Alibaba Group is setting its considerable sights on the Chinese online travel sector - and Ctrip in particular - with a new brand, alitrip.com, launched to replace Taobao Travel.
But maybe of greater long-term significance is the decision to run Alitrip as a separate standalone business.
In a statement for the markets, Alibaba said:
"This initiative is part of our Group’s ‘Live @ Alibaba’ vision to diversify the company’s products and services and become central to the everyday lives of consumers.
"Traditionally, online travel businesses have always focused on the sales of travel products, while a large unmet demand for travel services remains. We aim to elevate the online travel sector to a higher level through Alitrip’s service offerings."
Four strategic areas for Alitrip are identified:
- mobile services
- product and service innovation
- platform expansion
- consumer protection
The platform extension will be interesting to watch as Alibaba "works towards bringing additional leading airlines, travel agents and third-party service providers to join the thousands of merchants already operating on the platform."
This work has already begun, with the statement announcing that inventory from Priceline Inc's APAC behemoth Agoda.com will be available on alitrip.com.
Cathay Pacific Airlines is also making its seats available.
A slightly different official take on the launch of alitrip.com comes via Alizila.com, which serves as an official Alibaba news site with a more informal dare-I-say-it blog feel to it.
Alibaba clearly wants to be the number one online travel site in China, and admits that it want to challenge Ctrip for the top slot.
"Enhanced convenience is what Alitrip hopes will help it win in a crowded online travel industry dominated by rival Ctrip. In the second quarter of this year, gross merchandise value of online travel agencies rose 17 percent year-on-year to RMB 61.4 billion ($10 billion) with Ctrip capturing more than 50 percent of the market, according to technology consultancy iResearch."
Alizila goes into more detail about alitrip's improved mobile offering, payment options and consumer protection initiatives.
It also references Alibaba's $458 million purchase of hotel IT business Beijing Shiji Information Technology as part of the group's push into travel.
One benefit of Alibaba running alitrip as an independent business is that its financial results might have some standalone travel figures, making like-for-like comparisons with Ctrip and eLong possible.
Elsewhere, MarketWatch quotes Alibaba CEO's Jack Ma, talking about ApplePay at a WSJ Tech conference: "I hope we can do something together," he is quoted as saying.
Alibaba owns its own e-payment platform Alipay, and this is mentioned in the alitrip release -
"Alitrip customers can also check into hotels without using credit cards for payment guarantee, by providing their Alipay account information for automatic fee deduction at the end of their stay."
A group-wide deal between Alibaba and Apple could take disruption to a whole new level - potentially opening Alibaba's marketplace to western audiences while opening up China to Apple (regulatory issues permitting).
And if ApplePay could work alongside Alipay in alitrip, it would give considerable scale to Apple's role as payment mechanism for online travel.