More than half of leisure travel is now researched and booked online, with many decisions based on recommendations from family and friends rather than travel books and brochures, according to Damian Cook, the chief executive of E-Tourism Frontiers. And even though many bookings are still made through travel agents, 96 percent of visits to new destinations start with a search on the internet.

Cook was speaking in Cape Town yesterday at the fifth annual e-tourism conference, organised by South African Tourism, Cape Town Tourism and E-Tourism Frontiers.

South African Tourism and regional tourism authorities, particularly Cape Town Tourism, make use of social media for marketing over the internet, with pictures and details of a wide variety of destinations and activities available in this country.

Cook said travel sales over the internet, worldwide, were expected to double and exceed $300 billion (R2.5 trillion) in the coming year, adding that e-tourism was “a very healthy industry”.

He said one of the reasons for its success was that many people trusted the opinions and advice of friends and relatives, many of whom sent back pictures and videos of themselves enjoying attractive surroundings while they were away.

Another reason was that making holiday arrangements over the internet rather than through a tour operator gave them the freedom to make individual choices on where to stay, what to do and where to eat rather than conform to a tour operator’s programme.

This change had resulted in several European tour operators going out of business in the past year.

William Price, South African Tourism’s global e-marketing manager, said the authority worked with travel-focused social media and that 188 452 trips to this country had been booked through these in the past year.