places and have seen countless beautiful views, so I believe that for them, travel will eventually be about finding their true selves and having sincere relationships,” says Fu. “But this requires a process, and they need our help.”

The company aims to help its tour group members develop lasting friendships. The age limit is designed to bring together like-minded travelers, and the firm’s staff personally test each itinerary before accepting bookings from customers.

But most important of all, according to Fu, is the firm’s network of 320 tour guides, which 54traveler refers to as “givers.” Their responsibilities go far beyond simply ensuring the tour runs smoothly and safely.

“The givers lead the group members to explore a more colorful life, open their hearts, and experience, communicate, and share,” says Fu.

Wang Xiaodui, 31, became a giver for 54traveler in 2014, after going on a tour of southwestern Yunnan province organized by the company. He says the experience transformed his opinion of tour groups. “It was just what I had hoped for: Contact with locals and observing places in an unhurried way, not acting like a tourist,” says Wang.

Wang leads around 10 tours of Yunnan each year, each lasting nine days. These tours are especially popular among young women. “When guys have time off, they would rather stay home and play video games,” says Wang, adding that because 54traveler does not force customers to book expensive single rooms, it attracts lots of solo female travelers.

Zhang Jialing, 28, chose to visit India with 54traveler for this reason. She has traveled to more than 15 countries, usually staying in shared rooms in youth hostels to save money and meet new people. But she was wary of doing so in South Asia because she had read news articles claiming the region was dangerous. When 54traveler started its Indian tour in 2017, she signed up immediately.

“It was such an amazing experience,” says Zhang. “The group was a bit restrained during the first couple of days, but the giver broke the ice and organized all kinds of activities to facilitate friendships.”

The company’s tours are also popular among young couples. When Yang Tuni, 31, and her husband went on a 54traveler trip to Northwest China in August, they were one of three couples in the 12-person party.

The couples all had things in common, according to Yang. They had all been married awhile, and the freshness of their relationships had faded. Yang, who sometimes tires of her husband’s jokes, liked the fact that the other group members enjoyed his sense of humor. She also loved the memorable activities their giver organized, from singing karaoke in the desert to flying kites over Qinghai Lake.

“Couples usually arrange these romantic things for each other, but the giver had done it all for us,” says Yang.

But as 54traveler’s popularity among young professionals soars, the company risks straying ever further from its mission of helping travelers discover “authentic local life.”

When Fu set up the company, he encouraged guests to stay in local guesthouses. But many young urbanites are not prepared for the rough living conditions in China’s rural areas, where water scarcity and power outages are common.

“I used to strongly oppose the idea of offering fancy hotels on our tours,” laughs Fu. But that is exactly what 54traveler does now. For each itinerary, the company offers a “classic tour” where guests stay with local families most nights and an “upgraded tour” with more luxurious accommodation.

Yang and her husband signed up for an “upgraded tour,” though they still ended up in a hotel room with a leaking roof for several nights. “But I think that’s the best place they can offer, and we understand what the situation is like in that area,” she says.

Yang Tuni and the other tour group members pose for a photo in front of Zhuo’er Mountain in Qinghai province, Aug. 18, 2019. Courtesy of Yang Tuni

Yang Tuni and the other tour group members pose for a photo in front of Zhuo’er Mountain in Qinghai province, Aug. 18, 2019. Courtesy of Yang Tuni

The group members were less understanding, however, about the lack of modern toilet facilities. “We had to hold it on the bus, and then when we finally made a toilet stop, many of us couldn’t relieve ourselves after seeing the piles of waste in the squatting pot,” says Yang.

Yang suggests that 54traveler build toilet facilities along its travel routes. “They can charge money, which can be used to maintain the toilets and build more,” she says.

Many of the rural destinations visited by 54traveler are transforming as locals adapt to the company’s needs. Some villagers have built new toilets inside their homes, while others have constructed pavilions outside where tourists can hold bonfire parties. A few have even chosen to work with other tour companies instead to earn higher profits.

“Everyone has the right to get out of poverty and grow their economy,” says Fu. “We maintain an understanding attitude.”

