By Eamon Barrett
February 1, 2019

The largest annual human migration is underway. China’s 1.7 billion population will make 3 billion trips around Chinese New Year on February 5, according to government officials. It’s a logistical nightmare, clogging China’s airports, train stations and highways with traffic. But, for China’s leading online travel agent Ctrip.com International, it’s also a giant pay day.

The $20 billion Nasdaq-listed travel agent occupies 60% of China’s online travel industry and is the world’s second-largest online travel agent (OTA) after Priceline Group in terms of gross merchandise value, which measures the total value of services sold through a company’s platform. The Shanghai-based Ctrip, which bought flight comparison site Sky Scanner in 2016 and operates in the U.S. as Trip.com, expects to service 390 million domestic and seven million outbound trips by Chinese tourists this Chinese New Year.

According to Ctrip, Thailand, Japan and Indonesia will be the most popular overseas destinations for China’s tourists this New Year. The U.S. ranks number seven on that list, the same place it held in 2017. Ctrip co-founder and executive chairman James Liang said in January that he doesn’t expect China’s ongoing trade war with the U.S. to affect Chinese travel plans.

Liang founded Ctrip as a travel comparison site in 1999 after working eight years at Silicon Valley software company Oracle. Neil Shen, now founder and managing partner at Sequoia Capital China, joined as Liang’s co-founder along with Ctrip president Min Fan and board director Qi Ji.

The company’s first revenues came from hotel bookings, into which Ctrip expanded after the dotcom bubble burst and investor capital dried up. Two years later the company added flight reservations to its portfolio of services, then package holidays, corporate travel, bus tickets, train tickets and travel logistics.

Since 2003, when the company listed on Nasdaq, its market cap has swollen to 40-times its pre-IPO value and annual revenues have surged from $40.3 million in 2004 to $4.1 billion in 2017.

“The buying power is there, in China,” says CEO Jane Sun, who joined the company as CFO in 2005 after spending 12 years working in Silicon Valley finance. “In 2017 we offered 22 high-end tour packages priced at $200,000 each. It only took us 17 seconds to sell them all.”

According to McKinsey & Company, Chinese tourists made 131 million trips overseas in 2017 and spent a total $250 billion. The consultancy expects those figures to grow to 160 million and $350 billion by 2020. With only 5% of Chinese citizens owning a passport, outbound travel has exceptional room for growth and is one of the reasons why Ctrip was included amongst Fortune’s list of “Future 50” companies with strong growth prospects.

Ctrip’s tech prowess is one of its strengths. Sun says the company invests heavily in ABC – artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing – and uses its proprietary data analytics to do things like push targeted adverts towards customers and help business partners such as hotels predict peak periods.

In 2017 Ctrip created a credit rating system – ever more the vogue in China – based on customer’s booking history. In a letter to shareholders, Sun explained that customers with higher credit scores will enjoy perks, such as deferring payment until arrival, and the system also allows service providers to “get a better sense of what kind of customers they will serve.”

However China’s two most formidable tech titans, Alibaba Group and Tencent Holdings, are both invested in the travel market too. Alibaba’s travel unit Fliggy, launched in 2014, has chipped away at Ctrip’s share in flight sales and, according to analytics company Trust Data, Tencent-backed Meituan Travel surpassed Ctrip in hotel bookings by volume last year.

Ctrip’s executives have routinely dismissed the idea that Meituan or Alibaba poses a threat to their own business and maybe that’s fair. With China’s outbound travel market still so unsaturated, there’ll be room for more than one player.

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