At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when most were stuck at home due to travel restrictions, there was a surge in virtual tourism. Heck, I helped one of my clients launch daily live-stream broadcasts via several social media channels (Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) to stay connected with existing clients and fans. The success of the live streams, which had different Blue Badge Tourist Guides showcasing London, led to the development of virtual tours as a new product offering. So what exactly is virtual tourism? Below I provide insight.
What is virtual tourism?
Virtual tourism is a digital experience that allows people to virtually “travel” to destinations or experience a tourist attraction without leaving their homes. It uses a combination of technical components such as virtual reality software, audio, video, images, narration, etc. Virtual tourism experiences can be recorded or live-streamed interactive presentations with knowledgeable and engaging tourist guides.
Virtual tourism aims to create a near-life touring experience of a particular destination or tourist attraction. Virtual tourism can provide a glimpse of what a destination or tourist attraction has to offer; it can also be used to plan a future in-person trip.
How big is the virtual tourism market?
In-person travel continues to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the global virtual tourism sector continues to be pushed forward by major VR technology players like Google, GoMeta, Valve, Ximmerse, Samsung Electronics, Microsoft Corporation, Sony Interactive Entertainment and Oculus VR LLC owned by Facebook.
The goal is not to replace in-person travel but complement and also reach new markets; for example, school groups and older people with discretionary income who cannot travel due to health and limited mobility. And according to Market Research Data, “the global virtual tourism market was worth US$ 5 billion in 2021 and is predicted to reach the valuation of US$ 24.10 billion by 2027.” Essentially, virtual tourism has always been a business opportunity within the travel industry, and in recent years due to the lockdown from the COVID-19 epidemic, more people are aware of the offering and now ready to accept it.
UPB wearing VR headset showcasing German summer stories virtual tour.
What are the different types of virtual tourism?
At the core of each virtual tour are photos and videos with narration, often by a knowledgeable tour guide stitched together to create a virtual experience. The technology allows virtual tourists to have an immersive exposure to a location, activity, or destination. There are several different types of virtual tourism, including:
Virtual reality (VR) experiences: Virtual reality technology creates a fully immersive, computer-generated environment that allows users to explore a destination as if they were there. This can be done using VR headsets, which provide a fully enclosed view of the environment, or through virtual reality apps on a smartphone or tablet. Virtual reality experiences can give a realistic and engaging way to explore a destination, allowing users to look around and interact with the environment as if they were physically there.
Example: A virtual reality experience might allow users to explore the streets of Paris, walking around the city, and visiting popular attractions such as the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre Museum.
360-degree videos: These videos are created using multiple cameras that capture footage from all angles, allowing users to look around and experience a destination from different perspectives. 360-degree videos can be viewed on a computer or mobile device using a special player that allows the user to pan and zoom the video to look around. This type of virtual tourism can provide a more interactive and immersive experience than traditional videos.
Example: A 360-degree video might allow users to experience a safari in Africa, looking around and seeing the animals up close.
Interactive maps and panoramic images: These tools allow users to explore a destination by navigating through high-resolution photos or maps. Users can zoom in and out to view different parts of the area, providing a more detailed look at a destination than a traditional map or photo. These tools can also include additional information and highlights of popular attractions, making them a valuable tool for planning a trip.
Example: Interactive maps and panoramic images: An interactive map might allow users to explore the ruins of an ancient city, such as Pompeii, and learn about the different buildings and artifacts that have been preserved.
Augmented reality (AR) experiences: Augment reality technology can be used to add digital elements to a real-world environment, providing an enhanced view of a destination. For example, an augmented reality app might show the locations of popular attractions overlaid on a live view of the destination or provide additional information about a particular place when the user points their device at it. Augmented reality experiences can provide a unique and engaging way to explore a destination and learn more about it.
Example: An augmented reality experience might provide additional information about the history of a particular building or monument when the user points their device at it, providing a more engaging and informative way to explore a destination.
Live streaming events: Some destinations offer live streams of popular attractions and events, allowing users to experience them in real time from wherever they are. This can be a great way to see a destination without traveling there or get a sneak peek of a live event or attraction before visiting in person.
Example: A live stream might show a carnival parade or concert at a popular music festival, allowing users to experience the event from their homes as if they were there.
