Exploring E-commerce’s Most Overlooked Sector in the Middle East: Online Travel

While attending the WebInTravel conference in Singapore earlier this month, I couldn't help but wish we had a similar MENA-based event focusing on online travel in our region. Why does online travel get so little recognition here?

When it comes to the e-commerce landscape in MENA, I'm willing to bet that if I asked all of you to name two examples of e-commerce businesses in the Middle East, most will refer to Souq.com and the recent e-commerce darling GoNabit.

This narrow focus reflects the ability of online news and media to run with a recent trends lately. GoNabit's PR machine, after all, has been very successful in building its brand, often pushing the exaggerated 'pioneering' line. Sure, they pioneered group-buying in the region, and, yes have certainly done their part to educate the market on the benefits of e-commerce and online buying, but pioneering e-commerce as a whole?

Surely, the much overlooked travel vertical pioneered e-commerce in the Middle East something like 9 years ago with the launch of AirArabia?

Let’s look back…

Whether it's the old-school national carriers, their 'cheap and cheerful' low-cost counterparts or bookable online hotel accommodations, travel was surely the first sector to foray into e-commerce in the region, and it likely continues to account for a huge proportion of online spend.

Indeed, the online travel sector has grown considerably in MENA over the last couple of years, with a dramatically changing landscape of international and local home-grown entrants making strong moves into the space.

Here’s a quick look at how major players in the travel sector have leveraged e-commerce:

Traditional Airlines (Scheduled Carriers): Whether it's Emirates, Etihad, Saudi Airlines, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Jordanian, MEA, Royal Air Maroc, EgyptAir or any others I may have missed, almost all airlines have offered the option to book online, for several years. Specifically, the shift from over-the-counter and over-the-phone bookings to online has been happening gradually over the last 6 years, and is set to increase dramatically over the next 2-3 years. Online is convenient, and often cheaper. It's inevitable.

Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) and No-Frills Airlines: AirArabia, FlyDubai, JazeeraAirways, and Atlas Blue have all built their lean, no-frills businesses with specific dependency on the growing online audience, emulating the notable successes of Southwest (US), EasyJet (UK) and RyanAir (EI).

International Online Travel Agents and Hotel sites: Popular international travel booking sites have been expanding tremendously in the Middle East and North Africa, penetrating the market with Google Adwords and slowly building brand awareness. Booking.com, Hotels.com and OctopusTravel from Europe, Agoda from SE. Asia, MakeMyTrip.com and ClearTrip.com from India, and Otel from Turkey have all recognized the potential in the region and made moves to create localized sites and points of sale (most now offer Arabic). According to some news sources, even Expedia is looking to launch an Arabic version of its site in the next few months.

Local Online Travel Agents and Hotel Sites: OTAs and hotel sites are not limited to international entrants. Hoojoozat.com has been around for a while, and there has been some startup action on the local front with the Jabbar Group launching Joob. There are also rumors that a few Orbitz.com (U.S.) alumni are looking to launch another Arabic travel site soon.

Price Comparison and Review Sites: The online travel sector is not exclusive to transactional and booking sites; just as important in the travel research cycle are price comparison and review sites (where to book, who with.. etc). In 2010, HotelsCombined launched an Arabic version of their hotel price comparison engine, effectively comparing most of the above-mentioned sites (full disclosure, I work for HotelsCombined.com as their Head of International Strategy and Online Marketing). Additionally a surprise package from Syria, Toosal.com, launched a MENA-specific Low Cost Carrier comparison engine in early 2011 at ArabNet. Joob is rumored to be launching a social travel recommendation site called Sawty soon, and even the almighty TripAdvisor launched an Arabic version of their hotel review site in Egypt this year.

Mobile: This is possibly where the most growth opportunities lie- Arab entrepreneurs and techies take note! It seems few of the above sites have put much thought into their mobile strategy for MENA. While most have mobile-optimized websites, the only Arabic travel apps I could find are the popular iFindHotels, Agoda and Booking.com iPhone apps. On Android, we're still waiting for Arabic support… but it looks like it'll be available in Android 4.0.

I'm sure a lot of you have used at least one of the afore-mentioned sites. Collectively, these sites contribute a great deal to the growth of e-commerce and online spend, and there is no sign that this vertical will slow down. The Middle East outbound market is set to hit 20 Billion US$ by 2030, and you can bet a massive proportion of that spend will be spent online and mobile!

Isn't it time we saw more homegrown recognition for this industry? A potential Travel track at the next ArabNet? A Tnooz Travel HACK event helping startups make the most of free APIs? Perhaps the next mini CoE event should focus on travel…  until then, developers should take aim at this untapped opportunity.


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