KARACHI: The onset of smartphones and high-speed Internet has changed the way people shop. Those doing online business say consumers now have more choice, more convenience and they can compare prices of different vendors to make an informed decision.

One area which is particularly flourishing is online hotel booking services. Companies like Jovago and Booking.com etc are betting on a growing tourism industry, better law and order and a rise in online population.

“Pakistan has 50 million domestic tourists and the number is growing,” said Tina Wang, managing director of Jovago Pakistan, which specialises in hotel and vacation rentals. It’s an international venture of Rocket Internet, a high-profile German Internet company that has made a name, and business, by copying existing tech start-ups.

“The travel industry has traditionally been based on agents. But the problem is that they don’t always have a very large selection of hotels. You don’t get to see the photos of the hotels and what kind of amenities they have,” Ms Wang said. “You kind of rely on them to give you all the knowledge that you think you need.”

In contrast, Jovago has 2,000 hotels across Pakistan and “we have verified all of them,” she said. Launched in mid-2014, the company now has 50 full-time employees and operates in 160 cities. However, most bookings still come from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, followed by some cities in northern areas like Naran and Swat.

“The number of bookings on our website has been growing by 25pc month-on-month on average,” she said, but refused to give an exact number of daily check-ins. She also skirted questions about the company’s earnings and other financial details.

According to the Pakistan Tele­communication Authority, the number of people using 3G or 4G Internet services has more than doubled to 32.7m last month from 14.6m in July last year.

She stressed that it’s a win-win situation all around. Customers have more choice and access to a lot of information. Hotels and guest houses have access to an international platform which helps them fill up the bedrooms. And the company gets a 10pc to 30pc commission on each completed booking, said Ms Wang, who has also worked for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Los Angeles.

Bye-bye bricks and mortar? So, are the days of brick-and-mortar travel agents numbered? “Not quite,” said Syed Haris Ali Shah, director of Al-Yasir Travel & Tours. “The Pakistani consumer hasn’t fully embraced the idea of buying online. They still feel safe when they book direct with us,” he said.

Muhammad Junaid, who regularly books hotels, subscribes to that. “Websites don’t offer many details. It’s way better to book face-to-face than call or online because you can ask for details on request.”

However another user, Jibran T. Siddiqui, who works for an advertising agency, said he booked a hotel in Faisalabad some six months through an app and found the experience good. “The price was right as they were offering discount those days.”

Ms Wang insisted that Pakistanis are responding well to online travel services, and encouraged everyone to visit the country. “My experience in Pakistan has been amazing. Pakistanis are extremely hospitable people. I have told all my friends who travel across the world that ‘Hey, you guys don’t know what you are missing. And you don’t really know until you come here’.”

Published in Dawn September 29th, 2016

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