Rise of Pakistan as a Growth Market in Local and Global Tourism
Snapshot of Travel & Tourism Industry in Numbers
If your social media feeds are not already filled with this update, we are here to remind you that Pakistan made it to the top of Conde Nast’s list as one of the most exciting travel destinations of 2020. Forbes also listed Pakistan in its ‘best under-the-radar trips of 2020’. Given the rise of Pakistan as a major tourist destination, this is the right time to meet the growing demand with innovation and startup ideas in the travel tech landscape. We have come a long way since the early 2000s, when the tourism industry bore the brunt of Pakistan’s political chaos, particularly in terms of international tourism. According to Gallup Pakistan’s recent report, tourist traffic at cultural sites in Pakistan has seen a massive increase of 317% over the past five years with Punjab’s contribution at nearly 95%. Moreover, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) reported that in 2018, 17,823 foreign tourists visited Pakistan compared to 10,476 in 2017. This number is clearly rising, particularly in light of Pakistan’s increasing prominence in global tourism rankings. These recent developments, along with the high profile visit of Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, pose the inevitable question of this new decade: how is Pakistan innovating and leveraging technology to meet the growing demand and our unmet potential?
Innovations in Tourism Industry
Part of the answer to the above question lies in the startup industry and the type of tourism startups that are currently in the market. In responding to the rising influx of tourists, the key question we need to ask ourselves is ‘who are we catering to?’. The answer to this question is not simple but it is quantifiable. Direct contribution of travel & tourism to Pakistan’s GDP, which signifies the economic activity directly attributed to entities such as travel agents, hotels, airlines, transportation services, restaurants, and leisure industry that are fueled by tourists, was 2.9% of the total GDP in 2017. 93.2% of this contribution was accounted for by domestic travel spending, which shows us where our energy should be focused on at the moment. Nonetheless, the foreign visitor spending (6.8%) has potential to increase significantly. The difference in the needs of these two distinct groups of travellers needs to be analyzed and understood, especially as this industry matures. There has been a radical shift in domestic travellers’ expectations with the masses getting more and more comfortable with online bookings and exceedingly using their mobile devices to access destination services. Startups such as Sastaticket, Bookme, FindMyAdventure, EasyTicket, GoGhoom, TripKar, Porter Pakistan, and Yugo have tapped into this opportunity by offering online search and booking services. Some of these players, however, are presently way more nascent than others.
SastaTicket, which raised series A funding worth $1.5 million back in November 2018 from Gobi Ventures, provides domestic users with an online platform to make hotel and flight bookings and payments. Bookme.pk and GoGhoom offer similar technology driven solutions to travel services. Bookme.pk pioneered the e-ticketing industry in Pakistan by entering the market in 2014 offering services under three categories, i.e. buses, theatres, and events focusing on digitizing ticketing, seat maps, and payments. The startup closed a pre-series A round funding through Lakson Investments Venture Capital (LIVC) in 2019. With a completely cashless model, it has one of the strongest networks in the country encompassing bus operators offering inter-city services and a recently added feature that allows users to book hotels as well. It is currently the #1 app for travel in Pakistan on the Play store. GoGhoom, which went dormant after starting in 2014 for a period and restarted operations again in 2018, is now one of the biggest hotel consolidators in Pakistan. Similarly, TripKar also offers hassle-free online booking services for hotels, flights, and buses through an online portal. (There are no updates post 2017 about the startup online, which might mean they are dormant at the moment.) Yet another online booking and search portal, FindMyAdventure, raised an investment of USD 150,000 in April 2019 and is planning on raising more soon. Their main offering is an online platform that connects users to different travel service providers. The founder, Komail Naqvi, shared in an interview with us how tech-based interventions such as this and others in the market are taking an iterative approach, developing products to suit their clients’ needs and improving the product constantly through strong feedback loops from their end users. This ties in with the importance of digital literacy among users, which ultimately improves the quality of feedback.
While it is (evidently) possible for tech-tourism startups to move fast technologically in markets such as Pakistan, with a literacy rate of 58% (2019) and mobile data penetration of 35.21% (2019), the importance of engaging early adopters is imperative. There is an opportunity to create clusters of early adopters that help others transition into using online portals for tourism. Additionally, e-ticketing startups need to leverage their network of partners (such as bus operators, hotels, airlines, etc.) to endorse and incentivize using e-platforms for tourism for a win-win situation. It is only natural for travel-tech users to exhibit the same kind of reluctance shown by users when Careem and Uber entered the market years ago in terms of adoption. This coupled with marketing efforts from the tech-startups in the travel space will produce massive results for the economy. In a recent conversation on the subject, Faisal Aftab, Managing Partner of Lakson Venture Capital Fund, predicted that the tech adoption in the context of tourism (as well as in general) is right around the corner and is being catalyzed through regulatory reforms and expedited efforts towards a digital economy by the current government. He also stressed that the digitization of travel services presents us with an opportunity to capture the black economy, which in turn means a higher growth rate than any other approach.
