BEIJING - An air ticket home during the Spring Festival holiday is not only hard to obtain, but also expensive. However this year, Cui Yi, who works at an environmental consultancy in Chengdu, southwest China, managed to get a cheap ticket for her aunt, who is visiting from Beijing.
As all the tickets from Chengdu to Beijing on Feb 12 are full price (approximately 1,400 yuan, or $212), Cui bought hers for 120 yuan less from the newly-launched air ticket service at the portal website 163.com run by Nasdaq-listed NetEase.com.
"The price (120 yuan) is not much, but it really matters at a time when all tickets are so expensive," said Cui, aged 40.
The lower price of air tickets, offered by newcomers to the e-ticketing business such as NetEase and Taobao.com, have fuelled competition with existing online ticket agencies such as Ctrip.com, eLong.net and travel search engine Qunar.com.
The NetEase air ticket service was launched on Dec 31, and offers online airfares with a price that "is guaranteed to be no higher than other ticket sellers". Its secret in lowering its price is to transfer its own discount of 3 to 8 percent to customers.
"We are new to the business. Price is where we can get noticed," said Bian Ning, public relations manager with NetEase.
The company is expected to set up an international service after the Spring Festival and add more applications for smartphones to ease the number of online purchases from mobile terminals, Bian said.
Booming online tourism has triggered competition among the ticketing services. According to the latest research by Entgroup, revenue from China's online tourism reached 39 billion yuan in 2010, a rise of 40 percent from the previous year.
The online ticketing business is one of the most developed in the e-tourism industry, because it does not require the use of logistics services and its consumers are mainly high-end spenders. Ctrip, eLong and NetEase provide their services as online ticket agents, while Taobao and Qunar serve as an online platform for airlines and ticket agents, said Chen Shousong, an analyst at domestic research company Analysys International.
Taobao's travel platform, developed in May 2010, offers content in terms of tourism routes, hotels, airports and ticketing. Its ticketing service has worked with leading airlines and more than 200 air-ticket agents nationwide.
The number of tickets sold through Taobao tripled between May and the end of last year. Of the promotion held on Dec 28, the company has sold 26,000 air tickets, with about 5,000 tickets discounted by more than 50 percent.
These promotions are meant to offer an experience for customers and provide invisible benefits for the website.
"The discounts are about promoting the online shopping lifestyle, rather than simply selling tickets," said Ma Chunmao, public relations manager of Taobao.
Price or service
Though Taobao's price is often lower than Ctrip's, it's difficult to affect the latter's business as its customers are mostly business travelers who are less concerned about price, but pay more attention to service and efficiency, Chen said.
Taobao's presence does not take customers from Qunar and Ctrip but does increase the online booking share. Meanwhile, Taobao will continue to grow in the online tourism market while Qunar will remain the leader in ticketing services, Chen said.
Facing competition from newcomers, Ctrip - whose market share dropped 1.9 percentage points to 49.3 percent in the fourth quarter compared with the third, according to research company iResearch - has been transformed from a ticketing agent into a comprehensive tourism services provider by buying local tourism agencies to consolidate its market share.