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Click away to plan that dream vacation

WHEN Chen Jie and her new husband Xu Hang decided to take their honeymoon in Australia, they began their holiday planning at their home computer rather than in a travel agency.

"We checked flight prices at some of the Chinese tourism Websites and also looked at the previous experiences posted by other visitors, which can provide many useful tips," said Chen, a Shanghai journalist.

"We had more freedom and tailored our own holiday instead of going with the standard itineraries at travel agents," she said.

Chen is just one of a rapidly growing number of Chinese who have started to plan their outbound travel on their own, thanks to the convenience of online tourism service providers. Those operators are keen to tap demand and expand their services.

The Germany-based Hotel Reservation Service ( recently launched an updated version of its Chinese Website that boasts links to 230,000 hotels in more than 180 countries. It will also offer discount deals on its own reservation portal.

"As more and more people in China are becoming familiar with online booking and more residents are willing to travel overseas, this is a good time to tap further into the market," said Tobias Ragge, chief executive officer of "We'll also focus on providing information about overseas restaurants to Chinese travelers and business people."

Of the 230,000 hotels it has signed up, about 5,000 are local ones.

Operating in Germany since 1972 and enjoying more than 50 percent of Europe's online booking market, HRS is now shifting its focus to China, an underdeveloped market that is holding up amid the global economic downturn.

More than 550,000 people in Shanghai traveled to foreign countries for vacations in the past year, up 8 percent from the previous year, according to a research report released by the World Tourism Organization. The report, released on the Outbound Tourism Forum at the sixth World Travel Fair in Shanghai this month, also said more people are going online to plan holidays, forgoing traditional bookings through travel agencies., established four years ago in Beijing, is among the leading online travel sites in China.

Unlike traditional online booking platforms, such as Nasdaq-listed Ctrip and Elong, Qunar provides its own search engine to lead users to flight or hotel-booking Websites, enabling them to compare prices. The company reports nearly 30 million visitor hits a month, and boasts a search engine covering 400 booking Websites with information on 3,000 flights and 30,000 hotels, all in China.

More opportunities

Qunar is ranked third behind Expedia Inc and Yahoo! Travel among Asian online tourism sites, according to the latest data from comScore, a United States-based market research company. More than 21 percent of Internet users check travel information or book tickets online in the Asia-Pacific region, the report said.

Internet users in China reached 298 million at the end of last year, up 42 percent from 2007, according to the 23rd Internet Development Report cited by the China Internet Network Information Center.

About 2 percent of Internet users booked travel services online, iResearch Inc said in its annual report. Six million Web users utilized online booking services in the past year, up a third from a year earlier. However, when taking new Internet users into account, the proportion was little changed, the report noted.

"The development of travel information-oriented search engines will give more opportunities to small and medium-sized operators to market their services," iResearch said in the report.

"Qunar has attracted a considerable number of customers to online booking platforms and other direct marketing Websites for tickets and hotels," Fritz Demopoulos, CEO of Qunar, told a press briefing in Guangzhou late last month. He co-founded the company with Douglas Khoo and Zhuang Chenchao with venture capital provided by investors such as Mayfield, Teneya Capitals and GSR Ventures.

"We'll continue to provide services enabling customers to compare prices and make better choices when planning their vacations," he added.

Online booking platforms, particularly community sites, still have a way to go in providing services to attract more users, iResearch said.

"It's a pity local Websites still have limited content about overseas restaurants and international flights," Chen Jie said. "The prices they offer are not attractive compared with the deals offered by international Websites or carriers.

Still, she said she's very happy with the way her holiday plans have come together.


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