The future of travel is exciting: Mary Li’s interview for asianTraveler Magazine

The future of travel is exciting: Mary Li’s interview for asianTraveler Magazine

At the close of 2023, Mary Li, CEO and Founder of Atlas, was interviewed by asianTraveler magazine. In this conversation, featured in the recent “Travel Now” issue, Mary shares her insights into how the travel industry has evolved over the past decades and how technology will continue to shape its future. She explains why Atlas is focused on low-cost carriers and gives examples of how we use technology as an enabler to open the world of travel to the ‘untraveled’.  

We present this interview in two parts.

Discover more about Mary’s vision for the industry, her career trajectory in travel, and her journey as the founder of a purpose-driven business in Part 1 of this interview, available below

In Part 2 (available here), Mary discusses the ethos of Atlas and its commitment to making travel more accessible and affordable. She also explains how our Air Retailing and Information Platform (ATRIP) addresses some of the industry’s most pressing challenges, connecting travel sellers and low-cost carriers worldwide.  

Can you share your journey and experiences in the travel industry, from your early days to founding Atlas?  


Mary: I first got into travel in my mid-30s. After having my daughter and spending nearly a decade caring for her, my first job back into the workforce was with a China-based travel agency, Wingon Travel. With no prior experience in travel, I had a steep learning curve. I got to appreciate the complexity of the travel industry and the important role it plays in creating a more connected, united world.  

At the time, Wingon Travel was a traditional travel agency helping people book and plan their travel – for many of our customers, it was their first travel experience and we worked hard to ensure that they could enjoy it fully, without any worries or constraints.  

I was wearing many hats at Wingon Travel, and after a while, I could see systemic issues in how the travel industry operates and I believed that with my background in mathematics, economics and technology, I could offer better solutions. This is how Aslan, my second company, was born. 

Aslan was a data processing company, focusing on airline content distribution. We shifted the dial from a fully manual process to an automated, efficient way of finding the best air travel options for travelers, and it was a huge success. Within just several years, Aslan had become the largest b2b air ticketing platform in China.  

It was the time when China’s travel industry was developing at an exponential pace, with a focus on efficiency, processes and digitalization. At Aslan, we were at the forefront of this revolution, and when Alibaba Group expressed interest in acquiring our business, we saw it as a chance to expand our impact and provide greater value to both industry insiders and the broader community. 

I then joined Alibaba Group as a Head of Air Tickets at AliTrip (now Fliggy). In the next two years, I was privileged to have an opportunity to build and develop some of the most innovative and progressive technology solutions for China’s travel market. We built China’s first mobile flight platform that allowed airlines to connect with travelers easily. This platform covered all aspects of airline ticketing, from online booking and issuance to payment and customer service, and this unique and progressive product was well-received by the market. 

It was a challenging yet incredibly rewarding period in my career. I had the chance to delve into the inner workings of the travel industry and connect with some incredibly talented and passionate individuals who were shaping its future. 

At that point, I realized that my professional journey was destined to revolve around travel and technology. My admiration for the industry and its people grew immensely, and continuous travel changed my life. 

After two years at Alibaba Group, I decided that it was time to put my career on pause and re-evaluate my life and my values. I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than to embark on a journey and explore the world.  

From Tibet to Mohe, Japan to Israel, Jordan to Kenya, and the US to Europe, I traveled solo for two years. 

It was a transformative experience, and it led me to where I am now. I realized that I could bring a lot of value to the world by making travel more accessible and affordable for all. Using my skills and knowledge, I knew I could solve some of the issues in the travel industry and open up more opportunities for people to experience what travel is like and enable them to connect beyond borders and expand their horizons.  

In 2019*, I moved to Singapore to launch Atlas; a travel technology company that exists to enable more people to travel, in more meaningful ways. 

*We apologize for the error in the printed version of the interview, where the date was incorrectly listed as 2021; the correct date is 2019, as reflected here.

In your opinion, how has the travel industry evolved over the years?


Mary: The evolution of the travel industry in recent years has been nothing short of transformative. Several significant shifts have reshaped the way we travel and experience the world.  

If we look at it from the traveler’s perspective, it is only recently that we had to book travel via traditional travel agencies with no alternative. We would have to go to the physical stores where travel agents would manually search multiple disconnected databases to find a suitable flight and a hotel, within strict parameters, with long waiting times and a very limited number of options.  

The development of technology and global digitalization has changed the travel industry radically. Online services for air tickets and hotels became dominant, with the continuous developments of these platforms to offer more options and more flexibility. Traditional call centers that were so common and so fundamental just a few years ago are now giving way to online chatbox services powered by AI, streamlining and enhancing the efficiency of service delivery. The worldwide web and mobilization brought rise to the low-cost carrier model and peer-to-peer accommodation. These fundamental changes make travel-related tasks more accessible and convenient for people. 

The rise of e-commerce globally has further heightened customer expectations. We all became more savvy and more demanding of a seamless online experience, with all key services being at our fingertips. To meet these expectations, the travel sector embraced technology, making the process of searching and booking travel as simple as it can be – from buying air tickets to exploring local attractions.

More recently, the industry has become increasingly data-driven. With a focus on analyzing consumer behavior, trends, and predictions, travel businesses are leveraging data to tailor their services and offer the best suitable options for everyone.  

The AI adoption will magnify these changes. AI opens unimaginable opportunities for travelers to have more control over their travel experience, and have more flexibility and choice. AI and other large language models will break many existing barriers and will provide more personalization. Travelers no longer need to clearly define where they are going and when; instead, they can plan their trips based on any kind of criteria that matter to them – season, population, weather conditions. Travelers get more control over their choices.

