Internet firm Qunar claims it is better than search portals because it scans travel sites to find the best airfares and hotel offers A mainland internet start-up hopes to become the 'Google of travel search', aiming for a US$500 million company valuation by 2009 in Asia's fast-growing search-related advertising market. Beijing-based Qunar.com, which launched its Putonghua-language search engine in May last year, is going up against more established rivals such as travel portals Zuji.com and Ctrip.com, and search engines such as Baidu.com. Qunar hopes to grab a big chunk of Asia's travel search advertising market, estimated to be worth US$1 billion travel by 2009. 'We knew that Google made 20 per cent of its revenue from travel-related advertising,' co-founder Fritz Demopoulos said. 'We thought, 'Wait a minute. There must be an opportunity there. Could we be the Google of travel? And could we focus on the markets we know, which are China, Japan, Korea and North Asia, and a little bit of South Asia?'' Qunar believes consumers will find its site more attractive than travel portals because the company scans hundreds of travel sites to find the best airfares and hotel deals. More than 40,000 users visit the site daily. 'In a way, we are just like Google. ... We search 320 websites and extract information about travel deals,' Mr Demopoulos said. 'Most consumers are frustrated with the lack of pricing transparency [at travel portals].' Although Google and Baidu are better known for search, Qunar believes its advantage is technology designed to discover the best travel deals. 'Every website that we search, we ask those websites to sign a quality assurance contract with us to ensure that there is pricing accuracy, and accuracy in availability of fares and hotel rooms,' Mr Demopoulos said. In addition, Google and Baidu include old pages in their search results while Qunar searches real-time information. The niche focus allows Qunar to charge rates two to three times higher than its bigger search rivals. Also, Qunar claimed visits to its site are more likely to lead to sales, with a conversion rate six times higher than other search engines. Although Baidu and Google are better funded, Qunar is not worried its rivals might attempt to muscle the company out of the market. 'I think it is important to note that these companies have a lot of priorities. The area that we are in, although quite lucrative, may not be the highest priority for them,' Mr Demopoulos said. About 80 per cent of the revenue comes from advertising, with the rest from referral fees. Qunar has not provided any sales figures, but it expects to break even by mid-year, thanks in part to China's low operational costs. The company had 34 employees, a figure that will grow to 60 as it adds Japanese and Korean language sites in addition to English. Qunar, which means 'go where?' in Putonghua, will continue using the name as it tackles markets outside the mainland. 'We think it is important to have one name, one URL,' Mr Demopoulos said. 'And who says a Chinese name cannot work in the region?'