(Last updated on: 19/10/2020)
Traditionally used predominantly as a marketing tool, virtual tourism, also known as virtual reality tourism, has become increasingly popular amongst tourism industry stakeholders in recent times. Fuelled by technological developments and Internet usage worldwide and closely linked with the concept of smart tourism, we now see virtual tourism activities in many parts of the travel and tourism industry.
But what is virtual tourism and how is it used throughout the tourism industry?
In this article I will explain what is meant by the term virtual tourism, I will discuss how the virtual tourism industry has grown and developed in recent years and I will discuss the different types of virtual tourism currently in use. I will also outline the advantages and disadvantages of virtual tourism and provide some examples of virtual tourism in practice.
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What is virtual tourism?
Virtual tourism is essentially a hybrid concept- it combines both the notions of virtual reality and tourism. In essence, virtual tourism facilitates a tourism experience, without actually having to travel anywhere.
Virtual tourism takes many different forms and comes in vary degrees of technological capability.
In its simplest form, virtual tourism may comprise of a video of a tourism destination. The ‘tourist’ watches the video, utilising their hearing and sight senses.
More sophisticated forms of virtual tourism include being immersed in an environment through use of a headset or simulator. It may involve use of various props, users may be required to wear gloves and there may be additional sensations such as movement (like in a rollercoaster simulator), feeling (for example if the user is sprayed with water) and smell.
Virtual tourism covers a broad spectrum of digitally mediated reality, which includes virtual reality, as well as mixed reality and augmented reality.
In fact, the growth of virtual activities expands far beyond the reach of the tourism industry. People are now buying houses without actually seeing them in person, having felt that a virtual tour was sufficient. People are visiting museums via virtual tours and teachers are using virtual realities to enhance the educational experience of their students.
Virtual reality has very much become ingrained in everyday life.
In the tourism industry, virtual reality (VR) has been most commonly used as a marketing tool. Destination Management Organisations (DMOs), tour operators and tourist attractions have been using VR as a means of promoting for some time now; hoping that the VR experience will entice tourists and bring in new business.
We have also seen a growing popularity in the use of VR as an additionality to physical tourism experiences. At a theme park, for example, there may be a mix of actual rides and virtual rides. Museums will also often enhance their exhibitions with virtual presentations and activities.
However, we have also seen a growth in VR as an alternative to physical experiences.
The recent Coronavirus outbreak has resulted in the world largely coming to a halt, immobilising the tourism industry almost completely. With many people confined to their homes and travel and tourism businesses closed, people have turned to the next best alternative- virtual tourism.
A range of media can be used to facilitate a virtual experience, such as mobile devices or software programmes.
Definitions of virtual tourism
To begin, it is important to differentiate between the terms virtual experience (VE) and virtual reality (VR).
According to Steur (1992), a virtual experience is essentially a human experience, which makes use of technology, as opposed to being a technological hard-ware experience.
In contrast, virtual reality refers to a simulation or representation of a particular environment using media (Cho, 2002).
Cho et al. (2002) define a virtual experience as:
‘The experience in the virtual environment using a computer-mediated environment and is based upon the concept of telepresence’
Shih (1998) expanded on this, describing a virtual experience as:
‘The extent to which consumers feel their existence in the virtual space’ .
Others (e.g. Steuer, 1992; Kim and Biocca, 1997) use the term telepresence and virtual experience interchangeably.
Steuer (1992) describes telepresence as:
‘The experience of presence in an environment by means of a communication medium’
Whilst Shih (1998) describes it as:
‘An illusion of ‘being there’ in a mediated environment’
The nature of precisely what makes up a virtual experience is continuously evolving with technological advancements around the globe.
Whilst there are academic studies surrounding the notion of VR and VE in general, there are few that have honed in on the concept of virtual experiences within tourism. As such, there is no universally accepted definition of the term virtual tourism.
