Forever the bridesmaid, eLong (Nasdaq: LONG) is once again the unwed lemon pal of market darling Ctrip.com (Nasdaq: CTRP).

Last night's fourth-quarter report out of travel portal eLong wasn't pretty where it counted. Sure, growing net revenue by 26% to the U.S. equivalent of $11.4 million is a whiff of refreshing acceleration on the top line. It certainly beats the 8% year-over-year increase that eLong mustered three months ago.

Unfortunately, eLong's biggest gains came in lower-margin airfare ticketing. Lower gross margins, coupled with higher operating costs, helped suck the line gains dry on the way to the bottom line. Tack on a foreign exchange hit to the resulting meager operating profit, and eLong's loss widened to $0.07 per American depositary share (ADS) for the period, well off the small, penny profit that investors were expecting.

Then again, Wall Street is used to living with disappointment. eLong missed analyst profit targets in each of the five previous quarters. Even if you give eLong the benefit of the doubt here, given the positive operating profit, eLong remains a laggard in a supposedly hot market.

Ctrip is growing nicely. Even stateside portals like Priceline.com (Nasdaq: PCLN), Expedia (Nasdaq: EXPE), and Orbitz Worldwide (NYSE: OWW) are improving. Why can't eLong get it right?

The bright side here is that eLong has plenty of time to get it right. The company's cash-rich balance sheet is loaded with $158.7 million -- or $6.24 per ADS -- in cash.

The downside to this is that if eLong doesn't turn things around this year, when the Olympic Games in Beijing should help online travel specialists in China thrive, one would have to wonder if there will ever be a clearer catalyst than that.

China has so many growth vehicles to offer leading up to the Olympics -- Ctrip, airport advertiser AIRMEDIA (Nasdaq: AMCN), and lodging specialist Home Inns (Nasdaq: HMIN). Why hop on the bridesmaid that is never the bride?

For related Foolishness:

Ctrip is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems stock pick, and Priceline.com is a Stock Advisor newsletter recommendation. Which research service is right for you? Check either one out with a free, 30-day trial.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been a fan of China's high-margin stocks for a long time. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. He does not own shares in any companies in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy.