Many of us now use digital platforms to research and plan our holidays. Research in the US shows that 71% of travellers use the Internet for planning and 83% make online bookings. There is a similar trend worldwide, and the figures are increasing all the time. So it is not surprising that the travel industry is looking to innovate its online offerings. One exciting recent development is the use of virtual reality: if done well it can give you the sense of actually being in a place. But what is the future of virtual reality and travel? Will we be seeing more of it, and can VR ever be a substitute for tourism?

Virtual reality in travel
Using virtual reality to promote South Africa as a destination (image by permission of visualise.com)

Virtual Reality and the Travel Industry

Companies have been offering video and 360º tours of hotels and tourist attractions for some time. But virtual reality allows users to experience a place more fully. It is a bit like Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature that allows you to read a bit of a book before deciding whether to buy. In both cases the “try before you buy” approach can translate into additional sales.

If you have a virtual reality headset you can experience some of this for yourself (inexpensive cardboard headsets are available as well as more expensive versions). There is a whole range of destinations on YouTube – get a taster of what is available with Peru in Virtual Reality from Contiki Holidays, or this clip from Visit Houston. The Shangri-La hotel group has lots of VR videos to download (so you can experience their super-luxurious accommodation even if your budget doesn’t stretch that far…) Even museums and art galleries are getting in on the act with tours like this one from Dulwich Art Gallery.

Explore Tokyo with the Shangri-La

How Do Travellers Use Virtual Reality?

But how do travellers actually use virtual reality? For myself, I’ve enjoyed presentations from tourist boards where I’ve “explored” beautiful Spanish islands or intriguing places like the Nazca Lines in Peru. In the safety of my own home I’ve tried activities like gliding or abseiling that I would avoid in real life. I’ve looked at places that I very much want to go to (like the Faroe Islands), and others that I am unlikely to visit. (Intrigued as I am by the Egyptian Pyramids, I am put off by the idea of crowds, heat and narrow passages.)

Pyramids of Egypt
Imagine visiting the pyramids of Egypt without all the crowds! (image courtesy of visualise.com)

VR can be an inducement to visit a particular destination, but it can also be an experience in itself. It frees you from the constraints of time, money or mobility that often limit our travels. And it allows you to see places that might be regarded as politically unstable, physically dangerous, or otherwise inaccessible.

Could Virtual Reality Ever Be a Substitute for Travel?

But could virtual reality ever be a substitute for travel? It can certainly inspire your travel choices, and take you to places you’ll never see for yourself. However, what it can’t do is to give you the tastes and the scents, or the atmosphere of a place. You can’t use it to meet new people, or to wander off the beaten track and discover a place for yourself.

One area where virtual reality could be a substitute for the real thing relates to “time travel”, the reconstruction of how places may have appeared in the past. Clearly this is impossible in real life (currently, at least…) but VR is the next best option. I have used it for a fascinating walk around Ancient Rome, and I’ve noticed one or two museums starting to incorporate this type of display. And there are other possibilities. For instance LivItaly now combines a real tour of Rome’s Colosseum with a virtual experience of the building as it would have been 2000 years ago. (If you want to try this for yourself you can get a 5% discount on this – or any of LivItaly’s other tours – using my discount code WORLDWIDEWRITER.)

Virtual Reality as a Way to Tackle Overtourism?

Another area where I can see an important future for VR is in the vexed question of overtourism. Some destinations are now unpleasantly crowded, causing real problems for the people and the infrastructure. There is even talk of rationing access to some places. But imagine, instead, exploring a city like Barcelona on a virtual tour, then spending your vacation soaking up the culture (and the food and the wine…) in one of Spain’s lesser known, but equally attractive, towns.

Why not visit Barcelona via Virtual Reality?

In the long term perhaps the availability of VR will encourage people to travel more for the experience of discovering a place than just visiting the well known sights. What do you think? Can virtual reality influence the future of travel? Let me know in the comments below.

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