Rather, virtual tourism is a term that encapsulates the broad spectrum of virtual experiences available in the tourism sector; from watching a promotional video through to an interactive museum experience to experiencing an entire holiday through virtual means in a style similar to the computer programme Second Life or the film Avatar.
For the purposes of definition, therefore, I will define the term virtual tourism as follows:
‘Virtual tourism is the use of technology to artificially enhance or create a tourism experience.’
The growth of virtual tourism
The tourism industry has seen a slow but steady growth in the use of virtual reality throughout recent years. A report by Research and Markets published in 2019 suggested that the tourism industry would see strong growth in virtual tourism in the coming years.
Nobody, however, could have predicted that the tourism industry would come almost to a complete halt the world over as a result of the Coronavirus. This has radically fuelled both the development of and demand for virtual tourism forms. Whether in periods of lockdown or due to fear of travelling post-epidemic, there is surely a demand for a tourism product that only a few months before was unknown to much of the population.
I wasn’t able to find a great deal online about the growth and development of the virtual tourism industry, so I took it upon myself to develop an infographic highlighting the main phases of development. I will explain this below.
Phase 1- marketing and promotion
To begin with, tourism industry stakeholders, namely destination management organisations (DMOs), tour operators and others operating in the marketing sphere, used virtual tourism as a marketing tool.
Virtual evidence of how wonderful the holiday or tourist experiences would be would lull in visitors much easier than the traditional methods of holiday brochures, guidebooks or even websites.
Seeing and hearing an experience is a great way to convince and to tempt someone to a person to pull out their credit card as they eagerly anticipate the ‘real deal’.
Marketing and promotion was the start of the development of the virtual tourism industry.
Phase 2- Enhancing the tourism experience
Recent years have seen a growing number of tourism businesses adopt virtual technologies as a means of enhancing the tourism experience.
From the introduction of 5D rides at theme parks to sensory activities being implemented at museums, a range of tourist attractions have seen enhanced visitor satisfaction after introducing virtual tourism.
Phase 3- The development of virtual tourism experiences
In recent years we have seen a range of virtual tourism experiences being developed. Whilst these do vary in theme and technological capabilities, they usually rely on the premise that they will provide the user with an artificial tourism experience.
Typically, these virtual tourism experiences will condense an experience to include only the highlights or the ‘best bits’. For example, a 5 hour safari may be shortened to a few minutes, cutting out all of the time that the tourist would usually spend searching for wildlife and including only the actual wildlife sightings.
Whilst these types of virtual tourism experiences have been on the cards for a while, they did not really begin to receive recognition until the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak; which introduced a period of time when many people were turning to virtual tourism as a result of lockdowns, quarantines and periods of isolation.
Phase 4- Physical holidays are replaced with virtual experiences
The virtual tourism industry really began to boom during the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak. Travel-lovers the world over desperate for an experience that might replicate the holiday that they were forced to cancel or the trip that they longed to take began to pursue alternative ways to take their holiday.
Despite the initial outlook being that virtual holidays would be unlikely to ever replace physical holidays, the tourism industry was radically transformed almost overnight.
During this time a large number of tech companies began to work alongside tourism industry stakeholders to develop innovative tourism approaches that could be utilised in the current climate.
Once the epidemic is over and the traditional tourism industry can function once more, it is anticipated that the demand for virtual tourism in this way will dramatically decline. However, there will likely be a new receptiveness and willingness to undertake virtual tourism in ways that cannot be physically achieved.
Phase 5- Impossible adventures through virtual means
It is likely that the future of the virtual tourism industry will see people seeking impossible adventures through virtual means.
An ‘impossible adventure’ could be a person visiting a destination virtually because they do not have the funds to do so physically, or a person who cannot swim undertaking deep-sea diving, for example.
An impossible adventure could also include experiences that are currently available to the human race, such as flying above your favourite city or walking on the moon.