Fu has no plans to slow down any time soon. In 2017, Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler visited 54traveler’s headquarters in Shanghai. Meeting his hero was inspiring, Fu says, but he now aims to surpass the global travel brand.

“Lonely Planet has influenced countless people to set off on trips on their own,” he says. “But now we want to be the leader.”

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao; editor: Dominic Morgan.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s Newest Cram School Craze: Sex Ed Camps


SHANDONG, East China — “What are the differences between men’s and women’s bodies?” asks Jiang Lingling. The 11 young children huddled around her look thoughtful for a moment. “Girls’ chests are bigger than boys’,” says one boy. “But Captain America’s chest is also big,” counters another.

At the back of the room, the children’s parents start to giggle. But Jiang isn’t fazed. She’s used to this kind of reaction. “This is a desensitization process,” she tells Sixth Tone.

The 38-year-old is one of a small group of specialists bringing a new, franker style of sex education to families across China who are tired of the conservative approach taken by most Chinese schools.

Though the State Council, China’s Cabinet, made sexual and reproductive health education compulsory in all schools in 2011, the subject remains poorly taught. Lessons still often focus on preaching abstinence rather than providing practical information about contraception, and this has left shocking numbers of young adults clueless about how to stop unwanted pregnancies.

Many parents are turning to extracurricular cram schools to give their kids a more thorough grounding in the facts of life, and this is opening the door for lecturers like Jiang who advocate a radically different approach. Last year, the national government began issuing certifications to sex education lecturers, and it has already issued more than 330 licenses.

Jiang is in Qingdao, eastern Shandong province’s coastal city of 9 million people, to teach a three-day course in empowerment sex education — a curriculum developed by the renowned Chinese sexologist Fang Gang in 2013. The approach is based on Fang’s belief that teaching children as much as possible about their bodies from a young age — the younger, the better — not only benefits their physical safety, but also their mental health.

“It empowers children to know, understand, judge, choose, and learn to be responsible,” Fang tells Sixth Tone.

The event, held at a local hotel in early August, is Qingdao’s first-ever empowerment sex ed camp. Until this year, Fang only organized courses in relatively liberal metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but now he’s starting to spread the gospel across the country. He expects to hold camps in 20 different provinces and regions in 2019.

The Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou summer camps sold out in just a few days, but sales in Qingdao have been slower. Eleven children aged between 7 and 11 have arrived with their parents — just over half the maximum 20 spots. Jiang says demand is sure to pick up in the future.

“People from provinces like Shandong are still relatively conservative,” says Jiang. “But the parents who attend are open-minded and understand the importance of such education for young children.”

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

One of those parents is Wang Yanhua, who has spent more than 5,000 yuan ($700) on accommodation, food, and the booking fee to travel over 300 kilometers from her hometown Weihai and make sure her 9-year-old son Luoyuan could attend. She says it was worth it.

“It’s not cheap for anyone,” says Wang. “But the real problem is, even if you have money, it’s so rare to find good sex education opportunities like this.”

The 43-year-old tried to convince her friends to also bring their kids, but they told her they did not consider sex education that important. This is especially true of parents with young boys, according to Wang. “Some parents of sons think that boys don’t lose anything if they get a girl pregnant, or that sexual assault doesn’t happen to boys,” she says.

For many of the parents, the camp is a learning opportunity for them as well as their children. Several confess being unsure of how to respond to sex-related questions, though they dislike the traditional Chinese dodge of telling their children that they were found in a dustbin.

Luoyuan first asked where he came from at 5 years old. Wang told him: “Mom has a seed, Dad has a seed, and the two seeds grow together in Mom’s belly.” But now he is growing evermore curious and confused. “So, I told him there’s a summer camp in Qingdao where you can learn all about it,” says Wang.

Jiang starts the first day of activities by playing a set of cartoons showing how a couple falls in love and gives birth to a baby. When the pictures of male and female sexual organs appear on the screen, the children begin to laugh. But Jiang insists they treat them matter-of-factly.

“This is called a penis, not a wee-wee,” she tells the children, none of whom have ever heard the word before. “This is a vagina.” Jiang does not use any nicknames or pronouns. “The idea we want to convey is that every organ is equal and noble,” she says.

