Virtual traveling

Exploring the world from the living room

Lea Thin
virtuelles reisen
© Simon Migaj - Unsplash

COVID-19 is not only leading to collapsing health systems all over the world. The travel industry is struggling, too. Many people rely on their income from tourism, but currently temporary travel bans are necessary to protect guests and employees. A virtual travel experience can help tourism providers achieve at least a low income in times of crisis. Furthermore, virtual trips give access to places and enable encounters – even without being on site.

Virtual alternatives for cancelled vacations

Bridging the gap between wanderlust and #stayhome, travel providers show their creative streak. To make travel fans discover other cultures, sights and exciting activities, some of them transferred parts of their portfolio into online excursions. Those virtual journeys are not necessarily just a temporary substitute for a cancelled trip. The innovative ideas also have the potential to change touristic offers in the long term and open up new opportunities:

1. Make the impossible journey possible

Virtual traveling offers the unique opportunity to discover cultures and nature in countries that are hardly accessible. In this way, interested travellers can gain authentic insights into the social and political realities of regions with limited travel options due to conflicts. The provider Alsharq has put such places on its virtual travel route since the pandemic broke out. The political study trips to the WANA region (West Asia / North Africa) are now taking place via live stream. The list includes a trip to artists in exile in Afghanistan, a hike in Iraqi Kurdistan to learn more about the current conflict between PKK and the Turkish army, and a tour to a water source where distribution conflicts between Israel and Palestine take place. Virtual trip do not only make regions in crisis explorable. Also people without access to travel could benefit from the online offers. The virtual space can be a place for encounters between people who would otherwise not be able to meet in person, for example disabled persons, invalids or people with limited travel freedom due to their passport.

2. Bring sustainable travel providers through the crisis

While cruise and hotel giants currently have to rethink their concepts of mass tourism, hopes are high that the crisis will boost a transformation towards more sustainable travel. This requires that companies, which already promote sustainable tourism concepts, survive the crisis. For example, the New Zealand-based social business GOOD Travel offers virtual trips to support their local partners during the corona travel restrictions. The company not only wants to make tourism more sustainable, but also wants to achieve a good impact through travelling. Their online tours feature stories from local partners that show how travellers can support them in the crisis. With the hashtag #virtualtravel a supporting campaign presents particular activities, accommodations and tourism providers to promote their sustainable tourism offers free of charge. Another example is Munich-based Hauser Exkursionen. The certified travel provider offers virtual excursions in the form of online lectures which also make it possible for future travellers to prepare the next trip on site as part of a "Stay Home & Travel Later" voucher. The revenues for the virtual lectures fully go to the speakers, tour guides and local partners.

3. Create perspectives for tour guides

Working as a tour guide is an attractive way for many locals to get a piece of the tourism cake. At the same time, it is exactly these local tours that make travelling an authentic and special journey. Since the breakout of COVID-19, lots of guides suffer from the economic damage due to travel restrictions, but also the understanding between cultures as an important contribution of their work is put on ice. To provide guides a platform for their significant work during the crisis and at the same time enable small revenue, global player Airbnb offers local tour guides the opportunity to virtually market their tours. Petz is part of this community and offers his online tour together with Khun Jaa, cabaret dancer and Khatoey. Khatoey is a common category in Thailand to describe a male-to-female transgender person, persons of a third gender or an effeminate homosexual male. The two guides are based in Bangkok and give interested participants an insight into the transgender culture of Thailand in a three-hour online session. Petz and Khun Jaa impart basic knowledge about transsexuals in Thailand, from vocabulary to medical questions, and aim to eliminate misunderstandings and prejudices against transgender people. Richard from South Africa is also part of the platform and organizes his tours online since Corona has made his guests stay away. Since the political educational tours can no longer take place on site, the trained guide has presented Cape Town's sights, cultural heritage sites and architectural wonders on the screen. As an activist and eyewitness, he shares his experiences and gives an introduction to the history of apartheid in South Africa. He talks about racial segregation, discrimination and marginalization and how the apartheid system shaped people and the city of Cape Town.

Is virtual travelling the future?

Although mostly appearing in an improvised manner, the new online travel formats have a lot to offer. Virtual travel opens up new ways for providers to reach a new target group and give access to places that can otherwise not easily be visited. Thus, prejudices against regions and nations can be eradicated. The virtual space can be used for encounters between people who can’t or are not allowed to travel. In addition, virtual tours can be an instrument for political education and can find their way into the curricula of schools and other educational institutions in the long term.

Despite these opportunities, virtual tours will probably not be able to completely replace physical traveling. The personal encounter, the different climate, the food, the smell of the sea or the hiking through the jungle cannot be experienced in the same way on screen. In addition, virtual trips can only be offered at a small fraction of the price of a physical trip. Therefore, providers will not be able to survive solely on their income from online tourism and will remain dependent on travellers who arrive by bus, train or airplane. However, they are a real bargain for preparing or bridging a currently unfeasible trip.

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