Virtual tours with a guide: Virtual tours with a guide are a type of virtual tourism in which a real-life tour guide gives an online presentation or interactive workshop showcasing destinations or tourist attractions using a video conferencing platform, such as Zoom or Skype. Virtual tours can also provide an opportunity to interact with the tour guide or other viewers, adding a social aspect to the virtual tourism experience. This type of virtual tour can be a great way to learn about a destination or tourist attraction and have a more personalized experience without having to travel there physically.
Example: A London Blue Badge Tourist guide presents an interactive presentation via video conference service Zoom with attendees getting a virtual tour of the British Museum, learning about the different museum exhibits and artifacts.
Blue Badge Tourist Guide Simon Whitehouse presenting a virtual tour.
What are some examples of virtual tourism?
There are different types of virtual tourism due to the technology used during development. For instance, complex designs require more than an ordinary smartphone to operate. Some involve a tour guide giving an immersive presentation via Zoom. Below are the five primary types of virtual tourism.
A virtual tour trial before a service or purchase
This particular type of virtual tour (often with a virtual reality headset) allows potential guests to view the services being offered on a tour destination beforehand. This type of virtual tourism is effective, especially when a service or product cost is expensive.
One that tours nonexistent areas
This virtual tour is unique as it allows tourists to visit nonexistent places. It typically enables users to explore and connect to people or things in this imaginary destination using an avatar.
A virtual tour to inaccessible places in real life
This unique type of virtual tourism takes you on a journey to locations that are usually restricted or challenging to access, like Plymouth, the former capital of Montserrat, now buried under volcanic ash.
Virtual tourism of ancient places
This digital tour type teleports you to past destinations while you sit comfortably at home. In other words, this tour type gives you the privilege of visiting locations that no longer exist.
A virtual tour across the globe
Google Earth is one of the most reliable virtual tours for giving precise directions or showing you specific tourist destinations. At the touch of a button, you explore any region around the world with ease.
Exploring the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France via Google Earth.
Other virtual tourism examples include:
A virtual tour of the planet Mars
A trip out of this world and one that’s worthwhile is none other than that on the red planet. Although no one on earth has ever landed on the Martian surface, a virtual tour of the planet Mars courtesy of NASA and Google takes you there through images and video recorded by the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Hiking on the Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
A visit to a historic site like the Great Wall of China is usually an adventure of a lifetime. Virtual tourism allows you to hike the great wall of china without any physical effort. The virtual destination covers six and a half miles between the Simatai and Jinshanling walls, with expansive views of china.
Aerial views of Mount Everest from a helicopter
Flying across Mount Everest entails a lifetime of training, and the opportunity is often hard to come by. Luckily, through a virtual tour, your view of Mount Everest is similar to that of a helicopter rescue pilot, with no risk, of course.
Getting a close-up view of the Niagara Falls State Park
With access from Canada and the United States, national parks like Niagara Falls State Park is often brimming with tourists. Thus, via a Niagara Falls virtual tour, people at home can get a most immersive experience away from all the hustle and bustle while taking in the spectacular views of the falls.
What are the advantages of virtual tourism?
Below are the main advantages of virtual tourism for both the tourist and the tourism industry.
Convenience: Virtual tourism allows people to visit and explore new places without the need for physical travel, which can be time-consuming, stressful, and expensive.
Freedom and Flexibility: Virtual tourism gives potential customers the freedom that a typical tour wouldn’t. For instance, you can easily climb Mount Everest virtually while wearing your flip-flops. In terms of flexibility, you plan any trip as per your schedule or time zones, making it quite convenient.
Accessibility: Virtual tourism makes it possible for people with mobility issues or other physical limitations to visit and explore places that may otherwise be difficult or impossible for them to access.
Affordability: Virtual tourism can be a more affordable option compared to physical travel, as it eliminates the need for airline and accommodation costs. Most often, all a consumer needs is access to a computer or smartphone connected online.
Eco-friendly: Virtual tourism can provide a more eco-friendly option than physical travel. By eliminating or reducing the need for international travel, virtual tourism can reduce carbon emissions associated with travel, helping to protect the environment.
Extend tourism season: Virtual tourism can extend the tourism season for tour guides. For example, tour guides can do in-person tours of a tourist attraction or destination during the busy spring and summer. In the off-season, these tours can be customized and presented virtually.
It can stimulate in-person tourism: Virtual tourism can be used as a marketing tool to promote the actual tourist destinations being mimicked. Tourists can purchase a flight ticket or book a hotel service based on their virtual experience. Essentially a virtual tour can be part of the early stages of research for a trip.
Virtual tourism can also provide a more personalized experience, as viewers can choose the exact locations they want to visit and explore at their own pace. This can be especially beneficial for people interested in specific places or attractions who want to learn more about them.
