The Life: Abu Dhabi start-up aims to click with online travel market.
Holiday site Takhayal Travel takes flight
An Abu Dhabi start-up has spotted an opportunity to cash in on an expected increase in internet holiday bookings even though Middle East consumers have shown a reluctance to buy goods and services online.
The Takhayal Travel portal, which translates to "Imagine Travel", has already been three years in the making. The investment is in the "millions of dollars", says Michael Hariz, the chief executive of Hariz ME, which is bankrolling the website's development.
"It is taking a risk," he says. "There's no question about it."
Mr Hariz is no stranger to risk. The Australian, along with other family members, launched Hariz ME, an advertising and communications company in the UAE seven years ago. In that time the company has grown from three staff to a team of 35.
The aim is to launch the website by the end of the year. It is designed to allow customers to book flights, tours, hotels and other accommodation such as ski chalets and safari camps.
The plan is to focus initially on the Middle East and then to expand globally.
Growth of the industry as a whole has been held back because internet access remains low in the region and there is a lack of trust in making payments online, industry insiders say.
Analysts expect that to change. The number of air ticket sales in the region through online channels is expected to increase from 10 per cent last year to 14 per cent by 2015, according to Euromonitor International. That is still well behind North America, where 57 per cent of air ticket bookings are made online.
Mr Hariz says he spotted a gap in the market due to the tourism infrastructure being developed in Abu Dhabi and the broader global trend of consumers shopping online.
"The Middle East has fallen a little behind and there will be a rapid catch up over the next three to five years. This is why we're breaking into the market now," he says.
One of the biggest challenges was getting the site licensed by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, which is more accustomed to issuing licences to conventional travel agencies rather than web-based agents.
Now, the major challenge is to get hundreds of pages translated into Arabic.
Takhayal Travel will compete with some of the biggest names in the industry. Expedia is planning to launch a site in the UAE within two years, and local companies already up and running include Joob.com and Cleartrip.ae.
The fact that the site's content will be focused on the Middle East and Abu Dhabi will help put it in a unique position in the market, says David Rymer, the managing director of Takhayal Travel. He says the company hopes to differentiate itself by building customised luxury holidays rather than simply identifying the cheapest flights.
"Most travel sites still run by search," says Mr Rymer. "That assumes that you know what you want and you know where you're going. The reality is most consumers look at 20 sites because they don't know where they want to go and what they want to do."