Take that vacation...now!

Take that vacation...now!

The other night, I decided to check out the flea market in Israel. Not quite happy, I moved on to Egypt, and then to China. Impossible, you might say, and rubbish it as some kind of travel wish list I am putting together. I did check out the flea market, and yes, I also checked out the Pyramids at Egypt, before moving on to the Forbidden City. All virtually possible, of course. Not quite the real thing. In fact, far from it. But, it was fun, nevertheless, and in a sense, told me what to expect when I go on a real holiday to all these places.

Wonders of the virtual world
Are virtual holidays catching on, especially in times when people want to put off their dream vacations for rosier times? Virtual vacations are certainly not a trend — not yet. But they do offer respite from long working hours, when you log on to SecondLife, for instance, and take virtual tours. Chennai-based Balaji Sowmyanarayanan, maker of Sim-OnDemand — a product that strives to make 3D virtual worlds (Sims) as ubiquitous as running a website — introduces me to a tour of SecondLife’s The Highlands, a virtual site that reflects the charms of the Scottish countryside. There is plenty of tourist information, and if you sign into SecondLife, you can be ‘teleported’ to locations directly.

He explains, “SecondLife could be used as a tool for holiday planning or pre-holiday ‘let’s get educated about the destination’ research. It could be used as a tool to network with new friends at the holiday destination or learn a few essential local language phrases. Instead of merely reading up on the destination, you can visually immerse yourself on a SecondLife Sim (representing the real life destination) and sample the place’s cultural and historical delights.”

It’s all about value-add
Preetam Rai, an educator who has been with SecondLife since 2006, agrees with Balaji. He thinks of virtual worlds  “as extensions of other online platforms, just more richer visually”.

You could be on a tourism website and you would never know who else is on the website at that moment. Virtual worlds offer you that additional ability to interact with other visitors. Interactivity is a huge attraction.
“When I logged on to beyondspaceandtime.org, and got a tour of Beijing, I noticed that there was a whole community involved, and each had an avatar, guiding me through the city,” he says.

Preetam travels a lot in real life too, and that means he is always looking for travel resources online — on forums, blogs etc. On SecondLife, he says he likes visiting travel/culture/history themed sims (islands). “The Japanese have done a very good job of replicating famous destinations in SecondLife. I like interacting with the Japanese visitors on these islands. They are a source of great local lore,” he says.

From cubicle to kayak
Then, of course, there’s Google Earth, where you can zoom into specific streets at will. The Internet is a treasure when it comes to vacationing and taking virtual tours. There are games and more games, which often give you a sneak peek into what a specific location has on offer.
There’s Youtube, where people post their travel videos, which also give you a sense of the place and the locals.
Lakshmi Sharath, a travel buff who also organises weekend trails, observes: “The virtual world can never quite replace the real world, but 3-D is the future if used properly. I did log on to SecondLife out of sheer curiosity, but I no longer remember my user ID. There are hotels abroad that have an SL presence. This feature has not yet caught on in India.”

Informative & educative
There are other online resources, which can be used as educational tools. At mapmsg.com for instance, you can move blocks of countries around with the mouse. In that sense, are online resources such as wonderrotunda.com a great option for young learners?
Wonder Rotunda is an American website, which offers many virtual tour options. You could go on a climate change expedition if you so wish to, and there are simulations of Arctic ice on that particular tool.
However, Sujatha, a blogger and mother of two, says: “When we pick a destination, we pull out the atlas, check out the other places we can sensibly include in our plan and then move online to check out reviews and to make reservations. My son’s geography lessons still come from maps, board games, TV shows and the Nat Geo magazine.”
 
For the frugal traveller
Virtual vacations can never replace the real thing. But, take a close look at what people do in a recession. They shop for deals. Lakshmi says: “People now choose their vacations carefully. They aren’t splurging as before.” Her personal experience — when it comes to organising weekend trails — has shown her that niche tours which offer an active experience are more popular than general sightseeing tours.
Yatra.com, an online travel company, has theme holiday packages at affordable prices to popular destinations. According to Dhruv Shringi, CEO & Co-founder, Yatra.com, “Our Sabse Sasta packages were triggered by low airfares and competitive hotel rates, and they have been instrumental in increasing consumer confidence.”  Travel on a shoe-string budget is in. “Tough economic times have taken a toll on luxury travel. People want value in vacations. They want deals where they can do a whole lot more than just laze by the pool with a mug of beer. Active holidays are edging out leisure holidays because people want more bang for their buck.”

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