Venture capital firms are plunking down bets on a growing horde of niche travel web sites, many in the Bay Area. With the last generation of travel web sites such as Expedia and Orbitz absorbed into massive public companies, VCs flush with fresh cash are investing modest chunks of it in specialty sites like San Francisco-based Viator, which helps tourists plan destination activities ahead of time.

Travel "has been one the most successful e-commerce categories one can think of," said Allan Thygesen, managing director of Carlyle Venture Partners, which just led a $6 million venture round in Viator. "Now people are looking for new ways to bring product not previously available online."

Market research firm PhoCusWright forecasts that U.S. online leisure and unmanaged business travel bookings will grow to $94 billion in 2007. The firm also projects that 55 percent of all U.S. travel purchases will be made online in 2007.

VCs want to capture some of that growth. Venture investment in U.S. online travel companies has grown steadily since 2003, when $18.7 million was invested in three sites, and 2005, when $24 million funded eight deals (not counting one $30 million mega-deal this year). And there's still six weeks left in the year for this hot sector to bag more cash.

"There are definitely more companies coming in now and more access to capital," said Barrie Seidenberg, who joined 45-person Viator as president in May.

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