Middle East travel industry – mobile and last-minute bookings kick in

In my recent visits to Dubai, I have sensed growing excitement around the nascent online space. The opportunities are huge and diverse in the Middle East travel sector.

More investors are eying the industry and there are new players entering, hoping to find their niche in the multi-million dollar travel market in the region.

I find it interesting the parallels I am seeing between markets in Asia and those in the Middle East. I see similar patterns of evolution.

A growing middle class, leapfrogging due to rampant smartphone adoption, low cost airlines emerging and a younger generation getting online – all these factors are converging to create opportunities for those smart and fast enough to adapt to the changing travel value chain.

Right now, the big three Online Travel Agents (OTAs) are booking.com (by a long stretch, I am told), followed by Expedia and Agoda. Other Asia-based online brands are coming in – Wego, MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip, and Hotelscombined to name a few. From Africa, Travelstart is also making a bid for the region.

There’s no big local OTA as such. Is there an opportunity for a Ctrip in China or MakeMyTrip in India play?

Sharjah-based OTA Musafir.com has ambitions to become the ‘MakeMyTrip of the Middle East’ by 2018. Recently, Musafir launched its operation in India with a $16 million investment, and it also roped in Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar as its brand ambassador.

Musafir co-founder Albert Dias believes the Middle East online travel market is at a tipping point where consumers are now more willing to book their trips online and his company, launched in 2007, is in good position to ride the wave.

Dias adds:

“Consumers are becoming more comfortable with the idea of booking online. Adoption of smartphones and more online travel brands coming into the market, educating consumers, are opening the minds of people to the OTA model.”

Mobile is where players are making huge bets on.

Cleartrip launched in the Middle East in 2011 with a $10 million investment. Senior VP at Cleartrip, Tarique Khatri, says:

“If you remove the Indian domestic business sector, the Middle East is ahead of India in terms of mobile traction.

“Mobile accounts for up to 15% of Cleartrip’s bookings in the Middle East and 25% of searches. Customers seem more confident of booking on mobile than on the website. Having localised payment options helps of course.

“We have customers whose first experience of Cleartrip is with mobile. There’s a certain set of customers on mobile who are more confident about booking online.”

Emirates, on the other hand, is believed to be close to launching a new iPad app. Sameer Poonja, head of digital technologies, said the airline was seeing big uptakes in mobile bookings and currently a significant portion the airline’s business comes through its branded website. Poonja adds:

“Mobile is very exciting – I pay all my bills on mobile for example. We expect that tablets will drive even more bookings because of the user interface.”

Last minute air and hotel bookings are also making a strong showing – the Middle East traveller, I am told, is notoriously last minute – so is there an opportunity for a HotelTonight model?

Vacation rentals? This place is full of expensive second or third homes, lots of inventory around. An Uber model? I hear some players are coming into that space. Airbnb clones? I understand a law is about to be enacted that would see regulations around sub-lets relaxed.

I get the feeling that like the desert that lies beyond the city grid, the online travel market in the Middle East is as wide open as our imagination allows it to be – and this is what we will uncover at our first WIT Middle East.

Related read: Deep dive into online travel payment issues in the Middle East

NB: WIT Middle East event takes place on March 26-27 at the Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach Residence. Register here.

NB2: Dubai image via Shutterstock.

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Siew Hoon Yeoh

About the Writer :: Siew Hoon Yeoh

Siew Hoon Yeoh is the editor-at-large for SHY Ventures and editor/producer of WIT-Web In Travel.

She created and manages the travel insider website The Transit Cafe and also runs WIT - Web In Travel, Asia’s leading travel distribution, marketing and technology conference, and the weekly WIT newsletter.

In 2008, WIT was awarded the Most Innovative Marketing Initiative by the Singapore Tourism Board. Siew Hoon is also an established speaker and facilitator at travel industry conferences and workshops.

She is also is a published author, having written titles including “Truth, Lies & Other Stuff” and “Around Asia in 1 Hr: Tales of Condoms, Chillies & Curries”.



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