Travelstart Localizes Online Travel Booking in the MENA
In December 2015, Travelstart, an international online travel agency (OTA) focused on the Middle Eastern and African markets, announced the official launch of Arabic versions of its website in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Egypt, and Morocco.
The company already has an established presence in the Middle East since January 2014. With its new Arabic websites, it hopes to accelerate the growth of online bookings and e-commerce in the region.
Travelstart was founded in 1999 by Stephen Eckbergh, also the founder of Switzerland’s first OTA (Mr. Jet) in 1995.
Arabic – Do You Speak It?
Arabic is currently the fifth most spoken language in the world, and the official language in 26 countries. While an estimated 413 million of the world’s Internet users are from the Arab World, the availability of Arabic online content is vastly disproportionate.
Looking at internet search patterns in the region, the decision to launch Arabic websites also made sense business-wise. “In Saudi Arabia approximately 80% of Internet users conduct searches in Arabic, in Kuwait it is 60%, and in the UAE there are fewer searches in Arabic as the market is dominated by expats and locals are accustomed to searching online in English,” said Remo Abbondandolo, Business Development Manager at Travelstart in Dubai.
“In 2015 alone we’ve had 4 million active users in the MENA region accessing Travelstart in English. The launch of an Arabic version will provide an even more culturally relevant experience to our valued customers,” said Abbondandolo.
Localization Also Goes Through Payments
“A key component for us is localization: we bring great experience from many countries around the world locally, hence we understand the local needs such as the importance to have Arabic content, as well as local payment methods in each market where we operate,” said Abbondandolo.
According to him, the MEA is a complex market with many barriers, particularly when it comes to payments. “On one hand, users don't really trust online transactions - even though they have multiple devices connected for several hours per day. On the other hand, users don't really adopt easier electronic payment methods and cash is still king in e-commerce in the region,” he said.
The new Arabic websites accept payments in local currencies such as Riyals and Dirhams, and also propose an extensive range of localized payment solutions to customers who prefer not pay with credit cards, including CashU, Al Ansari, Pay@store, and collection via courier with Pay@home.
Focus on Quality Core Services
A localized language and currency are instrumental in helping Travelstart differentiate its offering from other travel websites operating in the region. They also make it easier for customers to access the OTA’s full features, including access to real-time prices for flights from all airline tickets, hotel bookings, and car rentals.
“We are the only OTA offering cheap flight tickets from hundreds different airlines in Arabic language with the most comprehensive payment methods worldwide,” said Abbondandolo.
Opportunity in the MENA Market
Growth in online travel booking in the MENA mirrors global rates. For Travelstart, the UAE remains the main market; however, the OTA believes that Saudi Arabia is the most promising one on the long term.
One main trend the agency’s market research revealed about the region is its rapid adoption of mobile channels, which is prompting Travelstart to develop more apps for its MENA markets. Travelstart Egypt has already launched an iOS and Android flight-booking app in December 2014.
More recently, the company developed Flapp, an app that allows users to book flights on single popular "commuter" routes such as Dubai, Doha, or Jeddah in seconds.
The top leisure destinations for Arab travelers include Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, London, and Dubai itself for residents of neighboring countries. In the GCC in particular, the top destinations are understandably the cities where the highest number of expats are from, notably Cairo, Manila, Bombay, etc.
On another note, Abbondandolo mentioned that regulations and institutions in the region are going in the right direction to make it easier for new e-business to start and expand.
In addition to exploring more mobile channels and focusing on high-opportunity MENA markets, Travelstart will also work to promote its payment gateways. Abbondandolo explained that services in Arabic can help build trust among customers and, slowly but surely, encourage them to conduct more online transactions.