Within 15 minutes, the children are able to say the names of the body parts naturally, without laughter or awkwardness. This is easiest with young children, Jiang says. “That is why we emphasize the importance of early sex education,” she adds.

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

After the knowing your body course, parents are most keen for their children to experience the lesson on preventing sexual assault. The number of reported cases of sexual assault against children has risen in China, from 2,962 recorded cases in 2017 to 3,567 last year. While much of this increase can be attributed to growing awareness of child protection issues and timelier reporting of cases, parents are still concerned.

Jiang asks the children to draw small figures on a piece of paper, then mark up the body with colored pencils — green for where it’s OK for others to touch, red for where they don’t want to be touched, and yellow for where they’re not sure. Then, she invites them to show their cards. They accurately use the words “breasts,” “buttocks,” and “penis” — which they have just learned — to describe their drawings. “If the child can accurately use these terms, it could greatly help a police investigation,” says Jiang.

But as the first day comes to a close, some parents express concern that their children will be mocked by their peers for using formal terms like “penis” rather than “wee-wee.” “You need to know that what your children have learned today is the most accurate and scientific knowledge, and you — the parents — should be proud of that,” Jiang tells them. “If they are teased because of that, then that is due to others’ ignorance.”
The parents are also forced to grapple with their own views during the second day of classes, which focuses on sexuality and gender issues.

After learning about the effects of gender stereotypes, Wang feels guilty about making her son play with toy cars and water pistols rather than buying him the Barbie doll he has always wanted.

“I was so worried that he might be gay or transgender,” says Wang. “But now I understand that hobbies and good traits have nothing to do with gender or sexuality.” During the break between classes, Wang apologizes to Luoyuan, who looks surprised. “It’s OK, Mom,” he says quickly, before rushing back to his seat.

The lecture about gender stereotypes also makes an impression on 10-year-old Yaya. Her father Wang Tong — no relation to Wang Yanhua — often says that her grandparents describe her as a tomboy when she misbehaves. “Dad, I thought I was doing something wrong, but now I know boys and girls are equal,” Yaya whispers to Wang Tong, the only father attending the event.

As a pediatrician, Wang Tong, 38, understands the importance of sex education. “It’s easier to cure physical diseases; mental illnesses are difficult to cure, as they’re largely impacted by the family and a lack of sex education,” he tells Sixth Tone after the entire camp is done. He says he can do a better job of teaching Yaya about physiology and reproduction but believes it’s better to have professional experts teach her about these psychosocial issues.

Yaya has not received any sex education at school, according to Wang Tong. “Many parents can’t accept it, and schools don’t want to get in trouble,” he says. In 2017, when a school in the eastern city of Hangzhou tried to introduce a more detailed sex education curriculum, it faced backlash from some parents arguing that second grade was too young to learn about intercourse, gender equality, and sexual orientation.

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

On the last day of the summer camp, Wang Yi — who runs the event alongside Jiang and has no relation to Wang Yanhua or Wang Tong — shows all the children how to use cups, sanitary pads, and tampons on a doll. She then hands out disposable underwear and pads for the children to practice on their own.

“For girls, having their first period is something we should celebrate,” says Wang Yi. “For boys, the earlier they know about how pads work, the better they’ll learn to respect women. It’s an education in responsible intimacy.”

Since 2008, Chinese law has stated that fifth and sixth graders should learn about menstruation and wet dreams, but the children in Qingdao have received no education about this. They fall over each other to ask questions. “What color is sperm?” “Do we need a pad for the sperm?” “Would a tampon grow as big as a penis that might hurt the vagina?”

The parents look at each other, slack-jawed. Wang Yi suggests that fathers and mothers share their experiences with their children. “I always avoided answering when Luoyuan asked me about pads,” Wang Yanhua says. “But now I feel more comfortable talking about it with him.”

When asked how his family has been influenced by the summer camp, Wang Tong says it’s hard to say how much Yaya could learn in just three days, but he is sure she has learned some valuable principles. “It’s more important for the parents to accept these principles and apply them in daily life,” he says. “The lecturers only plant seeds; whether they grow depends on us.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.