Virtual tourism — can it help kick-start a flailing industry?

  • More than half the world’s population has been subject to various restrictions to travel in 2020, decimating the tourist industry
  • In a damaged economy, attracting customers back will be a challenge for the sector
  • But providing new experiences could help to stand out in a competitive marketplace, and virtual tourism could do just that

The pandemic has been devastating for the tourism industry and travel is not expected to resume to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. Even as the sector recovers, industry members will face tough competition in attracting customers back, but they could up their chances by reminding their customers why they ever traveled in the first place. 

Since the technology became available, airlines, travel agencies, and tourism boards have shown a growing interest in using virtual reality (VR) technology to attract and engage prospective customers.

Immersing users in computer-generated, sometimes interactive 3D environments, VR emulates the physical world by stimulating one or more of the users’ senses, and tricking the brain into feeling like it’s right there in the virtual world. The technology could join others like augmented reality and 360-degree photography to provide a taste of virtual tourism. 

Scratching the travel itch?

Last month, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that international traffic “has all but disappeared”, with airlines carrying only about 10% of normal levels. By IATA’s estimate, Covid-caused disruptions put more than 41 million jobs at risk across the travel and tourism sector.

To-date, a number of countries across the globe have stepped up innovative, experiential marketing efforts to prepare for the gradual recovery of their tourism industries. 

  • The German National Tourist Board (GNTB), for example, launched a collection of virtual experiences to help travelers explore the destination without leaving their homes, using 360-degree applications and augmented reality (AR). Baden-Württemberg boasts virtual city walks and tourists can take flight over the region while Bavaria is offering living room concerts and signature recipes. The aim is to create an experience that sparks a renewed interest in destinations, and the sights and activities on offer.  
  • Even Japan National Tourism Organization through a 360-degree virtual reality movie experience featuring scenes throughout the country encourages people to satisfy their wanderlust remotely by providing virtual experiences showcasing the best of Japan. The country’s First Airlines began offering customers the ability to fly in 2018, to a number of popular destinations in a mock aircraft in VR, something which might be of particular interest to anyone with a fear of flying. 
  • African safari organizers too stepped up digitally to cater to millions of people under lockdown globally. In Kenya, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala, launched a virtual tour live stream campaign to showcase safaris that are aimed at ensuring that the world and travelers remain connected. 
  • Finland, on the other hand, started harnessing the potential of VR in travel long before the pandemic, with the launch of Virtual Helsinki, the capital’s digital twin, in 2018 a prime example.

According to a report published towards the end of last year by ResearchAndMarkets.com, virtual reality, in particular, is set to have a big impact on the travel and tourism industry in the next few years. As the report’s author, Ralph Hollister, explains: “VR offers the potential to create substitute experiences that may be extremely useful for heritage and natural preservation.”

That being said, it’s unlikely that most of the companies pushing through VR tourist experiences intend to replace physical tourism. For the most part, VR tourism will be harnessed as yet another digital marketing device. 

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