How Africa’s Online Travel Tech Is Evolving To Include Curated Experiences, Layaway Plans

Written by Tom Jackson

Those booking African tourism and travel online may instinctively visit well-established players like Travelstart and Hotels.ng, but new niches are being carved out in the African online travel space, offering curated experiences to tourists.

Companies like Jovago, now part of Jumia, have been around for a while, helping African and non-African travelers book flights and hotels. Arriving on the scene when internet penetration was low, they have reaped the rewards, growing their user bases and raising sizeable funding rounds.

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Cape Town-based Travelstart, which claims to be Africa’s largest online travel booking website, raised $40 million in 2016 in a round led by London-based Amadeus Capital Partners and Africa’s top mobile service provider, MTN, as an investor.

Mark Essien, CEO of Hotels.ng, says platforms such as his helped to bring African travel into the 21st century. Hotels.ng now lists more than 11,000 hotels, and has secured investment of its own.

“With our model, even the small hotels that can’t afford to create, run or market websites can now compete with international hotel chains for visibility online,” he said.

“On the consumer side, we have brought ease, and a trustworthy way to plan travel.”

online travel
Curated African experiences booked through online travel platforms are becoming popular. Image – AP – Schalk van Zuydam

Companies like Hotels.ng, as well as other established players like Tourism Radio, are still going strong and growing in size, but new niches are being carved out in the African online travel space as various startups enter the market. Essien says he has noticed signs of evolution in the sector.

“Tech platforms are becoming more open to selling travel packages that go beyond just hotel rooms and flight seats. They make tour guides available and provide curated experiences around the city for the traveller,” he said.

“They also are embracing insurance packages and solutions that allow users to save up towards trips in advance.”

Curated experiences

South Africa is a leader on the continent when it comes to online tourism, and it is taking the lead in the curated experiences space. One of the main players is Tribal Tourist, which connects travelers with local tour operators.

“People are now looking for real experiences instead of packaged holidays. We are fully immersive with the tours we select and partner with,” says founder Matthew Kearns.

“Take a look at Airbnb Experiences. They see travelers wish to connect with local tour guides. TripAdvisor bought Viator. They are more day activities. Tribal Tourist is more focused on multi-day packages which are high in booking value.”

As ever, local platforms need to solve local problems. Tribal Tourist has to overcome the fact that payments have always been difficult in Africa. It has overcome this problem by setting up payment gateways with Stripe, and setting up a U.S.-based company in Delaware to expedite online payments, with the U.S. a major market for such platforms. Uptake has been strong, with revenues of more than $200,000 in 2018 so far.

A similar platform to Tribal Tourist in South Africa is Timbuktu. The startup, which recently expanded to the U.S., allows travelers to design and customize their own trips from a selection of curated routes across Africa. Co-founder Johnny Prince says the timing is now right for tech companies to start adding real value for travelers in Africa.

“There’s some really interesting innovation happening in Africa travel allowing people to easily discover, compare and book experiences and trips online, and we’re excited to be part of this movement,” he said.

Saving up

The way people save for their holidays is something else that is being disrupted by tech companies. South African startup FOMO Travel is an online lay-buy travel agency, providing a more affordable and economical way for people to travel the world.

“We have created a simple solution that lets keen travelers pay for their dream holiday through interest-free monthly instalments. It’s fully automated and 100 percent secure. You activate your booking according to your departure date and the monthly budget you can afford, and then, stress-free and hassle-free, you pay small amounts towards your well-deserved holiday over time, on your terms,” says CEO Andrew Katzwinkel.

“There are no credit checks needed and there are no penalties for missed payments. The price you book is the price you pay but with FOMO you don’t have to spend all your hard earned money at once.”

Once again, uptake has been impressive, and FOMO has secured funding to scale its vision.

“We have successfully sent thousands of keen travellers to all places of the globe that previously were prohibited from traveling,” Katzwinkel said.

“We have partnered with large corporations such as Hippo and Absa during 2018 and we are planning on a large scale expansion plan.”

The power of mobile

Technology is also changing the way people behave when they actually go on holiday. The Cape Town-based company VoiceMap crowdsources audio tours for cities across the world, allowing travellers to access an immersive experience with a local guide via their smartphone, and local guides to monetize their audio tours.

It now has tours in 130 cities and 48 countries, and has worked with hundreds of publishers. It recently helped the Groot Constantia vineyard tell the story of South African wine, but says it has not had too much uptake in Africa yet.

“This comes down to how and why travellers visit African destinations, I think. They don’t tend to spend a lot of time on foot, exploring – at least not in the sort of numbers that make VoiceMap a better option than tour guides,” said CEO Iain Manley.

“But we’re now working on features that are a better fit for the continent, including an interface specifically designed for driving tours.”

So there is still room for growth with mobile tourism in Africa as the sector continues to be disrupted by technology. Manley says this will only be a positive thing.

“It lowers barriers to entry, which creates opportunities for people that couldn’t otherwise participate in the industry,” he said.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.

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