The entire travel industry is witnessing a strong rebound due to the easing of restrictions and significant reduction in the spread of the virus, says Bhatnagar. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: Covid’s getting out of the way, and India’s online travel portals are once again riding back into the traveller - and investor - spotlight. TBO, co-founded by ex-Microsoft staffer Gaurav Bhatnagar and Ankush Nijhawan, is hoping for a first-mover advantage, having just cleared all the regulatory approvals prior to its IPO, with a likely size of Rs21 billion.

“There have been a fair amount of changes in the online travel booking space in the past three years and, as with any sector, the fittest have survived,” said Bhatnagar. “The entire travel industry is witnessing a strong rebound due to the easing of restrictions and significant reduction in the spread of the virus.

“While we saw a rise in our business until the second quarter of fiscal 2022, our business may continue to grow because of increased travel demand. We believe that the initiatives we took during the pandemic such as exclusive refunds scheme, governance practices to be prepared for future, and quarantine packages along with well-being initiatives have contributed to such growth.”

Can a TBO IPO then steer India’s online travel space back into full bloom? Even last year, as India was struggling with a second wave of Covid, the online marketplace Flipkart still went through with a 100 per cent buyout of Cleartrip. And in 2018, there was the equally high-profile deal involving MakeMyTrip and Goibibo, which in fact set off the consolidation push in India’s online travel booking space.

Bhatnagar makes a point that TBO’s business plan isn’t only about looking at Indians planning trips and bookings, whether for trips within the country or outside. TBO operates as a travel distribution platform connecting more than 100,000-plus travel agents to one million-plus travel suppliers.

“The sheer size and scale of our operations along with the width and depth of products makes us uniquely positioned for tremendous growth across markets,” he added.

Saudi connection

TBO is a majority shareholder in Zamzam.com, an online travel portal in Saudi Arabia, with a heavy focus on religious tourism potential. “Zamzam.com was added to our business two years ago to cater to the huge religious tourism market,” said Bhatnagar. “At the moment, it is focused on Umrah and Hajj offerings to over two billion Muslims across the world. With our MoU with the Saudi Tourism Authority, we plan to showcase Saudi Arabia to a global travel audience. “While our operations started in India, our single biggest markets today are the Middle East and Africa and Latin America regions. As travel rebounds in Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America, this is bound to further change.”

Keep buying travel portals

TBO is still in the acquiring game, having just finished with Bookabed - ‘Ireland’s largest travel distribution platform to help us expand across UK and Europe markets,” said Bhatnagar. “Depending upon the market needs and our business requirements, we keep evaluating such opportunities from time to time.”

An eye on Saudi religious tourism

It was in September last year that Zamzam.com launched operations, hoping that it would be a major beneficiary as Saudi Arabia gets its religious tourism numbers back on track - and then build up.

“The Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah had pilgrims during this Ramadan almost equal to the pre-pandemic situation,” said Omar Akbar, CEO of the travel portal. “At least 14 million visitors visited and prayed at the Holy Prophet Mosque in the month of Ramadan.

“The services offered by Zamzam are not confined to only one domain (religious tourism). The main objective is to provide an exemplary experience to anyone visiting Saudi Arabia for Umrah. It’s not just narrowed down to visiting Makkah and Madinah during the trip.

“As a Saudi Arabian company, we wish to contribute our best in Vision 2030 for increased inbound tourism and towards the Haj and Umrah goal of reaching 30 million visitors by 2030.”