Blue Badge Tourist Guide Nick Salmond_London Virtual Tour of Westminster Abbey.
What are the disadvantages of virtual tourism?
While there are many benefits of virtual tourism, as outlined above, a few disadvantages come with them.
Lack of physical interaction: Virtual tourism cannot fully replicate the experience of being in a destination and interacting with the environment and people.
Limited immersion: While virtual reality technology can create a more immersive experience, it still cannot fully replicate the sensory experience of being there in person. For example, virtual tours cannot capture a destination’s smells, sounds, and tactile sensations.
Accuracy: While virtual tours can provide a sense of being in a place, they may only sometimes accurately represent the destination. For example, pre-recorded videos may not capture the current state of a location, or live streaming may not provide a comprehensive view of the destination.
Technical limitations: Virtual tourism relies on technology, and there may be technical issues or limitations that can affect the quality of the experience.
Limited social interaction: There is usually no or limited social interaction and no connections at a personal level. Although this might be ideal for some, others might find the entire experience dissatisfying.
Virtual tourism is inaccessible in some regions: A strong internet connection is needed for a successful virtual tour, which might pose a challenge, especially when you’re living in a remote area.
Less economic benefits from virtual tours: Virtual tours contribute less to the economy since they don’t require much, and in the end, you end up spending less.
Undertourism: Virtual tourism also has the potential to negatively impact the tourism industry and the local economies of destinations. While virtual tourism can provide an affordable option for some travelers, it may also reduce the number of people visiting a destination in person, which can have negative economic consequences for the local community.
Despite these limitations, the growth of virtual tourism continues to increase and provides a unique and engaging way for people to explore new places and experience new things. As virtual tourism technology improves, virtual tours are likely to become even more immersive and realistic, providing an even more authentic experience for virtual travelers.
Blue Badge Tourist Guide Katherine Alcock_London Virtual Tour of attractions along Whitehall.
Frequently asked questions about Virtual tourism.
What is the difference between virtual tourism and virtual reality tours?
Virtual tourism can be defined as using technology to create an artificial tourist destination that mimics a real one, therefore enhancing the experience. On the other hand, virtual reality is the illusion of mimicking reality using digital platforms, with a concept that entirely relies on technology in place.
Is virtual reality bad for your eyes?
Virtual reality is being upgraded, and its technology is also advancing. Therefore, it’s always advisable to limit the time spent using virtual reality headsets and also pay attention to the warning signs that come with them.
Can virtual tourism replace physical travel?
While virtual tourism can provide a similar experience to physical travel in some ways, virtual travel experiences cannot fully replace the real world experience of being in a destination and interacting with the environment and the people there.
Is virtual tourism only for people who cannot physically travel?
Virtual tourism can be enjoyed by anyone, not just people who cannot physically travel. It can be a convenient and affordable option for anyone who wants to explore new places without the need for physical travel.
Is virtual tourism only for exploring destinations?
Virtual tourism can be used for more than just exploring destinations. For example, it can also be used for virtual events, such as concerts or conferences, allowing people to participate from anywhere in the world.
Is virtual tourism costly?
During the pandemic, many virtual tours were offered free of charge. For instance, through a partnership with more than 2,500 museums and art galleries across the globe, Google Arts and Culture has come up with free virtual tours. A few museums you can tour virtually include The Louvre in Paris, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
What about paid virtual tours? Below are examples of travel companies offering a variety of virtual tours or travel experiences for a fee. Pricing is quite varied and depends on a number of variables (i.e., recorded vs. live, technology and tour complexity, etc.)
- Guide London – led by Blue Badge Tourist Guides, they offer private virtual tours of London on famous landmarks, tourist attractions, or themes of interest (i.e., Royal London, London Street Art, Legal London, etc.)
- Avital Tours – they offer virtual events all themed around food and drinks (i.e., cooking classes, mixology, etc.).
- Clio Muse – they offer self-guided audio tours from 23 different countries across the globe.
- Context Travel – led by local scholars, they offer online seminars and courses highlighting popular travel destinations worldwide.
- Museum Hack – they offer virtual team building and online storytelling workshops.
- Airbnb Online Experiences – they offer online tours and experiences led by locals from across the globe.
Ursula Petula Barzey is the Founder of Moxee Marketing and has 20+ years of business development and marketing (traditional and digital) experience working in the United States and the United kingdom for a wide range of international and SME companies.