A big opportunity for small hoteliers

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October 2004, a steamy room in Ho Chi Minh City... I was being given a demonstration of a fledgling concept called World Hotel Link (WHL). The idea was that independent travellers in rich countries can connect to people owning bed and breakfasts and small hotels in emerging markets and make bookings directly. The kinds of places you'd never find on Expedia or Travelocity. Many of the accommodation providers had no access to the Internet. So the booking would come in by email and then the "last mile" would be covered by someone on a bicycle. The Mekong Project Development Facility (MPDF - funded by the ADB, IFC and about a dozen countries) had developed the idea as a way to help small hoteliers and individuals living in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, provide accommodation to first world travellers. We were looking at the previous day's bookings. Suddenly I nearly fell off my chair. Jamie Oliver, of The Naked Chef fame, had just booked. Good grief, this must be real. (I suspect that Jamie Oliver would have put it more colourfully.)

Today, 21 months later, WHL has been spun out of MPDF. It has 35 sites in 23 countries, including places like Samoa, Slovakia and South Africa, and has over 1,200 properties listed. It will go live in a further 19 countries over the next few months. Several thousand people a day are looking at the site and bookings are rising rapidly. It has formed a partnership with Lonely Planet. WHL has also added a feature whereby "Caring for the Destination" sustainability ratings are posted by accommodation providers and given feedback by travellers.

Seems like this is a good example of how the Internet really can bridge the divide between the rich and poor worlds, in a very practical way, by putting people directly in touch with each other and letting the market work after that. And also that in this case the small amount of donor funds to get the whole concept started has really made a difference.

Postscript: Unless you all howl with rage or contempt, I'm going to add a postscript story to my blog entries. These will be called lessons from St Helena. Why St Helena? Because it is arguably the most aid-dependent part of the world, because I have a lot of stories about how its private sector has developed, and - because it is a great place and I used to live there. All of the stories are true.

One Wednesday afternoon, a cruise ship sailed into the harbour of Jamestown, the capital of St Helena. Let us put this in perspective; St Helena has less than 5,000 inhabitants, it has no airport, and cruise ships turn up there about once a year. This cruise ship happened to be French and was full of people who wanted to see Napoleon's last resting place. The captain asked if he could moor in the harbour and the tourists could be given some tours. The answer came back immediately: I'm sorry, but it is half-day closing today in Jamestown, perhaps you could moor overnight and we'll deal with the passengers in the morning. The captain said that he was sorry, but he had a schedule to keep and sailed away. Lesson: listen to your clients and adjust to their needs or else they will go away.


Laurence Carter

Senior Director, Public-Private Partnerships Group

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