Around the world in your pyjamas

Tourism bodies across the world are encouraging people to take online tours
Last Updated 17 August 2021, 07:06 IST

With the pandemic reigning, tourists are not venturing out physically in big numbers. But virtual travel is thriving.

Google Arts & Culture, for example, teamed up with 2,500 museums and galleries around the world to create virtual tours and online exhibits.

Airbnb gave its guided trips hosted by users a makeover and created Airbnb Experiences.

Travellers could travel to Lisbon, mix some sangrias with a drag queen, all the while sitting on the bedroom floor in their pyjamas.

While virtual tours are nowhere near physical travel, they have their merits. They are cheap, accessible and best of all, you don’t need to waste any vacation days.

Indian initiative

In July, the Ministry of Tourism announced a partnership with Outsite VR. This was part of the #DekhoApnaDesh series launched in April to boost the travel industry.

Amit Singh, CEO and co-founder, Outsite VR, says virtual reality travel is not new but the pandemic popularised it. “Now that people have experienced virtual travel, they will be more receptive,” he says.

Leen Thobias, founder, P4Panorama, has been in the field of virtual reality for 15 years and has seen an exponential rise in the number of visitors on his website. “Earlier, I would see between 1,000 and 5,000 visitors, but now I see over 20,000 a month,” he says.

He has also noticed a shift in the demographic. Earlier, most of his audiences were in the 20-35 age bracket, but the range has widened now.
“I see a lot of student visitors exploring virtual travel as part of their school work. Retirees and senior citizens are active too,” he says.

Historical sites and religious spots have the most takers. Hawa Mahal, Jaipur and Qutub Minar are the popular choices at Outsite VR, while Leen cites the Mookambika temple and the Gomateshwara statue in Karnataka, and Sabrimala in Kerala, as the most popular destinations.

Virtual travel is not the same as watching a video or seeing a photo. “It is an immersive, 360-degree experience, where you are viewing the place from your perspective. There are voice-overs and even options to take pictures,” says Leen.

World travel

Tourism boards abroad seized the opportunity early. Tourism Australia, for example, organised ‘Live from Aus’ in May, which allowed viewers to watch a broadcast of events simulcast in real-time.

They roped in famous Australians for the show. People could take tours of Kangaroo Island, experience underwater expeditions of the Great Barrier Reef and even work out with Chris Hemsworth’s trainers. However, their highlight was the Phillip Island Nature Parks’ Live Penguin TV, which offers a live broadcast of the Penguin Parade.

South African Tourism partnered with Google Street View back in 2016. A year later, they released a large collection of 360-degree imagery of the country’s wildest areas, including all 19 national parks, 17 previously ‘un-trekked’ nature reserves and many sites of natural, cultural and historical significance.

During the pandemic lockdown, Kruger National Park, Ulusaba Private Game Reserve and several other national parks offered virtual live safaris. For Independence Day, they even curated a tour on Gandhi’s life there.

‘Free of cost’

Most of these platforms allow virtual travel for free. This brings up the question of revenue and what benefits the industry might enjoy.

“These initiatives help us ensure high recall. When potential tourists are planning their visit to Australia they are well versed with each of their experiences,” says Nishant Kashikar, country manager- India and Gulf, Tourism Australia.

By collaborating with businesses such as hotels, travel agencies, virtual reality, Amit says, can help in sales conversions in the future.

Here to stay

International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that travel will not resume to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. But even if travel were to resume, virtual travel is here to stay, say those in the business.

“Giving potential travellers a look around, albeit through a screen, builds trust and provides an estimate value-for-money proposition, hence leading to bookings and conversions,” says Neliswa Nkani, Hub Head – MEISEA, South African Tourism.

Google and travel channels tend to showcase glorified images of locations, and virtual reality would help people know exactly what they sign up for.

Creating experiential itineraries will change the way people travel. “Instead of a list of things that one can do, people will be able to experience the whole package virtually before making the payment,” says Amit.

Gloom in the skies

According to the October survey by International Air Transport Association (IATA), airlines across the world remain in a difficult financial situation, with passenger demand remaining at a record low.

(Published 20 November 2020, 20:13 IST)

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