Expedia, the world’s largest online travel agency, yesterday announced a partnership with the United Nations Foundation to promote travel to World Heritage sites such as the Taj Mahal, Egypt’s pyramids and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The move is part of Expedia’s strategy to raise its international profile, provide more customised services and offer original content. It follows a larger trend in online travel for websites to become comprehensive travel resources rather than just booking engines.

“Expedia has evolved from a seller of air tickets and hotels to a seller of travel experiences,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive. of Expedia. “Consumers wants us to be there for them in all aspects of travel.”

Of 812 World Heritage sites administered by Unesco, Expedia has holiday vacation packages to 11 destinations including Machu Picchu in Peru, Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Expedia plans to add other sites after gaining official approval.

Consumers can find information, photos and maps of the destinations, then book vacation packages with Expedia or with partner tour operators.

“We’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time,” said Timothy Wirth, president of UN Foundation. But forging a public-private partnership “has been exceedingly hard to do.”

Profits from the World Heritage trips booked on Expedia will be donated to Friends of World Heritage – a charity organisation connected to Unesco – for investment in local community projects at World Heritage sites.

Expedia and the UN Foundation will also work to develop locally-owned tourist businesses in Sian Ka’an, Mexico, a World Heritage site on the Yucatan Penninsula.

Other online travel players have are also moving toward a more holistic approach to travel planning and booking. Yahoo last month launched a new service that draws on maps, guides and photos to stitch together disparate parts of the travel process.

But Expedia’s partnership with the UN Foundation draws on the cachet of the UN and the panache of world-renowned destinations, while branding itself as a supporter of sustainable tourism and local development.

The hope is that other travel industry players such as hotels, airlines and tour operators will join the newly founded “World Heritage Alliance”.

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