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With the Internet Accounting for 95% of Primary Traveller Information
and $153 billion in Tourism Bookings in the US and Europe,
the Middle East Needs to Get in the Digital Game

Less than 5% of Companies Utilize Digital Marketing

By Taylor Luck, Jordan Times, AmmanMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 19, 2010--AMMAN -- The Kingdom's tourism industry needs to "catch up" in order to take advantage of online marketing and reach out to potential tourists across the world, experts said on Sunday.

The Internet has become the primary information resource for 95 per cent of travellers, with $153 billion worth of tourism bookings made online in 2009 from the US and Europe alone.

Worldwide, an average of 48 per cent of bookings are made over the Internet, while the rate of online bookings in countries such as the US is as high as 70 per cent, according to Damian Cook, CEO and founder of e-tourism frontiers, a Nairobi-based digital marketing consultancy.

In the Middle East, however, less than 5 per cent of tourism companies take advantage of digital marketing, resulting in a huge loss in potential customers and revenue, he noted.

"If you're out of the present sales channels, you are losing business, period," Cook told The Jordan Times on the sidelines of a digital media conference yesterday.

Simply having a website is not enough, according to Cook. Tourists are foregoing standard company-owned websites, and reviewing the experiences of travellers on online forums, such as TripAdvisor, which they see as more credible information.

Anders Mogensen, co-founder of seismonaut, a Danish digital marketing consultancy, said there has been a "change in mindset" in the travel industry.

"Suddenly customers are no longer passive observers; you can't just give them a brochure and expect them to make a reservation. They want to ask questions, see videos and look for advice from other travellers," he told The Jordan Times on the sidelines of the conference.

Digital marketing caters directly to independent tourists, but is now also influencing the decisions of travellers opting for package tours, he noted.

"User-generated content is rated so high, people in the industry can no longer afford to ignore it," Mogensen said.

Regionally, the UAE industry is currently the most active in digital marketing, followed by Jordan, which is ahead of larger tourism industries such as Egypt's.

Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) Director Nayef Fayez said online marketing has been pivotal in promoting Jordan to the world, underlining ongoing cooperation between the JTB and Google and TripAdvisor

"We are big believers in social networking to reach the target audience. But we have to shift not only to using Internet for marketing, but for selling tourism products, to translate into actual travellers," he said.

"We need to have the rest of the tourism industry online, we can't do it all on our own," Fayez added.

"There is no reason that we in Jordan can't become a leader in this sector," he pointed out.

Jordan Hotels Association General Manager Yassar Majali acknowledged that when it comes to using social networking, hotels in Jordan have some "catching up to do".

"Many of our members are still unaware of the impact of these websites on their business," he said.

Majali noted that one unclassified hotel in Amman, due to the Internet savvy of the owner's son, utilised its online presence to generate 100 per cent occupancy. Other hotels should follow suit, he said, and encourage feedback online, even negative, in order to attract visitors.

"Hotel owners know where they stand. If they see negative feedback, they should follow up to show to other potential travellers that they are addressing visitors' needs," Majali said.

Titled "Digital and Social Media Marketing", the conference is organised by the USAID-Jordan Tourism Development Project (Siyaha) and is part of ongoing efforts to allow potential tourists to browse and book trips to the Kingdom from anywhere in the world.

"As digital and social media are increasingly becoming determining factors in vacation selection by global travellers, it is very important for Jordan to capitalise on it as it is the new way people are sharing, researching, reviewing and purchasing," USAID/Siyaha Chief of Party Ibrahim Osta told The Jordan Times.

Bringing tourism marketing to the digital age is fairly easy for anyone, according to Cook.

The first step for Jordanian tourism service providers is training, he said, noting that companies can set up blogs and Facebook accounts for free and upload photographs and movies at ease.

Cook stressed that with the affordability of digital cameras and flip video camcorders, hoteliers, restaurateurs, tourist guides and cooperatives do not need to hire web designers or photographers to highlight their facilities and services.

In terms of manpower, he suggested that limited operations use interns, university students who are more familiar with social networking websites, to maintain their company's online presence.

Another step is improve the ranking and prevalence of Jordan tourism websites on Internet search engines, Cook said, pointing out that a search for the term "Jordan" on Google yields many results for British model Katie Price, also known as Jordan, rather than the Kingdom.

Digital marketing is not confined to companies, even one-person operations can use online tools to reach out to potential customers across the world, Mogensen pointed out.

With 3G services available on mobile phones, people no longer need to be at an office on a computer to update web pages or arrange bookings and logistics, he stressed.

But according to industry observers, the most important untapped resource in digital marketing is free: Word of mouth. Tourism service providers can have visitors become ambassadors for their businesses by encouraging them to post reviews and photographs on websites such as Tripadvisor and Facebook

"When guests check out of a hotel, they should encourage them to provide feedback or a view online. It's a very powerful tool," Mogensen noted.

Most recently, South Africa encouraged users on WAYN to enter a competition in order to win a free trip to the country. The selected winner was then encouraged to photograph and record every stage of the trip, so that thousands would learn about all the country has to offer, WAYN co-founder Jerome Touze explained.

"The best way to learn about a country like Jordan is through the eyes of a fellow traveller," Mogensen added.

The conference, which also featured speakers from Frontiers, TripAdvisor, Expedia, WAYN and Wildearth.tv, will be followed by nine days of workshops in Amman, Aqaba and Petra for tourism industry representatives, according to USAID-Siyaha.

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To see more of the Jordan Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.jordantimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, Jordan Times, Amman

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