The tourism industry revolves around creating and managing attractions that convince people into travelling from miles away. It mainly profits by selling history and an environment different from and thus more attractive to the tourists’ homeland. The question however is whether this is something virtual reality can improve or even substitute.
Before we get into the depths of comparing VR travel to the traditional tourism industry, we need to remind ourselves why we travel in the first place. Tourists travel great distances for a variety of reasons, the most common being:
- The desire to explore new places, experience different cultures, and learn about the history of ancient civilizations through artefacts, local museums and landmarks.
- The willingness or even need to get away from their current reality and relax their minds and bodies. This especially applies to the working population and even children who anticipate the yearly vacation to plan foreign and local trips. Unwinding from the pressure and fatigue of work and studies is vital to get back to the months of monotony ahead.
- The opportunity of enjoying alternative weather, e.g. travelling to warmer Mexico when the cold in Europe gets unbearable.
How does VR cater to these needs you ask; it not only fulfills most of these needs but also provides other benefits not possible with traditional travel.
1. Realistic and Immersive Experiences
Most tourists take photographs to capture special moments when travelling. These photographs take them back to that time and even help friends and family imagine what it would be like to visit those places in person. While pictures are better than just a description of a scene, virtual reality tops them also by virtually teleporting viewers to the same destination.
Moreover, with advancements in technology, VR experiences are becoming more immersive than ever. The latest advances in VR audio technology – including sophisticated “spatial audio” solutions – are making improved sound “localization” possible in virtual environments. The controllers are getting better, more intuitive and more natural. And we are soon getting to the point where we will not need controllers at all. The level of interaction is improving by lengths and bounds with the introduction of hand/finger tracking; Apple is working on fingertips and face mapping tools for VR and AR, and synthetic ‘skin’ is also being introduced to bring a greater sense of touch within the VR experience.
This aspect of immersion makes it possible for users to touch, smell and hear as they would do while traveling for real. It is also beneficial for the elderly and disabaled as it allows them to almost realistically travel to places and participate in activities like hiking and skiing which they can not do otherwise.
VR travel is definitely cheaper than actual travel as no tickets are required every single time and even if someone would want their own personal VR headset, it would be a one-time fixed cost and a long-term investment. Thus, you can experience various places using the same hardware and gloves alongside the opportunity to travel more frequently than you would in real life as it is relatively much cheaper.
Other opportunity costs can also be saved, e.g. time, and the effort of planning an itinerary. You also don’t have to deal with the urgency of reaching airports and train stations on time and of course the annoying jet lag can be avoided! Moreover, VR tourism is much more sustainable than traditional means of travel, especially air travel which has a very high carbon footprint. VR travel, therefore, reduces the external costs faced by the environment as well.
3. Multi-user Aspect
The most important aspect and benefit of modern VR, that makes it an attractive alternative to traditional tourism is the multi-user aspect. Numerous users can explore the same, immersive VR environment together, regardless of their location. Thus, friends and family who are living in different parts of the world can virtually travel to a single destination and enjoy together.
Another benefit is meeting different people, e.g. if you join a virtual tour to Egypt with other tourists from various parts of the world like Germany, Pakistan, Japan and Australia. This not only allows you to form new friendships but you can also explore new heritages with a diverse, multi-cultural group, as you would do in real life. The only difference is being able to do all this from the comfort of your home, and having the ability to travel with different groups every time.
4. Unique Experiences
Virtual reality can offer unique experiences that are not possible in reality. These could include travelling to the past and exploring how popular landmarks looked back then, or even travelling to space. The following are some examples of such VR tours already existing:
- The VR SpaceBuzz Bus lets you feel what it's like to see the Earth from above and has already taken thousands of Dutch children on a virtual tour of outer space.
- Introduced as part of a museum exhibition in London, King Tut VR lets you explore ancient Egypt and its ruins to learn more about the life and culture of early civilizations. It takes you to the tomb of the young and influential King Tutankhamun as it is being discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.
- South Korea recently used VR and AR to restore its historic gate to promote lost cultural assets.
- Youtube’s “Virtually History” series transports people to the streets of Berlin to relive the sudden construction of the hated wall in 1961 and its toppling 30 years ago. Viewers can not only see the Berlin wall but also escape beneath it and experience how their ancestors felt.
5. Complementing Traditional Tourism
Despite the debate concerning VR replacing traditional tourism altogether, VR is bound to complement traditional tourism, in the pre as well as post travel stage. In case of the former, travel agents can use VR to effectively demonstrate tours to potential clients. National tourism ministries can also use virtual videos and documentaries for marketing purposes to attract tourists from different parts of the world. Travellers themselves find it beneficial to virtually visit a place first to make sure they want to visit it in person too.
During the travel stage, visitors can explore certain landmarks exactly as they were in the past, which would further enhance their experiences. Some examples of such techniques already being adopted are:
- The National Museum of Finland in Helsinki opened a new VR exhibit in 2018 that allowed visitors to explore the happenings in 1863.
- A photo-Realistic VR Tour Of The Palace Of Versailles. This is available for free on SteamVR.
- TARGO released an 8 minute 360° documentary on Notre-Dame cathedral which takes viewers to every corner of the cathedral. Its most recent VR video will onvolve viewers virtually in the rebuilding of the cathedral encoouraging them to visit it in person when the renovations are complete.
The aspect of visualization using immersive technologies proves to be much more effective in creating vivid and memorable scenarios for tourists. This is why the post-travel stage becomes fun by viewing virtual photographs and videos taken while travelling.
To conclude, VR is already an important part of the tourism industry through its realistic and cost as well as time-effective VR tours. However, VR can not guarantee reducing traditional travel to a minimum. Even though VR experiences are becoming more immersive than we could have imagined, they are limited in some ways, e.g. they can not satisfy food enthusiasts who like trying traditional foods in places they visit. VR can also not transport you to a different climate for some days at a stretch which is what some people want out of a vacation.
Nevertheless, VR may divert a large portion of the population towards this alternative which could help them enjoy a lot of aspects of traditional tourism while keeping these experiences budget-friendly and sustainable. VR travel is also a great opportunity for people to explore places they can not visit in reality. This not only applies to having physical limitations, like travelling back in time to explore historical civilizations, but also creates opportunities for people with disabilities who can not travel to far away places and participate in activities like skiing.
Moreover, VR will most likely improve traditional tourism in a plethora of ways and create multiple opportunities for travel agents and tourism ministries worldwide. Numerous virtual tours already exist and it would be interesting to note how many more popular destinations can be explored virtually in the future as the acceptance and affordability of VR technology increases.