Throughout all of this, there is a significant reliance on technology, and indeed- there is a direct correlation between the growth of the virtual tourism industry and global technological capabilities.
Types of virtual tourism
Virtual tourism comes in many different shapes and sizes. Some forms of virtual tourism require little more than a computer or a smart device, whereas others have a complex setup of technologies. There are five main types of virtual tourism, outlined below.
1- Try before you buy
As I mentioned previously, in its early form virtual tourism focussed around the concept of marketing. Virtual reality and virtual experience software allows potentially customers to ‘try before they buy’.
This form of marketing as been proven to be very successful, thus many tourism-based organisations have actively pursued and developed forms of VR marketing.
Using virtual tourism as a marketing tool is particularly useful when the cost of the product or service being sold is high. For example, British Airways developed a virtual tour of their business class only aircraft operating between London City Airport and New York. This allows potential customers to trail out the service and to explore the aircraft prior to committing to pay for the ticket.
2- Visit real places without leaving your sofa
Google earth has really been a game-changer in the realms of virtual tourism.
Google Earth allows you to explore areas throughout the world at the touch of a button. Whether you want to take a look at the street down the road of see the Pyramids of Giza, almost every part of the world is now documented by the Google camera.
Many organisations will adopt similar principles, whereby you can use software to virtually tour a specified area. This could be a house, a forest or a tourist attraction, for example.
3- Visit places of the past
One of the great technological feats of virtual tourism is the ability to recreate destinations or attractions from the past.
Using current images alongside computer generation projections, developers are able to design software which allows tourists to experience types of tourism that are no longer available. Some programmes allow users to toggle the time and transport themselves to any time or place that they wish.
It’s not only tourism operators who are developing such software either. The University of Reading has developed a course that is free for anyone to sign up to. The course is run by Dr Matthew Nicholls, using his detailed and award-winning 3D digital model of the city.
4- Visit areas that are inaccessible
There are many parts of the world that are off-limits. This could be because we cannot afford to travel there, because they are in remote locations or because the area is closed off entirely to visitors.
However, with the advent of virtual tourism, there is no part of the world that is inaccessible any longer!
If there is a place that you have been dying to visit, but have been unable to- trying Googling it- because there may well be a virtual tour that you can take instead.
5- Visit areas that do not exist
The final type of virtual tourism, and one that is yet to really take off- it is the ability to visit areas that do not actually exist.
Second Life is the most well-known platform offering this type of virtual tourism. It is effectively an online world in which you are able to create a virtual representation of yourself, called an avatar, and connect with various places and people.
Virtual tourism examples: Inspiration for your next virtual trip
Now that you understand the concept of virtual tourism, you may well be tempted to take a virtual trip yourself!
Whether you are teaching a class full of children about the insects in the Amazon jungle, interested in learning about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia or want to spot animals from a safari jeep in Tanzania at sunrise, there is a virtual tour out there for you. Here are some of my favourites.
#1 Admire some art at the Louvre
This virtual museum tour allows you to explore the Egyptian Antiquities, the remains of the Louvre’s Moat, and the Galerie d’Apollon. Here you can see famous artworks such as the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Virgin of the Rocks, The Coronation of Napoleon, and many more.
#2 Visit Ann Frank’s house
During my visit to Amsterdam in 2012, visiting Ann Frank’s house was a highlight. These day though, there is no need to travel all the way to The Netherlands for this experience as they offer a comprehensive virtual tour.
#3 Enjoy the mountain scenery at Yosemite National Park
On the Virtual Yosemite website you can experience the iconic natural features of the national park like Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and Half Dome. You can also walk through the densely forested areas and visit at Yosemite Falls, which is the highest waterfall in North America.
#4 Take a flight over a volcano
This unique virtual tour allows you to experience what it is like to fly over an active volcano in Hawaii. You can appreciate the volcanic scenery from above and see the after effects of the 1959 eruption. There is also a pretty cool lava tube that you can explore virtually too.
