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Asian travel portal takes off

Online travel agency Zuji, backed by 16 airlines and Travelocity.com, launches its Asian operations and aims to take on Priceline.com.

    Online travel agency Zuji, backed by 16 airlines and Travelocity.com, has launched its Asian operations.

    Zuji, which means "footprint" in Chinese, has begun with Web sites serving Singapore and Australia.

    In the planning stages since June 2000, Zuji pushed back plans to launch early this year because of market conditions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. But company executives said that the market is improving.

    "We're here for the long term, and we have the funding to do that," Zuji Commercial Director Martin Symes said.

    Sites targeting consumers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, New Zealand, Malaysia and Brunei will debut later this year, he said. Zuji hopes to register 500,000 customers across the Asia-Pacific region by year's end, Symes added.

    Customers can plan itineraries that include multiple carriers and free stopovers and receive e-mail notification of bargain airfares.

    Zuji asserts that its chief attraction is giving customers access to more than 700 airlines, 56,000 hotels and 50 car rental companies worldwide. Reservation-system specialists Abacus and Sabre, which owns 96 percent of travel portal Travelocity, are providing Zuji's databases.

    Zuji does not address price-conscious buyers in the same way as Priceline.com, which lets Web surfers name their own price for airfares or hotels but doesn't initially reveal the name of the company. Instead, Symes said Zuji's customers will know which carriers and the hotels they are getting before they make the purchase. "We have complete transparency," he said.

    In addition to Travelocity, which will power Zuji's sites, backers include All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, China Airlines, EVA Airways, Garuda Indonesia, Hong Kong Dragon Airlines, Japan Air System, Japan Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Qantas Airways, Royal Brunei Airlines, SilkAir, Singapore Airlines and United Airlines.

    Priceline's service is seen as too opaque to attract Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways, executives with those airlines said.

    "Cathay Pacific prides itself on its brand, which is its main selling tool," said Tim Fitzsimmons, the airline's general manager of e-business and regions. "Customers tell us that they want to buy our brand."

    Singapore Airlines Senior Vice President of Marketing Tan Chik Quee agreed. "Priceline's proposition does not make sense to us at the moment, and its business model is not proven," he said.

    Priceline operates in Asia as a joint venture of Hong Kong conglomerates Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong Holdings.

    Zuji will embark on an aggressive marketing campaign in the Asia-Pacific region beginning next year, Symes said. The company has a marketing budget of $50 million and expects to reach profitability in 2006, he said.

    CNETAsia's Irene Tham reported from Singapore.