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Can virtual tourism save the travel industry?

By Margaux Cervatius - 18 November 2021

Post health crisis, what can we learn from virtual tourism and immersive technologies? Is the tourism sector bound to go digital?

Tourism is a crucial part of the global economy, employing 330 million people worldwide and accounting for 10% of global GDP. However, it is one of the sectors that has paid the highest price for the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the containment measures and border closures have cost the tourism industry $320 billion worldwide.

But thanks to digitalisation, touristic activities have gone online or expanded into virtual reality. Are these technologies bringing durable change to the tourism sector or are they just temporary substitutes?

Digitalisation of tourism

In the late ’90s, the tourism market began to be digitalised thanks to the democratisation of the Internet. Today’s key platforms appeared at that time: Booking and Expedia in 1996, TripAdvisor in 2000. Today, it is estimated that around 90% of travellers plan their trips entirely online and that 80% of them make all their reservations digitally.

Traditional tourism players have therefore had to go digital to attract and retain customers. Like in many other fields, they started to leverage digital content to spark curiosity and convince potential buyers. One of the pioneers in this field was Club Med, which very early on set up videos of its destinations for marketing purposes. These helped the customer to better plan their visit to a travel agency. This type of content, more immersive than catalogues, has become a very influential factor in the purchasing decision.

In 2020, Amazon launched its own platform for individual virtual experiences, Amazon Explore. The user can take a live virtual trip with a local expert. The e-commerce giant wants to use these personalised sessions to pave the way for purchases: the user can browse the aisles of a local market and buy products, for example.

In November 2020, Amazon launched its own virtual tourism platform, Amazon Explore

Virtual reality, a new tool for the digital transformation of tourism

More and more tourist offices and travel agencies are using innovative virtual reality technology. According to a survey by the Australian Tourism Board, one in five consumers has already chosen their holiday destination using virtual reality.

Numerous startups have emerged to help tourism players in their digitalisation. This is the case, for example, of Rendr which has developed the app Legendr to help tourism organisations improve the visitor experience through virtual reality and gamification. Many other companies also offer bespoke virtual content development services.

But with the Covid-19 crisis, this digitalisation has taken a new direction.

Travelling from your sofa

Who has not dreamed of escaping during the various periods of lockdown? Thanks to new technologies, it is now possible to travel from home and prevent cabin fever from setting in.

Many tourist offices are publishing immersive 360° videos on their website and social media pages. The Australian tourist office, for example, has released a series of videos in 8D audio that take visitors on an immersive journey through the country.

Throughout the pandemic, many museums have also joined the bandwagon of online sharing by making their collections available for free on the web. These included the Louvre Museum, the British Museum and the Getty Museum.

It is also possible to discover historical monuments with virtual tourism. For example, during the lockdown, the French company Art Graphique & Patrimoine made its applications available free of charge to enable people to discover the history of a town or monument, whether it be Mont-Saint-Michel or the Pont d’Avignon. The company produces 360° videos as well as augmented and virtual visits of historical sites.

Unusual experiences made possible by virtual tourism

In addition to travelling through time and space, new technologies make it possible to have new experiences. For example, they can enable you to take a cooking class with an acclaimed chef. Indeed, as part of its #TravelTomorrow initiative, the World Tourism Organisation has published a video series where chefs from around the world show how to prepare local specialities.

Virtual reality goes beyond video to offer even more immersive experiences – an ideal technology for shows and concerts. The Virtual Helsinki project has developed a 3D digital twin of the Finnish capital. Thanks to this project, 700,000 Finns came together for a virtual concert on the 30 April 2020 bank holiday, while respecting the Covid-19 restrictions.

Similarly, SoWhen? (a startup rated by Early Metrics) staged Jean-Michel Jarre’s virtual concert in the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral thanks to its mixed reality technologies.

700,000 people were able to participate in a virtual concert for a Finnish bank holiday.

But this trend isn’t limited to the lockdowns! After The Weeknd and John Legend, Justin Bieber is the latest singer to have teamed up with Wave Studio to set up a free 45-minute interactive concert in November 2021. The audience will be able to send emojis to the singer’s avatar and join him on stage.

Moreover, technology is giving us access to previously inaccessible places, such as the experience “Chernobyl VR – A future that was lost”. This is a journey into the unimaginable: visiting a forbidden site, the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and exploring it through time to discover what happened back in 1986.

Moving towards more ethical and sustainable tourism

So far, most people have seen virtual tourism as a temporary fix to make up for Covid-19 restrictions. However, it could also provide a solution to other types of crises.

Mass tourism has caused significant environmental damage around the world and many places are suffering from overcrowding. In fact, in 2018 the Philippines decided to close the paradise island of Boracay for six months due to overtourism. Virtual reality could help reduce the number of visitors in order to preserve endangered natural sites.

Many companies and charities are trying to raise awareness through interactive displays. For instance INDE, a British startup rated by Early Metrics, develops immersive augmented reality experiences for entertainment, education and advertising.

In 2013, INDE collaborated with WWF and Coca-Cola to raise awareness of the melting of Arctic sea ice. Using augmented reality, visitors to the Science Museum in London were able to get up close to a polar bear and its cubs. The Museum also encouraged visitors to share their photos on social media to further spread awareness of the climate crisis.

Finally, virtual reality can be a way to save cultural sites that may be damaged by armed conflict. French startup Iconem is helping to conserve threatened places by digitising them for exploration and study. Its technology combines aerial photography by drone and 3D modelling. It has made it possible to reconstruct the historic cities of Palmyra and Aleppo, destroyed by the war in Syria.

For a long time now, the tourism sector has been using digital technologies to attract visitors looking for unique experiences. Virtual reality now offers new possibilities. However, the necessary headsets or equipment are still expensive. Immersive content is largely used for commercial purposes and will probably never replace the physical experience of travelling. However, virtual tourism can provide a parallel experience that is just as enriching as ‘real’ travel.

Translated from French by Julie Durban

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