Debunking the Elusive East - Online Travel in India

16th Oct 2009
Debunking the Elusive East - Online Travel in India

As an active online traveler living in India, I have had, if not a front row seat, at least a window seat with a pretty good view of the country’s vibrant, online travel sector. As detailed in PhoCusWright’s Asia Pacific Online Travel Overview Third Edition, India’s online travel marketplace is characterized by intense competition and entrepreneurial energy. The report adds that India will “emerge a winner in the online space.”

Yet despite such a high flying forecast, those less familiar with India tend to view the country as, if not the Wild West, at least something like the Elusive East. As someone who has traveled through major swaths of this huge subcontinent (and booked much of this travel online), I am hoping I can set the record straight, at least to some extent.

I routinely book my domestic travel in India online. For flights, I have used the major online travel agencies (OTAs), as well as some supplier Web sites. The OTAs leverage the considerable inventories of a wide range of competitive low-cost carriers that have proliferated in the country in the past five years. They all offer efficient online booking, payment and e-ticketing. To varying degrees, the suppliers and intermediaries also provide value-added messaging and context-sensitive offers. OTAs are quick to point out hotel deals for the city I am flying to, as well as destination guides and other content to help me get around once I am there. Supplier sites send me text or SMS messages when they know I should be heading to the airport (“thanks…I am on my way”). On the other hand, I have also been notified by text message that my flight has been cancelled; not the most pleasant message to get when you are on the road, but not bad considering that the alternative is finding out when you arrive at the airport.

Occasionally, I am a passenger on the vast Indian Railways system, the primary mode of travel for about 150 million middle class Indians. Some observers may be aware that the Railways is one the world’s largest employers (with 1.4 million employees, only Wal-Mart and China’s state-owned oil and power companies employ more). Fewer people know, however, that the government-owned Indian Railways also has the largest travel Web site in the entire Asia Pacific region in terms of transaction volume. Now Indian train travelers can book online not only on the Railways site, but also on a number of OTA sites with whom the government has partnered. The online booking is easy, and sure beats trekking out in the heat to the railway station, all for the privilege of jockeying for space with other would-be travelers in a ‘less-than-orderly’ queue. The great Indian middle class seems to agree.

And now that I have been online to get my train tickets, the Railways and their partners routinely present me with special e-offers for packages to the country’s incredibly popular temples and other spiritual destinations (spiritual destinations account for 20% of domestic travel in India). Some even offer advance e-bookings of reserved time slots to approach a particular temple’s inner sanctum, a focal point of many spiritual travelers’ trips; it seems the temples now not only have a direct connection to a higher power, but a broadband connection as well.


Lest we get all misty-eyed about the glory of the Indian Railways or the country’s online travel market in general, keep in mind that there are significant challenges that continue to impede growth: woefully low credit card and online penetration, and relatively poor physical infrastructure, to name a few. That said, the Elusive East it is not and, looking at India’s online travel space from this seat, itis turning into a pretty lovely view.

For more information about India’s online travel market, including how it stacks up against those in the rest of the region, check out PhoCusWright’s Asia Pacific Online Travel Overview Third Edition

Asia Pacific Opportunities: PhoCusWright Connect has compiled a series of articles and exclusive analyst commentaries about the vast opportunities present in the Asia Pacific online travel market—read more.


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