Baidu expands mapping service abroad

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Search engine giant Baidu Inc is expanding its mapping services beyond China, to tap into the growing demand from Chinese tourists traveling overseas.

A spokesperson for the company said it had launched the desktop and mobile mapping service in Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Singapore, in the hope of luring Chinese travelers away from using Google Inc's mapping function.

"Those four countries are receiving more Chinese tourists every year, so it makes a lot of sense for us to expand our service there," the spokesperson said.

The firm has timed the launch to coincide with Spring Festival which begins on Feb 8, one of the country's biggest tourist seasons, to help it gauge user reaction and use.

That information will be analyzed quickly to improve the service, the spokesperson said.

Nearly 6 million Chinese are expected to travel overseas during Spring Festival, with the above four countries among their top 10 destinations, according to the country's largest online travel agency, Ctrip.com International Ltd.

The expanded Baidu service will allow tourists to plan the most appropriate routes, and more services are expected to be added such as navigation and booking local restaurants.

Zhang Xu, an analyst from Beijing-based Internet consultancy Analysys International, is confident Baidu will manage to poach Chinese users from Google.

"Most mainland tourists have been using Baidu Map for a while when they are at home.

"Once the service becomes available in foreign countries, it will become their top choice, as the Chinese-language version will hold great appeal to those who can't speak English," he said.

Baidu currently holds a 70 percent share of China's mapping service market, with 300 million monthly active users.

"But it still has a lot of homework to do to compete with Google in the global market, especially in terms of the accuracy of its maps," Zhang said.

Ma Ke, a 25-year-old travel enthusiast from Beijing, however, said she would not be using Baidu Map if the service fails to meet Google's quality.

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