When prompted to list Chinese online travel agencies (OTAs), people often name big-name players such as Ctrip, Alitrip (since rebranded as Fliggy—which hasn’t really stuck), Qunar, and Tuniu. Meituan-Dianping is also an increasingly prominent brand name, especially considering Tencent’s backing of the company. A major player that is often forgotten is JD.com, China’s online retail giant and main competitor to Alibaba’s Tmall. Not only does it sell a wide range of travel products on its extremely popular online storefront, but it’s also a major backer of Tuniu—a Nasdaq-listed Chinese OTA.
It would be gravely misleading to state that JD.com is a forgotten company—it’s the world’s third-largest internet company and is also listed on the Nasdaq. For investors bullish on the growth of Chinese e-commerce, it became a staple stock with its IPO back in 2014. Of course, our friends over at our sister site Jing Daily often discuss JD.com in their coverage, especially since it’s actively pursuing a more significant market share in China’s luxury retail.
In travel, however, JD.com is mostly forgotten—at least on the international stage.
Prominently featured on JD.com’s front page, travel products such as flight tickets, hotel bookings, vacation packages, cruises, and so on can all be purchased on the gigantic e-commerce platform. Travel products even have a dedicated subpage called Jingdong Travel (京东旅行)—more awkwardly translated by JD.com as “trip.jd.com.” In fact, the powerful brand and its heavy association with traditional e-commerce may be a reason why it’s so rarely mentioned as a big-name player in Chinese travel.
JD.com is a big player in Chinese travel, but it lacks a strong travel brand
Unlike Alibaba, which spun off its travel products from its Taobao platform into Alitrip, and later Fliggy, JD.com has refrained from building a separate travel brand. Whether Alibaba or JD.com’s approach to travel products has proven more effective is difficult to say, but it’s safe to say that Alibaba’s confused branding—using three distinct brand identities and platforms in a span of three years—has yet to reap the intended benefits. Of course, with the backing of Alibaba’s economic muscle, Fliggy may gradually become the leading (and youth-oriented) travel brand it’s intended to become.
But right now, Alitrip.com still ranks higher in Chinese internet traffic than Fliggy.com—this despite the latter replacing the former a year ago.
While Alibaba has been busy figuring out how to brand and sell tourism products to China’s growing number of travelers, JD.com’s travel business has been quietly chugging along—adding products such as tourist attraction tickets and destination-specific packages along the way. These are all integrated into the same shopping experience that Chinese consumers are familiar with already.
While Alibaba is struggling in travel, JD.com’s Travel business keeps growing
Whereas Ctrip is a highly recognized brand in travel, JD.com is a by far more prominent brand name in China as a whole. According to Amazon’s Alexa traffic rankings, JD.com ranks sixth among all websites in China, and 20th globally. Despite being a multi-billion-dollar company, Ctrip comes in as the 439th most visited website in China. The prime real estate on one of the world’s most visited websites should make JD.com’s travel efforts impossible to ignore.
Meanwhile, on Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao (ranked third and fourth in China respectively), travel products are nowhere to be found anymore.
And even though JD.com may have enough reason to feel confident in its own travel marketplace, it’s also hedged its bets by becoming a major investor in Tuniu, another prominent OTA.
Despite being an influential player in its own right, JD.com is also a pawn in the intensifying battle between Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba. At present, Tencent is the largest shareholder in JD.com, and Tencent ownership of JD.com stock has only increased in recent years. Consequentially, Tencent’s bets on travel are spread among JD.com, Meituan-Dianping, and through JD.com’s ownership, Tuniu, among other companies—as well as its own Wechat platform, which remains central to the Chinese travel experience.
It all comes down to the battle between Alibaba and Tencent
However, there are signs that international recognition of JD.com’s travel clout is changing. This week, JD.com announced that Finnair would become the first overseas airline to open a flagship store on the platform. Who’s next?