In 2003, Glen Fu organized the first-ever extended trip of the travel club at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, a 48-day journey to Tibet. Only one other student signed up: Zoey Zuo. But it was the start of something.
The couple fell in love on the trip—with each other, and with a kind of travel that was rare at that time in China. Since the government started relaxing its travel policy in 1978, the Chinese have become the world’s largest traveler demographic. But many of their trips follow boilerplate mass-market itineraries offered by Chinese travel agencies. Fu and Zuo wanted to make local connections, go off the beaten path, and step out of their comfort zone.
Fast-forward to today, and they have grown the club into 54Traveler, a company with 30,000 clients a year. Inspired by Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, Fu and Zuo, along with their staff, test all their itineraries before they offer them. They’ve focused on creating affordable, small group trips for travelers ages 16 to 45. They started by offering trips within China and found an eager audience: 54Traveler has had 40 percent revenue growth every year since 2007. And as of 2015, when the company finally obtained its government license to organize international trips—a process begun back in 2007—outbound business has doubled annually. Now they visit 18 countries in all, including Russia, Myanmar, Iran, Jordan, Sri Lanka, and Iceland.
In Morocco—54’s most popular destination in 2017—the itinerary inlcudes camel rides deep into the desert, a visit to a local date market, a meal in a Berber family home, and other immersive activities. In Jordan, another popular destination, the travelers take a city walk with a local in Amman, visit with Bedouins in their tents in Wadi Rum, and experience Petra by moonlight. The trips closer to home are just as eye-opening: One China itinerary takes travelers to a mountain village in the northwestern Qinghai Province and includes a homestay in a Muslim home. Another involves a visit to a remote monastery in the Qilian Mountains, where guests spend time with a monk and learn about his beliefs and daily routines. “Many of our guests come from very big cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai,” Zuo says. “Most of them have never been to such remote areas—they usually don’t even know these kinds of places exist in China.”
Adds Fu: “We like to change how our clients see the world. That’s really what inspires and us encourages us to do what we do. We believe it’s a meaningful business.”