Similarly, the alternative lodging category under travel-tech is another major area of growth that provides a sustainable alternative to the traditional hotel industry that relies on constructing commercial buildings that more often than not have a negative impact on the environment. Local startups such as Roomy and Ghumo are providing services under this category by partnering with existing properties both commercial and non-commercial. Roomy partners with and revamps existing properties and offers them to travellers at an affordable price. Ghumo, however, runs on a slightly different model where they offer short-term rentals through an online portal at competitive prices, which makes them similar to their global counterpart Airbnb. The more famous global counterparts such as Booking.com and Airbnb have been live in Pakistan for roughly 2 to 3 years now, but seem to be missing a key ingredient – careful curation. While properties listed on the local e-booking platforms (more often than not) can be booked exclusively through them, their international counterparts often list properties that are well established and have their own booking channels well in place. This means that they don’t necessarily have to rely on an online portal to get bookings. The fact that the local ebooking platforms mostly list otherwise inaccessible properties that are not necessarily hotels but are short term rentals means that their model is not only more inclusive and sustainable but is more reliable as well. In the past local property owners were not able to monetize this opportunity, whereas now the technology infrastructure has helped them leverage online distribution platforms to increase visibility of their properties – in turn distributing the economic gains from the rise in tourism more equitably. To see the current startups operating in the tourism industry refer to the figure below.
Who to Follow in the Travel Tech Innovation Landscape?
Perhaps the three most notable (& high-growth) startups in Pakistan’s tourism industry are Bookme.pk, Sastaticket.pk, and FindMyAdventure. The top two most well-funded startups that have secured significant investments in the past two years are in the e-ticketing space. Our team spoke with both Faizan Aslam (Bookme.pk) and Shazil Mehkri (Sastaticket.pk) on the role of digital payments in the tourism landscape. They both stressed on how they are seeing more customers get comfortable with digital payments in light of their efforts to digitize the space in the past few years since 2013. They also highlighted the unprecedented opportunities in the tourism space to design creative solutions for untapped market segments. With the increased familiarity of digital payment tools and Pakistan rising in global tourism rankings, how are entrepreneurs innovating to cater to a burgeoning population? And, most importantly, where are they looking for inspiration on a global level?
According to a report released a couple weeks ago, Indonesian startups received 70% (!!) of the global travel tech funding in 2019. In fact, one of Indonesia’s unicorns is also part of the travel tech & mobility space: yes, we’re talking about none other than Traveloka. FindMyAdventure’s founder, Komail Naqvi, also mentioned this startup as one of the ones he has been following. Our startup founders also spoke about some of the well-funded travel tech startups in India, like TravelTriange. Indian travel tech startups, according to them, made more sense to follow as the demographic is comparable to that of Pakistan. However, markets in Emerging Asia, like Indonesia and India, have ecosystems that are far more advanced than that of Pakistan, given the availability of capital and support for startups. While the Pakistani travel tech space is still nascent, many of the entrepreneurs and investors we spoke to believe that we have the potential to leapfrog ahead through increased digitization that harnesses the opportunity in the tourism landscape.
But one thing that came out in almost all of our interviews is this: personalization and more personalization (for the customer) is a major trend in the industry. Personalization entails looking into the travel patterns of customers and customizing services and products based on their unique needs. The key to personalization is through data-driven insights into customer behavior and market segments. Now the irony of this trend is that there is a lot of chatter in the landscape about it, but a clear dearth of data & research that pushes this trend forward. In fact, our interviewees also highlighted the need to do more data-driven research in the tourism industry to localize and personalize learnings from the global travel tech space. There are limited resources allocated to data collection and analysis to understand the growing demand in this space.
Image of Interest
Note: The i2i team spoke with startups founders and other key stakeholders about the disruptive and innovative approach to unleashing the current market opportunity in the travel industry. The people we interviewed include Faisal Aftab (Lakson Investments), Faizan Aslam (Bookme.pk), Umar Farooq (Tech Valley), Neelam Azmat (PPAF), Afia Saleem (Climate Journalist), Aneeqa Ali (The Mad Hatters), Haseeb Sattar (GoGhoom), Aun Ahmed (Ghumo), Bilal Mehkri (Sasta Ticket), and Abu Bakar Niaz (Caravan Pakistan). While we might not have disaggregated each of the participants responses in the newsletter, our overall analysis distilled the most important learnings from our conversations. We acknowledge and appreciate everyone’s contribution to our work.
As always, drop us a line and let us know how we’re doing, things we’re missing, and topics you’d like to see. We will be back soon with more interesting insights. Next month’s newsletter will be a comparative analysis of the startup ecosystem in Pakistan versus Bangladesh. If you have any suggestions or comments on that, do tell. Until then, this is the i2i Insights team signing off!