Virtual tourism – the expanding new (zero carbon) way to see the world

Pre-pandemic there wasn’t a lot of virtual travel. The technique was often used to market holidays, to show the customer what they would see and do on their trip. But with Covid, there is renewed interest in virtual tourism and virtual travel. Not only can we look at Google maps street-view, and see for ourselves what a place looks like. There are increasing numbers of companies providing, and selling, virtual travel. Due to Covid, people cannot travel physically. Many are frustrated at being so confined and long to see other places. Some have lost jobs and no longer have the money to travel physically.  So being able to see cities, amazing scenery, the seaside, cultural sites and so on is really welcome.  Virtual tourism has been found to be beneficial for people who, for health reasons, cannot travel; it is a very positive experience in care homes.  There are virtual tours, getting ever better and more sophisticated, of museums. There are online painting trips, showing the scenery that can be painted. There are virtual safaris.  If people are prepared to pay a little for the virtual experience, it helps the destination.  And there are almost no carbon emissions from travel, or negative tourism impacts on the destination.  Virtual tourism should have a great future.



Virtual travel is here to stay

Pre-pandemic virtual travel was seen as a bit of a gimmick, an ersatz substitute designed to give a mere whiff of the real thing. In trying out virtual travel, however, many of us have seen its potential.
An art course in the virtual Galápagos did give me the feeling of being somewhere else, but by focusing intensely on the drawing and painting it helped rekindle my interest in these subjects, more efficiently and cheaply than actually going to those islands. The company involved, Art Safari, is expanding its range of virtual destinations to places like Cambodia and New Zealand.

Post-Covid, virtual trips are likely to become more than a quirky add-on, with increasingly sophisticated experiences. There are now interactive shopping trips in Morocco, online African safaris, yoga holidays and much more.

Museums around the world have partnered with Google to produce increasingly sophisticated virtual tours of their collections, while national parks like Yosemite are also producing impressive virtual experiences. As well as video and Zoom, there’s also the world of virtual reality through headsets expecting an uplift. You can even experience the virtual reality of being on an aeroplane at the Somerset House games festival, Now Play This, running from March 25-28.


Rise of the digital holiday as locked down jetsetters turn to virtual reality

Hundreds of people are going on ‘virtual tours’ around some of the world’s most popular destinations

After five months locked down in his home, Pat Carroll desperately needed to get away. He was missing travelling, and was sick of only being able to go on the same walks around his home again and again. “It just felt like Groundhog Day, you know?”

Carroll dreamed of jumping on a plane, jetting off to some exotic destination or soaking up culture in a European city. But, leaving his local area, let alone the country, was out of the question.

Or was it? Just one day later, Carroll found himself in the middle of Venice, ferried around by “a really knowledgeable local guide”. “At one point, we tried to go into a chapel, but were told we couldn’t because of Covid restrictions.” 

It was, Carroll sighs, “almost as if I was really there”. Almost, but not quite. 

Carroll is among the swathes of people who, locked down, have instead turned to virtual holidays and experiences during the pandemic.

As travel restrictions remain in place for some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, adventure-hungry travellers have had to content themselves with logging into live-streamed or “virtual” trips.  It is a market which has surged in popularity over the past year.

Virtualtrips, one site which launched last June, now has more than 130 people tuning into its virtual tours on average. Its guides are operating in more than 100 locations around the world, with around 40 different free tours happening every day, available for people to tune in over their desktop to a live-stream where they can ask questions as their guide takes them around various cities.

“You almost get teleported to someone else’s world,” says Virtualtrips co-founder John Tertan. “You get to walk with the guides and learn from them, experience what they see.” This is sometimes easier said than done.

“We did have a blizzard the other week in London,” laughs Tertan. “And we’ve had someone in Venice when it was flooded, walking around in the water.”

The idea of virtually visiting locations may seem like one which only looks tempting when holidays are off the table, but, before Covid-19 hit, virtual travel was already emerging as a trend – just in a slightly different form. 

Back then, a growing number of travel firms were starting to adopt virtual reality [VR] tools in their marketing campaigns, offering potential customers the option to see locations before they took the plunge and booked trips – either through VR fully-immersive headsets or, simply, through mobile apps and desktop applications which offered 360-degree videos.

John Graham, the president of Travel World VR, a virtual reality and 360-degree video marketing and production company, says “the headset really is the best way to view the videos and give the true immersive experience – but not everybody has one and they’re kind of bulky still”.

Before Covid-19 hit, his company was already experiencing significant demand for its services, offering VR experiences that hotels, resorts and cruise lines could use to market to tour operators. It provided the first VR experience for Jamaica, for example, and is the “official VR company for the American Business Association”.

But now, Graham says, things are busier than ever. “We’re getting a ton of calls for productions. I’d say it’s no longer a luxury to have VR, it’s a necessity.”

Using virtual reality as a marketing tool may seem a no-brainer – and something which looks likely to continue after the pandemic.

But there are signs that virtual travel may also become more common even once travel restrictions lift. Already, by 2019, around half of those asked said they would be willing to pay for VR-based tourism if offered, in a study by start-up Kerckhoffs. 

The longer the pandemic goes on, the more likely VR will be seen as a “valid form of alternative travel”, Global Data analyst Ralph Hollister explains.

There is science to suggest there could be benefits to this. Researchers at the University of Exeter have been conducting a four-year study into whether virtual experiences of nature could reduce people’s stress and improve their moods. 

A report published by the group last October found that any kind of nature-based experience – be it watching waterfalls on TV, using 360-videos or using VR headsets – increased people’s positive mood, alleviated boredom and connected them more to nature.

“Of course, the real thing always comes out on top,” says Alex Smalley, a PhD researcher on the project. “There’s a rich, multi sensory experience, how can you recreate that? But without doubt, there’s definitely a role for things like digital nature for people who simply cannot get outside.” When it comes to virtual travel, “it’s certainly not as good as the real thing,” says Smalley.

However, he thinks it may be the case that by “being taken away from their current place, albeit virtually, gives people’s minds a chance to think about something else and have a distance from the things which are weighing them down”.

Within care homes, VR has been a real boon. The Knights Care Home in Lytham has been using VR sets for its residents since early 2019, taking them virtually to “Hong Kong, swimming in the sea to see the turtles, and even a safari in Africa”, and says most of its residents “love it”.

For Gwen Tarvares, who is launching her own VR travel service Virtually Visiting, she says there is a huge market for people who are physically unable to travel. “We’ve had an email from a lady who said she’d always wanted to take her husband to see the Northern Lights, but he was in a wheelchair and she was caring for him full time. She felt VR was the only way that she could do it”.

Others may struggle financially to travel after the pandemic and find VR to be “the next best thing”, Tavares says. 

During the pandemic, it has proven to be a lifeline for Tavares, who moved from South Africa to London and has been missing being able to visit. “If I flip those goggles on, I can almost feel the sun on my face,” she sighs.