The online travel market will be worth around $30 billion by the end of next year, meaning travel firms not already online may be too late to the party.
This is the latest prediction from IT research firm Gartner Group, which says the market, which was worth around $5 billion last year, will grow 600 per cent over the next two years.
Gartner research director, Lou Marcoccio, commented: "By the second quarter of 2000, nearly all leisure travel companies that do not offer competitively designed online reservations, ticket sales and customisable travel information will be driven out of business or acquired."
He added: "Middle tier companies are most at risk and must take immediate action, while lower tier companies may be capable of selling some services through online auctions or reseller sites."
Marcoccio said 75 per cent of respondents to a recent Gartner survey said that before booking personal travel, they research schedules, flights and discounts on the Internet - a 400 per cent increase from the end of 1998. In addition, 16 per cent book and pay for tickets online - an 800 per cent increase over 1998.
More than 70 per cent of respondents said they would buy all personal travel tickets over the Internet if more choices were available.
But Bill James, director of interactive business at Thomas Cook, said that despite the online boom, the firm would continue its high street presence.
"Interestingly, the [Internet] growth hasn't led to less high street branches. Inevitably it will have some impact long term, but we understand that customers behave in different ways: some like to use the phone, some the Internet and some like to go into a shop," he said.
He added: "Around 86 per cent of our online buyers are actually new to Thomas Cook."
James said that he believed interactive television would have a huge impact on the online travel market.
"I have read predictions that 50 per cent of leisure travel bookings online will come through the TV in four years' time. We have taken part in trials with BT and are working with Flextech on an interactive TV model," he said.
Another report out today said that while 13 million households will use their TVs to access the Internet by 2004, it will augment, not kill Internet via the PC.
Shobit Kakkar, business analyst at Fletcher Research, which compiled the report, said that while interactive TV services will overlap with some Web services, consumers will want both.
"For instance, television is typically used for entertainment, passively viewed in a communal house location, and is rarely used in the workplace," he said.
He added, "The Internet, on the other hand, is used both at home and at work, is an active medium, and is generally used alone for surfing for information content."
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