Virtual (Reality) Travel: The Green Lining, The Limitations & The Future Direction

The pandemic is altering how we travel. Businesses operating in the tourism industry have been offering consumers the opportunity to explore the world through virtual reality. With the travellers remaining grounded, virtual reality is embraced as a marketing tool and a discussion is going on in the world of tourism: will interest in traveling virtually last beyond the pandemic?

The absence of travellers for this past year has led to an assumption that Covid-19 might be the defining moment for VR that changes ideas from an occasional marketing trick to a permanent fixture of tourism marketing.

Ralph Hollister, a tourism analyst at Global Data predicted that the adoption of VR reality will keep on growing as long as the pandemic expands and people are spending more time indoors.

Steve Perillo, the head of Travel World VR said that the pandemic has been “an adrenaline shot” for a technology that is still on “dreaming stage” or not arrived yet.

“The momentum has really picked up. It’s really launched the concept of traveling remotely – Steve Perillo”

The Greenlining of Virtual Reality Travel

In October 2020, Oculus launched its Quest 2 headset and National Geographic Explore VR which lets players kayak, ice climb and survive in Antarctica while searching for the lost penguin colony.  One immersive experience created by Oculus that we find interesting is When We Stayed Home – Venice. This series immortalises a historical moment in April 2020 where the entire world shared a common fate and were asked to stay home to face the worst epidemic of the century. Through the eyes of a local, you can witness the calm, the beauty and the emptiness of a place on pause. Another experience designed by Wander, can teleport VR travellers from the pyramids of Egypt to the gardens of the Taj Mahal.

Several countries have implemented VR marketing efforts to prepare for the steady recovery of their tourism industries. Among the most outstanding is Germany, which has exposed a number of immersive projects to advertise the country’s potential as a travel destination. At the same period, Maldives marketing also uses VR to enhance various experiences on island properties, including morning yoga by the beach, snorkelling and cooking lessons.

“Virtual reality is the most realistic experience you can have of a place without being there. It’s powerful. It gets people excited and engaged and interested in having that experience in real life.”

Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of YouVisit

While adventurers are turning to virtual reality to take them to Machu Picchu, the potential for this technology to lessen tourism’s carbon footprint is certain. It will be a great opportunity for virtual travel to be an eco friendly solution to the problem of overtourism.

Virtual Reality Travel Has Its Limitations

First of all, the technology isn’t ready yet. Normally, people experience 360-degree virtual reality videos through a headset like Oculus Rift or an app like Google Cardboard. The headsets are not only expensive but also not comfortable to wear for more than 30 minutes. Some people experience motion sickness in VR, which means when they put on a headset and enter a virtual world, they feel dizzy or nauseous.

Another barrier is the limited sensations. VR experiences focus on sights and sounds but can’t give much with smell, touch or taste. Virtual reality works by designing a space that can stimulate our senses enough to create the illusion of being in a different world. The current VR headsets available on the market develop this illusion by stimulating our sense of sight through 6DoF visuals and our sense of hearing through binaural 3D audio, along with slight vibration feedback from the controllers. Of course, there will be more immersive VR features like haptic suits that are said to be the next generation of VR with the ability to activate a third human sense, our sense of touch. This advanced technology may create the sensory experience that becomes more realistic, but still it cannot fulfil the deeper needs that drive people to travel.

Moreover, there is one fundamental experience that can’t be recreated in virtual reality. In travelling, people not only want to do things, they want to be the ones deciding what to do. Erick Ramirez, a philosopher at Santa Clara University who studies VR affirmed that:

“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. – Erick Ramirez.”

Ramirez describes VR travel as the most authoritarian of guided tours. As it is constructed and fed to us. It allows us to see a world only to the length that someone was able to film and engineer it.

The Future Direction of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality travel may never displace real travel. However, it still offers some fascinating possibilities. If the technology becomes advanced and accessible enough and the more eco-conscious people– especially those who aim to reduce carbon footprint, this virtual form of escape will be thriving. VR travel brings the parts of the world to people who are physically unable to visit certain landmarks and it could help take people to inaccessible places. Like Southern France which is the site of the world’s earliest cave paintings but is closed to protect the delicate Palaeolithic works. Alternatively, a complete replica is on view only four miles from the original. According to Hollister from Global Data, VR can play a unique role in recreating historic attractions.

Hollister believes that the increase of virtual travel will be sustained with the Gen Z and millennials in coming years, as they move into higher-paid jobs and marketers take them more seriously as a consumer group. He predicts that in the future, travelers will use VR to book and arrange trips directly with a click of the controller.

Closing Thoughts

Conclusively, the innovation and application of new advanced technologies will determine the impact of virtual reality on travel. So far, the technology is still seen as a gimmick; used as travel platforms that bring distant places closer. In the long run, virtual reality travel will bring a new form of entertainment to the tourism industry and hopefully encourage travellers to embrace sustainable practice in both virtual and actual destinations.

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