With millions of Chinese logging on to the Internet to book air tickets and hotel rooms, travel websites have turned out to be a major hit in the country's tourism industry.
A little more than 30 million Chinese went online to book hotel rooms, air tickets and tour packages last year, an increase of 13 million compared to the figure in 2008, according to a China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) report.
The sector's year-on-year growth of 77.9 percent has exceeded growths in online stock trading (67 percent), online banking (62 percent), and online shopping (46 percent). The only sector it lagged behind was online payments, which witnessed an 81-percent year-on-year growth in 2009, the report said.
"Going online to arrange everything for a trip is becoming a trend among the Chinese now," said Tang Yibo, director of the holiday department of Ctrip.com, a major travel website.
What attracts consumers the most is the "convenience, abundant choices and transparent prices", he explained.
Chen Minghong, a native of Jiangsu province, said the discounts available on travel websites are pleasantly surprising.
Chen first went online to book an air ticket to Inner Mongolia in 2008.
"The discount I got was higher than anywhere else I had tried," she said.
"Now, I even book hotel rooms online, as most hotels offer discounts online but not when you directly land up there in search of a room."
With several new alternatives for consumers, more and more travelers are abandoning traditional tour groups and are designing their own route and schedule.
Beijinger Fang Fang, who plans to take her family to Phuket, Thailand, this week, said: "Joining tour groups is too tiring for the elderly and young children. With online bookings, I can arrange my own schedule, which could ensure a really relaxing holiday for everyone."
A recent online survey by Ctrip.com, in which 3,000 netizens voted, showed that only 35 percent of them were keen on joining tour groups, down 5 percent since last year.
Dai Bin, deputy head of the China Tourism Academy, estimated earlier that only 5 percent of domestic tourists had joined tour groups this year, as more and more people prefer traveling independently.
"This trend means tourists will demand more information and travel service providers have to reconsider their business mode (to embrace the change)," he said.
Industry insiders are optimistic about the prospects for websites that offer online travel booking services.
As both China's Internet and tourism industries are in a fast developing stage, the group of online booking users is also expected to expand, Tang Yibo of Ctrip.com said.
By the end of last year, only 7.9 percent of China's 384 million Internet users booked online travel, which indicated huge potential, he said.