#5 Learn about the royal family at Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United Kingdom, and for good reason. But if you can’t physically visit the palace that doesn’t mean that you have to miss out. This virtual tour allows you to experience the Grand Staircase, White Drawing Room, the Throne Room and the Blue Drawing Room.
#6 Walk the Great Wall of China
Walking the Great Wall of China is on many people’s bucket list. Well now it can be done easier than ever before with this virtual tour which was developed during the Coronavirus crisis.
#7 Get up close and personal with the Colosseum
You can see the magnificent Roman ruins using a 360 degree tour provided by Google. Take your time to explore from the comfort of your sofa.
#8 Visit the Statue of Liberty
Whether you want to relive a previous visit to the Statue of Liberty, or you want to visit for the first time, this virtual tour is a great way to go. You can learn all about the Statue of Liberty through 360-degree tours, videos, and photographs.
#9 Visit the Catacombes of Paris
If dark tourism is your thing, then a virtual tour of the Catacombes in Paris might take your interest. This tour takes you through the 11000m2 area whilst teaching you about the geology and the quarries, the architecture and the ossuary.
#10 Visit the Holy Land
Having previously travelled to the most important religious spots in Christianity, I can assure you that this virtual tour really does do the area justice. Here you can explore Mount Nebo, the Wailing Wall, the Sea of Galilee, the Church of Flagellation, the Tomb of the Virgin and the Resurrection Tomb of Jesus amongst others.
#12 Go diving at the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef has suffered at the hands of the tourism industry in recent years, with the environmental impacts of tourism causing the reef to reduce in size and adversely affect the marine life and ecosystems surrounding it. One solution to this is to swap a physical dive for a virtual one. This virtual tour of Wilson Island is both fascinating and enjoyable.
#13 Climb Mount Everest
Ever since I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, I have wanted to conquer Everest! With two very small children at home, it’s not on the cards just yet though. Fortunately, this interactive 3D map can provide me with my mountain climbing fix for now!
#14 Travel into space
New virtual reality tours from NASA bring your space tourism dreams to life! Based on what limited data is available to scientists through their observations, these tours take you a range of planets including Kepler-16b and TRAPPIST-1e.
#15 Go to the Amazon rainforest
The Amazon Rainforest is home to a unique and diverse range of biodiversity. You can learn all about the flora and fauna of the area on this comprehensive virtual tourism platform. This is especially well-suited to classroom-based activities and children due to its design.
#16 Go on a safari
WildEarth’s safariLIVE is an award winning, expert hosted LIVE safari, broadcast directly from the African wilderness into your home. You might have to get up at 5am, but this is about as authentic as it gets without being out in the bush yourself!
#17 Watch the Northern Lights
I’ve visited Iceland twice on on both occasions I was disappointed not to see the Northern Lights. Fortunately, you are guaranteed a good show with this virtual reality software. Dim the lights and pour yourself a drink and enjoy the show.
#18 Visit Giant’s Causeway
Visit the remarkable landscape of Giant’s Causeway without the wet and windy weather conditions burins these series of virtual tours developed by the National Trust.
#19 Explore Argentinian Patagonia
The Perito Moreno glacier covers 97 square miles of Los Glaciares national park and it is fed by the melting waters of the south Patagonian ice fields in the Andes. These interactive images allow you to explore this marvel of nature at your own pace from the comfort of your computer screen. There is also a great video tour, as shown below.
#20 Fly over the skies of Paris
This brand new attraction enables tourists to experience a unique virtual reality attraction. Tourists visit Paris from the sky with a jetpack, taking in real-life 360° views of monuments and scenery as they go.
#21 Do the Inca Trail
You Visit have developed this impressive virtual tour of Macchu Picchu which provides tourists with a 360-degree views of the ruins of Inca settlements and lush green landscapes. It also provides the opportunity to virtually visit the popular vantage points and learn more about the history of the Inca settlement.
