Although online travel sector is at its nascent stage in Pakistan, many growth enablers can help push it forward.
Travel and tourism is one of the most successful industries in the world and within it online travel is a major growth area that offers transaction-based services such as online flight, hotel, car, and restaurant bookings as well as content driven services, such as city guides and blogs. Although global market leaders like Expedia and Priceline offer most or all of these services, the situation in Pakistan is different.
In Pakistan, online travel is in its early stages and so far there are no authenticated market share figures available. At the moment Pakistani online travel companies have chosen to focus on one service (such as hotel booking only) instead of trying to provide a wider portfolio of services that they are not so far equipped for.
The following three companies are working in three different divisions of online travel; Jovago Pakistan (hotel bookings), Checkin.pk (air tickets) and Chutti.pk (travel guides).
Hotel booking – Jovago Pakistan
Jovago is a hotel booking company owned by Rocket Internet. They launched in Pakistan in early 2014. In addition to Pakistan, the company has offices in Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. The fact that companies such as Rocket Internet are entering this market suggests the presence of growth potential and according to Nadine Malik, CEO, Jovago Pakistan, Pakistan is a high growth market with a very large population that is almost completely untapped in terms of online travel.
Jovago lists approximately 200,000 hotels from over 210 countries and 900 hotels in Pakistan. The site targets both Pakistani business and leisure travellers, with the majority of the bookings coming from Pakistanis travelling within the country or overseas Pakistanis travelling to Pakistan. Although Booking.com (a brand of Priceline), Expedia and other similar international sites are increasingly used by Pakistanis to book hotels and flights, Jovago’s on-ground presence gives it a competitive advantage when it comes to hotels. The sales team visit every listed hotel, photograph the premises, check out the amenities and evaluate the overall reputation of the hotel by talking to the locals, thereby ensuring that clients get as accurate a picture as possible – something Malik believes international brands with no on-ground presence cannot give. Apart from the range of hotels (from one to five stars) listed, Jovago provides booking discounts which can go up to 60%.
Keeping in mind that Pakistanis tend to shy away from using online services, Jovago charges a commission for every booking made through its services and does not charge customers a service fee. The challenge for Jovago is to convince hotels to offer even better discounts as well as to overcome customer reluctance to use credit cards online.
Flights – Checkin.pk
Expedia, Priceline and Orbitz are the three major global players for flight bookings and all compete aggressively by constantly acquiring partner companies and launching promotional campaigns. In Pakistan, Checkin.pk, which was launched in 2014 is one of the very few local companies to provide such a service.
According to Yousaf Rizvi, CEO, Checkin.pk, “We identified a trend and saw that there were no Pakistani players in this field.” He adds that although the company does offer hotel bookings and tour packages, the focus is on flight bookings.
Visitors can search for flight availability on all major airlines, and book via credit card. Like other airline booking sites, Checkin.pk uses Global Distribution System (GDS), which provides access to an airline’s inventory and allows third parties (such as travel agents) to conduct transactions with the airline. Checkin.pk lists all available seats on a requested day, as well as those available three days prior and after. According to Rizvi, the fact that the processing is automated and done within seconds is a distinct advantage over offline travel agents who do this manually. However, Checkin.pk does not offer any competitive advantage over other international flight booking websites. Checkin.pk charges customers a service fee on every flight booked from the site. In addition, revenue is also generated from advertising on the website, although Rizvi says this is not significant.
In Rizvi’s opinion, although airlines such as Shaheen Air and Air Blue are popular on the domestic routes, they do not make their inventory available online via GDS, and this deprives them of a significant number of customers. He adds that although Checkin.pk is in talks with both airlines, nothing has materialised so far and that “unless these airlines open up to us, and realise how booking mechanisms are changing, the online travel industry in Pakistan will not reach its full potential.”
Guides – Chutti.pk
Unlike Jovago Pakistan and Checkin.pk which are transaction based, Chutti.pk, which was launched by Irfan Ahmed in 2009, concentrates on content. Another distinguishing factor is while the other two sites are a part of a larger business group, Chutti.pk is an entrepreneurial venture. A travel lover, Ahmed says that it was in 2008 while on a trip to Norway, that he noticed the lack of city guides that would cater to practicing Muslims, providing listings of Halal restaurants, prayer timings, Qibla directions, etc. As a result he hired a content and web development team to put together guides for 40 cities around the world and launched the site in 2009.
Since then, Chutti.pk has evolved into a comprehensive website, which Ahmed hopes will become the go-to site for outbound travellers from Pakistan. Apart from the city guides, the website features a section dedicated to travel news, which includes anything from the opening of a new airport terminal to changes in visa policies. The site according to Ahmed, targets affluent leisure travellers: “People willing to spend over $1,000 on a three-day vacation.” Chutti.pk depends entirely on online advertising for their revenue, although Ahmed believes there is still a long way to go, as advertisers in Pakistan do not fully understand how the online sphere works.
Although online travel is only at its nascent stage in Pakistan, there are many growth enablers that can help push it forward; mobile technology being a natural partner. Chutti.pk already has a mobile app, with 60% of their website traffic coming from smartphones, and both Jovago Pakistan and Checkin.pk are planning to launch theirs in the next few months. Jovago and Checkin have already initiated partnerships with offline travel agents and after gaining a foothold in their respective domains, consolidations with related services (and providing one-stop travel solutions with hotel, air, car bookings and online communities such as blogs) is part of their long term plans.