This Earth Day, people who usually celebrate by heading outdoors might need to rely on virtual tours instead. It will be a fitting opportunity to experience a technology that some experts have advanced as an eco-friendly solution to the problem of overtourism.

With about 90 percent of the world under a travel restriction, many would-be adventurers are turning to virtual reality (VR) to bring them to Machu Picchu or the Galápagos Islands. The potential for this technology to ease tourism’s carbon footprint is clear, underscored by some of the unexpected ecological benefits the coronavirus lockdown has surfaced—including cleaner air and water.

Even as it has eased pollution, the pandemic has been devastating for the tourism industry. But will interest in traveling virtually last beyond the pandemic? And will VR technology sustain growing interest?

More than a gimmick

For years, airlines, travel agencies, and tourism boards have used VR technology to market destinations to potential customers. Now, “the impact of COVID-19 may allow [virtual reality] to shake off its image of being a gimmick,” says Ralph Hollister, a tourism analyst at Global Data and author of a report on the VR travel industry.

Virtual travel experiences are seeing a surge in popularity. Valeriy Kondruk, CEO of VR travel company Ascape, has seen app downloads grow 60 percent from December (traditionally the busiest month) and double since January. The company has fielded increasing interest from educators and those working in nursing homes, Kondruk says, even as the airlines and travel agencies that usually license Ascape’s VR content have paused their accounts.

For overcrowded destinations including Machu Picchu, virtual reality experiences could help divert some tourists, easing the burden on the location’s infrastructure.

Related: Had to cancel your vacation? Here’s what to do next.

Still, there’s a big gap between using virtual reality to “try before you buy” and treating virtual reality like the destination itself. To start with, the technology isn’t ready yet. 360-degree virtual reality videos are usually experienced through a headset (like Oculus Rift) or an app (like Google Cardboard). The headsets are expensive, heavy, can cause nausea, and aren’t comfortable to wear for more than 30 minutes. The apps have none of these problems, but simply aren’t as impressive, says Hollister.

Limited sensations are another hurdle. The videos focus on sounds and sights but can’t do much with smell, touch, or taste, and VR experiences tend to only be a few minutes long—hardly the equivalent of a two-week vacation in Spain. Of course, some researchers are working on ever-more-immersive VR features, including haptic suits, says Samuel Greengard, author of Virtual Reality. But while creating a full-body suit with enhanced sensory experiences might make a video of the Amazon or Antarctica more realistic, it still doesn’t fulfill the deeper needs that compel us to travel.

Roaming instinct

Tourists aren’t locals, and they aren’t business travelers. Tourists tend to be less directed in their explorations and more focused on new experiences and discoveries. “This simply can’t be recreated in virtual reality,” says Erick Ramirez, a philosopher at Santa Clara University who studies VR.

He compares the future of virtual travel to a classic thought experiment: Imagine that you could hook yourself up to an “experience machine” and simply feel happy forever. Philosopher Robert Nozick, who developed the experiment, “thinks nobody would want to be hooked up to such a thing,” Ramirez says. “I do think that there are some kinds of tourist experiences where the value in them is in the doing, not just in the seeing and hearing, and it’ll be tough for VR to replicate.”

We not only want to do things, we want to be the ones deciding what to do. On a fundamental level, virtual travel is constructed and fed to us; we see a world only to the extent that someone was able to film and engineer it. It is, as Ramirez puts it, “the most authoritarian of guided tours.”

Virtual reality extends only as far as it’s engineered. In a virtual experience, you can’t choose to wander down a side street and discover a charming café—unless those options have already been programmed.

Someone going to India for real can decide where to go and what to see. They can be surprised by themselves and by what they learn. Someone going to India via video might never see aspects that a VR production company obscures in order to create a more pleasant experience. “A tour that Elon Musk—just to pick on somebody—might design would look very different from what a working-class Indian living in India might design,” Ramirez says. “It’s important to keep that in mind as we go into these touristy VR experiences.”

Related: Meet the Indian women taking on a male-dominated travel industry.

For my part, I experienced VR travel in 2015, using Oculus to demo a short tour of the north coast of Vancouver, British Columbia. The demo was beautiful and looked similar to the real place, which I visited four years later. In other ways, though, there was little comparison. Part of the difference was sensual: the air was cold on my skin and I could touch the water. But much of the difference was the specificity of my own actual visit. In person, the experience was happening only to me, I had full control over what I was able to hear and see—and if I wanted, I could see and choose something else.

A green lining

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, a Paleolithic cave painting site in southern France, is too vulnerable to be visited in person. A nearby replica allows tourists to see copies of the paintings in a way that presages the potential of virtual reality travel experiences.

Virtual reality may never replace traditional travel, but it still offers intriguing possibilities. If the technology becomes sophisticated enough, the more environmentally conscious among us—especially those aiming to reduce our carbon footprint (or people sensitive to flight-shaming)—might prefer this form of escape. VR travel does bring parts of the world to people who are physically unable to visit certain landmarks. Most of all, it could help bring people to places that are otherwise inaccessible.

Southern France is the site of some of the world’s earliest cave paintings, which are closed to the public because the Palaeolithic works are so delicate. Yet only four miles from the original a complete replica is on view. Ramirez suggests that virtual reality could be applied in a similar way—and even more accessible way—to sites around the world. Hollister, from Global Data, agrees that VR can play a unique role in recreating historic attractions. And Kondruk, the CEO of Ascape, says that the company has been working with Vietravel, a major Vietnamese travel agency, on recreating areas of the country where the government has limited tourist travel.

Related: See mesmerizing photos of Vietnam from above.

Ultimately, the impact of virtual reality on travel will be determined by the evolution and application of new technologies. So far, advances have been incremental—and not at a scale that is likely to disrupt the travel industry or support a drop in travel-related carbon emissions after the pandemic has ended. But just as travel platforms, from print to social media, offer some of the discoveries of actual exploration, virtual reality might bring faraway places closer—and in so doing encourage travelers to embrace sustainable practices wherever they choose to go (or not go) in the future.

Angela Chen is a journalist and the author of
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, forthcoming September 2020.

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