Is the travel industry excelling at bridging cultural divides? Well, it should.

Is the travel industry excelling at bridging cultural divides? Well, it should.

By Mary Li, Founder & CEO at Atlas

This weekend, UNESCO celebrated World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development to remind us that three-quarters of the world’s major conflicts have a cultural dimension. “Bridging the gap between cultures is urgent and necessary for peace, stability and development”, they say. 

Mary Li, Founder & CEO, Atlas

In the aftermath of pandemic that locked people in their bubbles and in the times of wide-spread misinformation, geopolitical tensions and lasting economic struggles, the gap between cultures got even wider. 

Travel has the power to bring people back together. Travel expands our minds, enables us to experience the world through the eyes of others, and gain a better appreciation of our differences – and our similarities. 

Our industry can and should make a difference – by connecting people worldwide and creating a more united world. 

I’d like to celebrate this day with UNESCO and share what Atlas does to enable a cross-cultural dialogue, why it was so important to build a global business from day one and what we have learnt so far.  

Seek to integrate, not disrupt 

The travel industry has a mission to connect the world, but how connected is the travel industry itself? How inclusive and united are travel companies worldwide? Are we embracing the values that we talk so much about? 

Sadly, I don’t think so. The global travel market is still very fragmented and restrictive. The decision-making in the industry is often driven by misconceptions and assumptions limiting its potential to grow, innovate and create a long-lasting positive impact on the world. 

Let’s look at the ‘China vs the rest of the world’ paradigm as an example of these limitations. 

Over the years, many international companies have expanded into China with differing levels of success. Recently, global media outlets were buzzing about Chinese companies expanding to global markets across many industries, including travel and tech. Yet, there are very few companies that would be truly and fully incorporated both in Chinese and global markets. After making some noise, many of these stories fade without follow-up.  

And there is a reason. 

Most often, they seek to disrupt rather than integrate, gain short-term wins over long-term collaborations. China and the world still don’t understand each other deeply enough.  

Often, people try to push their way of doing business on other markets.  

A stray pebble thrown into a pool may make a splash at first. It might ripple out for a while, but eventually the filter will remove it or the environment in the pool will dissolve it.  

Because it doesn’t belong. It hasn’t adapted. And, while that may deliver short-term revenue uplifts, I don’t believe it’s a sustainable growth strategy. It keeps us separate. Different. Misunderstood. 

For businesses entering foreign markets, whether they be across the continent or the globe, we need to localize, yet not blend in; to take the best of what we have and be open to learning and adapting. We can’t force our old ways of being on one another – we need to listen and evolve.  

Merging the best of our worlds 

At Atlas, we know that first-hand.  

My background in Chinese and global travel tech has taught me that China offers some of the world’s best technology. Our approach to infrastructure and development at Atlas is unparalleled, thanks to our exceptional engineers who have honed their craft through the speed and scale of the Chinese market.

But China can’t offer all the answers.

This is why Atlas is building a truly global team, with local innovation, developments, creativity and customer service in every region. We listen to the feedback of our customers and our people, to solve their unique challenges and address their needs and circumstances. 

Because that’s what a truly global solution is.  

However, it takes commitment, patience and respect to apply this approach to practice. Merging different cultures isn’t easy. Doing this well requires deep insight into the cultures, traditions and mindsets of different people and places. 

All this year, I have been travelling. I’ve been re-connecting with team Atlas in different parts of the world – first in China, then Europe, all the way down to New Zealand with regular stops in Singapore (where Atlas is headquartered) and staying in close contact with our team in India. And while I was curious to notice many cultural differences and nuances across our team, I was once again astonished by how similar we all are – and how much we have in common.

To bridge the cultural gaps within our team, we launched a ‘Cross-Border, Cross-Functional Team’ initiative. Our goal is to explore what makes us unique and what brings us together, to understand our cultural biases and how they shape our perceptions and experiences. In monthly meetings, we discuss these topics in smaller groups and share stories to overcome stereotypes and assumptions about one another.

However, it is not all fun and games around the virtual campfire. Like every organization that ever attempted it, we face multiple challenges – cross-border technology limitations and differing preferences, cultural misunderstandings and assumptions, and communication and language barriers. 

We acknowledge our differences and come back to our core values – to openly share, enrich partnerships and endorse equality. We encourage our team to challenge each other, to listen to all perspectives and to be open to learning. It is only through this diversity and openness that we live our final value – being driven to innovate. 

To date, I have personally interviewed every shortlisted candidate to ensure we hire on these values, so I know our team is aligned.  

We want to play our part in connecting the world. 

It matters. More in this industry than most.  

Diversity of thought is an asset 

My recent travels were a powerful reminder of why travel matters, why I decided to found Atlas in the first instance and why we made a conscious decision to build a global team from the start. 

Being a global company is not about our location, but about who we are and what we believe in. The better we understand each other across the team, the better Atlas can connect with others across the travel ecosystem, align with our ideal customers and grow – to enable more people to explore the world and make it a better place. Our diversity of thought within the team allows us to approach challenges with fresh perspectives. 

We don’t always get it right. But we try and re-try every day.  

As a founder, I am still learning too. I’ve got two very successful travel businesses under my belt, but it is the first time when I am building a truly global company. I acknowledge my own assumptions and stereotypes, but I am committed to change. 

Intercultural dialogue is challenging, yet powerful. 

So, I’d like to acknowledge this year’s World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development and invite you to join us in this challenge:

What can we as an industry do to better support global cultural alignment?

If you know of other global companies operating at this level and doing it well across all corners of the globe, or you run similar programs and are open to sharing your learnings, please, let us know. We’d love to learn from you too! 




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