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Virtual Tourism - A Viable Alternative to Travel?

You can tour the Louvre at 10, take a cooking class at 12 and head on over to Machu Picchu later in the day, but how close are these virtual tours to the real thing?

The world has been in Pandemic Mode for more than seven months now and with the coronavirus continually spreading and the approaching winter, there is all the more reason to stay indoors and not venture out, unless absolutely necessary. Fear, and the safety directives issued by governments across the world, have led to a drastic fall in business for the tourism industry. This has nudged a sector of the travel industry to innovate and offer alternative travel experiences for those interested, by way of Virtual Tourism.

Virtual tourism has been around for some time now, traditionally used as a marketing tool to supplement tourism activities; it is becoming increasingly popular during these times. Backed by technology and worldwide internet usage, we can see numerous virtual tourism activities and experiences emerging in many sectors of the tourism industry. So, what is virtual tourism, you may ask? Simply put, virtual tourism is making use of technology to virtually create and enhance a tourism experience. It can take various forms and can be delivered and experienced with varying degrees of technological capabilities.

So, with people indoors and not being able to travel, one sector of the tourism industry has begun offering a virtual alternative to in-person tours and excursions. A virtual, online tour, in any part of the world, from the comfort and safety of your homes. And since guided tours and travel excursions cannot run as usual in most parts of the world, these virtual tours hold the promise to be the next best socially distant alternative. But in actuality, how do these differ from just watching a documentary on Netflix?

Although there are many large and small players coming into this space every day, offering all kinds of experiences and tours, Airbnb has been the frontrunner. Airbnb was already offering in-person travel activities before the pandemic and lockdowns, but now, the hosts and service providers have pivoted to offering Online Experiences and tours. Some of these are interactive experiences as well. Imagine being able to sail the virtual seas with olympian James Espey, making pastas with grandmas in Italy, meditating with a Buddhist monk in Japan and exploring the pink city of Jaipur through stories and anecdotes. There is one experience that lets guests travel back in time and virtually experience the dark and empty streets of Prague during the plagues of the 18th century. You may also choose to visit historical sites and museums virtually too, with a tour guide if you prefer. The Louvre Museum in Paris gives audiences an opportunity to visit the museum’s exhibition rooms and galleries and enjoy the view. And now, imagine being able to do all of this on the same day or consecutive days! Unbelievable, right? All you need to immerse yourself in these virtual tours is just a decent wifi, couch and snacks.

But how close do these experiences come to actually traveling? I thought I’d dive in and take a look for myself. I soon signed up for an experience - The Secrets of the Roman Colosseum in Rome. Soon as I logged into my Zoom session, with 5 other guests, such as myself, I felt different. I realized this experience felt like something new - talking to a group of strangers, from all across the world. Right at the beginning, our guide highlighted the benefits of a Tour From Home of the Colosseum and mentioned that to get inside, you need to stand in a queue outside for several minutes and go through security. To be honest, I personally was missing that. The waiting in anticipation, before witnessing a marvel is incomparable. Anyhow, over the course of this live experience, our guide took us into the dark yet triumphant reality of the world’s most intriguing, feared, and celebrated warriors - the Gladiators, and the monumental structure built as their playground. Our guide shared the secrets and stories of their life working within the Colosseum - divulging what they have come to learn in their studies and sharing often overlooked articles of interest about the Colosseum. We kept engaging in conversations and discussions with our guide, and amongst ourselves and that felt interesting. I felt the difference between watching a Vlog on YouTube and an online experience is the part where you’re able to connect and converse with people. Travel guides and cookbooks have been around for decades, but what we’re actually missing during these times is interaction with people.

I decided to take another online experience to see if the next one is any different. So, I decided to go on a virtual tour of Machu Picchu in Peru. In this 360 degree experience, I found myself imagining how the breeze would feel against my face as I stood atop and expecting to overhear conversations around, of the warped people in the photos.

“Alternative to Travel” is too high a bar to set for these online experiences. In fact, there is no comparing real life travel and online experiences. And I personally feel nobody should market these virtual tours as an identical experience to the in-person ones, but this is a good way to support the tour guides, chefs, bartenders and more, who would otherwise be out of work. While going through these tours, you cannot stop imagining the real life experiences, had you been present there physically. Shaking the chef’s hand for the best pasta you’ve ever had, or standing at the top of Machu Picchu, feeling like the only person in the world and looking around to see others have their own transcending moment, without having to ask. That’s something you cannot replicate.

For me personally, these virtual experiences are like Interactive Guidebooks. My wife and I are absolute travel fanatics, and these tours gave us a good insight into the places we would love to visit and experiences we would not want to miss, once we come out of this pandemic mode. I can see myself doing more of these online experiences for places we’d already made plans to visit and do some research for when we actually do travel. Plus, you get to meet with interesting people from all over and converse with them.

Almost everything about our lives is essential and muted now. We leave our houses only for work, supplies and emergencies. We only touch those we live with (for some which could mean no one), as every one of our decisions carry the weight of life and death. In these times, these online experiences enable human interaction, no matter how it happens, with people sharing similar interests. That feels fresh, new and vital. Being stuck in a quarantine rut, the conversations and memories you share with people interested in the same thing as you have a much lasting impact than binge-watching Netflix. Plus, you’re helping rebuild one of the most-affected industries during this pandemic. That should feel good too.

Article in The Hindu by Prassenjit Lahiri, Director @ Social Friendly.

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