Up until now a distinct lack of concrete data and statistics surrounding the Middle East travel industry has meant that there’s always been a somewhat hazy perception of the true impact the online world might have on the travel sector in this region.
While everyone could clearly see how online travel was completely changing the game in Europe and the US; there was almost a reluctance from many players in this part of the world to believe that the same thing could happen here.
Traditional arguments prevailed regarding the unique demographics in Gulf countries (a large labourer population; the high spending local nationals) added to a general reluctance to pay for things over the web using a credit card, while fears over fraud meant that face-to-face contact would always be preferred over transactions online.
But now that the results are in, they speak for themselves. According to a report carried out by market research company PhocusWright, online travel sales in the Middle East have grown by nearly a third just this year and are set to witness further “unprecedented” growth — reaching $15.8 billion by 2014.
The report revealed that Online Travel Agents (OTAs) will see bookings double in the next two years to $6 billion — great news for international players such as Booking.com; Cleartrip and Makemytrip— which have all launched local sites and are now ploughing millions into growing their presence in this market and generating a loyal following.
You only have to look around you to acknowledge that the impact of the internet in day-to-day life just cannot be ignored.
Stats released last month by the UAE telecoms regulator revealed that a staggering 99.9% of people living in the UAE own a mobile phone — many people I know own two — and 62% of these are smartphones allowing people today to remain hooked up permanently to the net; using mobiles to surf the web and check social media sites.
These potential customers will no doubt want to deal with their travel arrangements online — from being able to find you there in the first place and research your offers to making a booking.
Social media usage in this region is also growing at one of the fastest rates around the world. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have a massive influence on the younger generation, and provide the ultimate platform to connect directly with potential customers.
But which travel agencies in this region are well and truly ready to embrace the opportunities afforded by the web? Which companies have mobile booking technologies in place and a social media strategy able to capitalise on these trends?
Our Top 25 Travel Agencies and Tour Operators feature this month indicates that companies are making progress. But a quick Google search reveals some truly outdated websites (customers don’t need a rundown of your company history on the homepage — where are the holiday packages, travel deals and payment portals?) Many claim to have new websites in the pipeline.
But delays in getting these off the ground (some have been “in the pipeline” for years) indicate the vast challenges involved in entering the online sector. Plus not a single locally-born OTA has really made its mark as yet, though a number have tried and failed.
Meanwhile, the battle for Middle East online travel buyers is well and truly underway. Just today I received a press release from Cleartrip.ae announcing that Visa card holders would receive a 30% money back offer if they book through their site.
This adds to the shower of deals from the airline.com sites — a 10-day sale from Emirates; an offer from FlyDubai - all enticing buyers online. It remains to be seen who will emerge as the victor, but as the battle hots up are you doing enough to capture your share of the online sector?
As the voice of the Middle East travel trade, we want to hear your news and views.
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