Can Chinese online travel juggernaut Ctrip persuade non-Chinese to use its site?

Although Ctrip offers service in multiple languages, overseas clients generate less than 2 per cent of revenue for the hotel and airfare booking platform

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 10:00am

Shanghai-based Ctrip has gone from small beginnings in 1999 ­to become the mainland’s biggest travel booking website – buoyed ­by a travel boom that has seen middle-class Chinese venturing overseas in large numbers.

Now it’s looking for growth elsewhere, targeting foreign tourists who are planning trips to China and beyond.

The website provides services including hotel and transport bookings and package tours in 12 different languages, including French, Japanese and Spanish.

Yet its overseas clients contribute less than 2 per cent to the company’s revenue, according to Jane Sun, chief executive of Ctrip.

That’s something the company, which listed on the Nasdaq in 2003, is trying to change.

Late last year, Crip bought ­UK-based travel search website Skyscanner for US$1.7 billion, part of its plan to make Ctrip the go-to site for foreigners planning trips to China, Sun said.

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She said the company aimed to use Skyscanner as a springboard into the overseas tourist market. “In the US and UK, Skyscanner has good brand recognition,” Sun said. “So hopefully it can become a global marketplace for our products. That’s our strategy.”

Ctrip also aims to improve Skyscanner’s functionality so that users can book hotels and flights directly on the site. At present, users are redirected from Skyscanner to the Ctrip website to complete their bookings.

“After flight bookings, we will add services for trains, rental cars, package tours and tickets for tourist attractions,” Sun said. “It will come, one by one.”

Ctrip’s growth has been propelled by the mainland travel boom. The number of Chinese tourists heading overseas has surged from about 10 million in 1999 to some 122 million in 2016.

Sun ­expected the number of Chinese travelling abroad to reach about 200 million by the year 2020.

Ctrip has dominated the ­online travel market on the mainland since it merged with its biggest booking rival Qunar in 2015.

But it has also been working steadily on its international presence. As well as Skyscanner, Ctrip has gobbled up three Chinese travel agencies which operate in the United States, and invested US$180 million in MakeMyTrip, an Indian online travel agency that listed on the Nasdaq in 2010.

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“When we had our initial public offering, no one knew what Ctrip did,” Sun said.

“We told Wall Street investors that we were the Expedia of China. And when Make­MyTrip had its IPO, they said they were the Ctrip of India.”

Meanwhile, Ctrip is trying to encourage mainlanders to head overseas in even greater numbers by lobbying for a relaxation of visa rules in Europe.

Sun, who was part of the Chinese delegation accompanying Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on his recent trip to ­Europe, wants Brussels to extend the 90-day validity period for the Schengen visas issued to Chinese passport holders. In return, China should issue more visas for European travellers, she said.

“I think they will seriously consider it,” Sun said. “Hopefully there will be a breakthrough.”