#22 Admire the marine life at Georgia Aquarium
Through the use of webcams and live streaming software, you can watch the marine life at Georgia Aquarium in real time. The aquarium has over 50 species ranging from sea lions to underwater puffins and is great for those interested in fish and for children.
#23 Party in Ibiza
Ushuaïa Ibiza is an open-air club on the party Island of Ibiza. During the Coronavirus lockdown period they have launched a number of #StayAtHomeSessions. These feature a stream of some of 2019’s best DJ sets, encouraging people to collectively party from home. For more information and to see other planned events visit their Facebook page.
#24 Take an archeological tour of the Grand Canyon
Learn all about the formation of this remarkable natural attraction through this virtual reality tour developed by the National Park Service.
#25 Take to the clouds in a hot air balloon
You can now fly over your favourite destination in a hot air balloon with this virtual hot air balloon ride. It even had a real basket!
Advantages of virtual tourism
Virtual tourism has its advantages both for the tourism industry and for the tourist. Here are the main advantages of virtual tourism that I have identified.
1- Virtual tourism is good for the environment
One of the great things about virtual tourism is that is has very little impact of the environment. The industry is known for its negative environmental impacts of tourism, however these are minimised tenfold if the tourist does not actually travel!
Virtual tourism means less CO2 emissions from transport, less litter, less damage to flora and fauna and less disruption to natural ecology and wildlife.
It also means there are less negative social impacts of tourism too.
2- Virtual tourism provides freedom and flexibility
When undertaking a virtual experience you often have more flexibility.
Going on safari in Africa? If it’s a virtual safari you don’t need to change out of your pyjamas. Sitting out at night to watch the Northern Lights in Norway? No need to worry about wrapping up warm, just put the heating on in your house.
Many virtual trips can be taken at your leisure according to your preferred time schedule too.
3- Virtual tourism costs less
Whilst you do need access to a computer, smart device etc, the total cost of undertaking a virtual trip is far less than if you were to take a physical trip. In fact, many virtual tourism activities are actually free of charge!
4- Virtual tourism can stimulate physical tourism
Because virtual tourism is often used as a marketing tool, it has the potential to stimulate actual tourism. This means that a person may purchase a flight or book a hotel because they have experienced it virtually first.
Disadvantages of virtual tourism
Whilst virtual tourism is becoming quite a trend, it is not perfect. Here are some of the main disadvantages of virtual tourism.
1- Virtual tourism is not accessible to all
Not everybody has access to the digital devices that are required to undertake virtual tourism.
Additionally, many parts of the world do not have adequate wifi connections to support this type of tourism. This isn’t limited to developing countries either- I often struggle with my Internet connection in the UK!
2- Virtual tourism does not provide the economic advantages that traditional tourism does
Whilst an advantage of virtual tourism is that it does not require much money to be spent, this is also a disadvantage.
Traditional types of tourism are hailed for brining money into the host destination. In fact, the economic benefits of tourism is the main reason that tourism is developed in many areas.
3- Virtual tourism has limited social interaction
One of the most obvious disadvantages of virtual tourism is that is involves limited social interaction.
For some people, this might be what they are looking for, but others seek company and kinship during their leisure time.
Virtual tourism: To conclude
Virtual tourism has been growing and developing as an industry in parallel to technological advancements and the use of smart tourism in recent years. However, the Coronavirus outbreak and subsequent social isolation has really fuelled the growth of this industry.
As we can see, there are now a wide range of virtual opportunities for those who are interested, from visiting a museum to climbing a mountain. With this comes some advantages and some disadvantages of virtual tourism.
All in all though, this is an industry that has experienced unexpected and unprecedented growth and it is worthy of additional academic research in order to allow us to thoroughly understanding this innovative tourism sector.
Virtual tourism: Further reading
Here are some texts that are worth consulting if you are interested in doing some more research into virtual tourism.