From a business standpoint, the travel industry is changing too. I’ve noticed a big change in how people think in this industry. I believe travel professionals have become more open-minded, focusing on collaboration instead of just trying to outdo each other. It’s happening slowly, but this shift is fostering an environment where cooperation thrives, paving the way for innovative partnerships and initiatives, and bringing more value to travelers across the globe. 

The way businesses in the travel industry operate has totally changed. Instead of small, separate agencies, many now work together to create ecosystems and multi-faceted supply chains. This shift means everyone involved in travel, like hotels, airlines, and tour companies, team up to give customers a complete travel experience. This approach makes it easy for travelers to plan and have an awesome trip, the way they want it.

I think that AI will disrupt and fully change the way we sell and buy travel. We will see more decentralization and more diversification in the industry, and we will need to work closely across the ecosystem to keep up with the speed of technological and societal change.   

However, there are challenges. The adoption of high-end technology comes with a cost. When we talk about the future of travel, we need to make sure everyone can be a part of it. We should give everyone a chance to succeed and contribute and I for one, am keen to help level the playing field. 

What can you tell us about your experiences with Alibaba and selling your previous start-up to them?  


Mary: I’ve always admired Alibaba as a great enterprise company creating opportunities for smaller businesses and individuals. This was the main reason behind choosing Alibaba Group over other companies that were interested in acquiring my previous start-up, ASLAN. I saw it as an opportunity to make our data-processing technology available to many travel businesses using Alibaba’s platforms, so more people benefit from it.  

During my time as Head of Air Tickets at Alitrip (now Fliggy), I learned a lot about e-commerce, data, technology, and cloud technology. I also picked up insights into organizational structure, people management, and corporate culture. In just two years at Alibaba, I experienced incredible personal growth and progress. Even though I’ve moved on, I’m incredibly thankful for the generous opportunities I had at Alibaba. Now with Atlas, I’m committed to bringing that same spirit of growth and enablement, to create an ethical company that opens up opportunities to many people across the travel ecosystem. 

How do you envision the future of travel, and what trends do you anticipate?  


Mary: The future of travel is really exciting — it’s all about meaningful experiences and making a positive impact while being mindful of our environment.  

We’re seeing a shift where people, especially Millennials and Gen Z, are all about unique experiences and are more conscious of their travel choices. Younger generations, who have a lot of say in the travel market now, are tech-savvy, budget-conscious, and care about the world. They’re redefining travel, valuing things like wellness, lifestyle, nature, and food experiences over the typical reasons people used to travel. 

The rise of low-cost airlines globally is a clear reflection of these changing preferences. Low-cost airlines provide more choices to modern travelers who are looking for flexibility, freedom, and transparency in their journeys. They especially serve this growing younger demographic who prefer to spend less on the means of travel and more on the experiences in-market. This is great for local communities and smaller economies. 

AI will play a huge role in this continuous transformation. It will give travelers more control over their decisions about where, when and how they want to travel. Thanks to AI, travelers will be able to customize their journeys like never before, tailoring every aspect according to their preferences. Travel companies will have to work harder on their proposition and reach, remaining relevant and attractive to travelers, as they will have less and less control over what customers can see and choose from. 

With AI and Web3 tech in the mix, the power continues to increasingly sit with consumers which is a game-changer. Businesses are adapting to this shift, leading to decentralization and a wider variety of offerings.  

To keep up with these changes, collaboration is key. The industry is moving toward a more flexible and adaptable approach, with a focus on technology and data capabilities. 

In this ever-changing landscape, working together and embracing these advancements will keep the travel industry vibrant and responsive to the needs of travelers. Exciting times ahead! 

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially women, in the travel and tech industries?  


Mary: Firstly, remember that it’s never too late to start your entrepreneurial journey. I began my career at 33 and founded a new company when I was almost 50. Age is just a number; what matters most is your purpose, determination, and willingness to learn and grow. 

Secondly, the size of your business isn’t as crucial as the impact it makes. Focus on doing the right things and ensure your business has a purpose that goes beyond profits. Creating value for the world and finding meaning in your work are what bring true happiness and fulfillment. 

You also need to be prepared to make sacrifices to achieve your goals. I had to sacrifice my health at times due to overworking and I missed out on precious moments with my daughter. It’s essential to understand that you can’t excel at everything at the same time. Success often requires prioritizing and making tough choices. It’s okay not to be perfect at everything. Embrace your strengths, learn from your challenges, and don’t be afraid to seek help and support when needed.  

How do you balance your personal life and career, considering your extensive travel?  


Mary: Being an entrepreneur has its advantages – I have the flexibility to integrate my work into my everyday life. I have control over my schedule, and I can intertwine my work commitments with my responsibilities and interests. 

However, you don’t need to be a business owner to find balance. I believe the key is to know and stay true to yourself. I aspire to be an authentic version of myself, clear about my beliefs, words, and actions. When you remain true to yourself and your values, finding balance becomes simple and natural, and you can make choices easily. It’s about living your passions, staying true to your purpose, and finding joy in both your personal and professional life. 

In Part 2 of her interview with asianTraveler Magazine, Mary discusses the core ethos of Atlas and its commitment to making travel more accessible and affordable. She also explains how our Air Retailing and Information Platform (ATRIP) addresses some of the industry’s most pressing challenges, connecting travel sellers and low-cost carriers worldwide.  

Find the Part 2 of the interview here.

You can view the published version of this interview in the ‘Travel Now’ issue on the asianTraveler Magazine website here.

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