Movers and shakers of the Middle East online travel industry gathered at WiT Middle East 2019 in Dubai on 9 April to unlock the potential of a fast-changing market being driven by youths.
With the global online travel market valued at USD 638 billion in 2018, the Middle East currently accounts for a small share, said Mona Faraj, managing director of Insight Out Consultancy (presenting the Middle East Online Travel Report from Phocuswright) but that is set to grow, as mobile penetration increases with UAE and Saudi Arabia among the world’s top 10 online travel leaders and a young population leapfrogging desktop to embrace the immediacy of mobile.
The promise of the market has lured global online travel brands such as Booking.com and Expedia, as well as brands that have grown up in similar emerging markets such as Africa, South-East Asia and India – all of whom gathered to speak at WiT Middle East which fielded close to 40 speakers and attracted more than 200 delegates.
“It’s just early days”
Stephan Ekbergh, CEO of Travelstart, the Scandinavia and Africa-based OTA that is expanding in the Middle East, called the region the “golden goose” of travel. He said: “It is exciting to be here at this time; so much is happening in the region, and it’s just early days.”
Key to unlocking potential
Key to unlocking the potential is technology solving one of the critical pain points in e-commerce in a fragmented market – cross-border payments.
“We are seeing the use of cash decline”
Remo Giovanni Abbondandolo, VP of business development for MENA (Middle East & North Africa) for global payment solutions provider, Checkout.com, said there’s growing trust in online payments as consumers get used to the convenience: “We are seeing the use of cash decline across the region. Now for many of our merchants, cash no longer represents the preferred method of payment for their customers.”
Opening up the market
Saudi Arabia’s target of reaching 30 million pilgrims as well as the kingdom’s intention to boost domestic tourism and open up for inbound leisure tourism by 2030, will open up a huge market for online travel brands.
Walid Mansour, partner and chief investment officer of MEVP, a key investor in Wego, said the climate was healthy for funding of start-ups in the region and the fund is interested in the offline-online migration of traditional businesses. MEVP has declared online travel as a segment it is interested in.
“The trends in the Middle East parallel what we have seen in South-East Asia”
Yeoh Siew Hoon, founder of Singapore-based WiT, which organises similar conferences in Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, Malaysia and Amsterdam, said: “The trends in the Middle East parallel what we have seen in South-East Asia – young population, high mobile penetration, a thirst for travel and the arrival of global and regional brands and the rise of local travel players. It’s a super exciting time to be here.”