Everywhere you turn, someone’s talking about virtual travel, virtual tourism, virtual tours…
I’d like to shed some light on this because there’s nothing new about this at all, except that the COVID-19 pandemic brought this kind of travel into the mainstream.
WHAT IS VIRTUAL TRAVEL?
There are plenty of definitions for virtual travel: we can call it simulated travel, make-believe travel, pretend travel, but whatever we call it, it’s what we do when we cannot do the real thing. It allows us to experience a place without actually having to go somewhere.
To those of us who love travel, this may be the closest we might get for a while.
What kinds of virtual travel are there?
Virtual travel can be many things:
- something as simple as YouTube videos that show you a destination through the eyes of a vlogger or videographer
- actual documentaries produced for films or network television that take you right inside a venue or destination
- photo-based visuals that involve such technology as 360º photography
- virtual experiences produced by savvy networks like Google
- virtual reality, a more complex process that involves headgear and special software — this is an immersive experience, a sort of Google Street View with a visor
And whatever else technology brings us the moment we turn away.
Benefits of virtual travel
Virtual travel has plenty of positives. True, it’s not the same as travel but in the absence of being able to get on a plane or train, traveling virtually is a credible, if inferior, alternative.
- It allows us to “go places” in mind if not in body.
- By not actually traveling somewhere physically, we relieve the pressure on destinations suffering from overtourism.
- It eases damage we do to the environment because we fly less, we use less water, we leave fewer footprints where we go.
- Some virtual experiences are interactive and we can guide them ourselves, deciding exactly what to see, and when.
- This may sound silly but obviously it’s a lot cheaper to sit in front of a screen than it is to fly halfway around the world — and it takes a lot less time.
- There’s no paperwork involved, no visas, no passports, no tickets or reservations, and no crowded, miserable flight.
- We can visit places that are considered dangerous which we couldn’t otherwise see and do things that might be beyond us — like climbing Mt Blanc or jumping out of a plane (although some of us would absolutely do these things!)
- It lets us travel back in time and explore eras that have long past, like life in a Roman city or Egyptian pyramid by virtually visiting them in a most realistic way, something traditional walking around won’t let us do.
Virtual travel is nothing new.
It has been used with great success by such industries as real estate, to give potential buyers an idea of a potential purchase without actually having to visit.
Another example is college visits; with dozens to see, a virtual visit will tell the potential student in your family which schools are worth a personal visit and which ones might be less enticing.
And of course, tourism destinations have been using virtual reality for years to show off their beauty and attractions and get us to go there.
In so-called normal times, virtual travel let’s you see what you’re getting into.
In these less normal times, virtual travel helps you experiences places you cannot go.
Downsides of virtual travel
So yes, the one, huge downside is that… we can’t BE there, with everything that entails — our own lack of enjoyment, for example. By not being somewhere, we don’t get to eat the food, meet the people, enjoy the smells… however realistic a virtual visit, it still isn’t the real thing.
Also, by not traveling to a place, we may have positive impacts on it, as I mentioned above, but we also have negative ones. A major one is economic, as our lack of travel has a major impact on the tourism industry, whether on huge corporations like airlines and hotel chains or on small businesses and local workers whose livelihoods depend on our presence. Also, some of the money we spend is also recycled into the local economy and can be felt in areas like education or health, so our absences can contribute to diminishing services.
Virtual tourism is also accessible to the privileged, those who have strong Internet connections and new-ish computers, and that isn’t everyone. Mind you, neither is traditional tourism accessible to all. It remains a relatively elitist pursuit, however agreeable and beneficial.
Is virtual travel here to stay?
Probably, in some form.
We have seen how virtual tourism was here before, and there’s no reason for it to disappear, but as soon as we can get back on the road, we will. There’s hope we may travel more consciously, but if we can, those of us who are curious about the world will gladly take ourselves to distant lands.
As virtual travel expands due to travel restrictions, new technologies are being explored because demand for them is growing. Never in our wildest dreams could we have expected what was once a marketing tool or a brief moment of enjoyment would become so central to our travel experiences.
VIRTUAL TOURS OF MUSEUMS AROUND THE WORLD
Some of the most popular virtual visits involve museums, which have demonstrated major talent in showcasing their contents online for the rest of us to see. When it comes to museums, this virtual approach has distinct advantages because it allows us to get close to the art and to spend as much time as we want with it, without having to worry about the crowds.
Here are just a few museums, of every style, to whet your appetite!
- Uffizi Gallery in Florence
- Dali Museum
- The British Museum in London
- Virtual Museum Tours: Louvre in Paris
- Vatican City Museums
- Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
- The Acropolis in Athens
- The Hermitage in St Petersburg
- National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC
- National Air and Space Museum
- National Museum of Mongolia
- Virtual museums in Spain
- Paris: virtual tours of the Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée d’Orsay
- Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
- Virtual Museum Tours: Smithsonian in Washington DC
- National Palace Museum in Taipei
- Grammy Museum
- Google Street Art
- Celebrating Raphael
- Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna
VIRTUAL TOURS OF CITIES AND DESTINATIONS
Museums may do this well, but destinations are just as good at making us relive or experience what they have to offer.
Here are some of those destinations. It’s an appetizer — there are many more!
- The Inca Trail in Peru
- Italy virtual tours: The Colosseum in Rome and Virtual Sicily
- Virtual Tours of Venice, a view from St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace
- Great Barrier Reef and Uluru in Australia
- A virtual trip across Japan
- Virtual tours of Portugal
- Top 10 virtual tours of Spain
- Giant’s Causeway and other virtual tours of Ireland
- Great Wall of China
- An Egyptian tomb, pyramids and the Great Pyramid of Giza
- Virtual guide to Rio de Janeiro
- Virtual Amsterdam and Anne Frank’s House
- Keukenhof Flower Exhibit
- Statue of Liberty in New York City
- Virtual Krakow
- Virtual Bordeaux
- A virtual tour of Petra, Jordan
- Leipzig via drone in Germany
- Virtual Copenhagen
- Buckingham Palace in London
- Taj Mahal in India
- Angkor Wat in Cambodia
- Virtual tour of Prague Castle and the bustling streets of Prague
- Virtual tours of The White House in Washington DC
- Catherine Palace in St Petersburg
- Plenty of virtual tours of Paris: the Eiffel Tower, Catacombs of Paris, Sacré-Coeur, Sainte Chapelle, Luxembourg Gardens and Versailles
- UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- Mt Fuji in Japan
- Haida Gwaii in Canada
And here’s a novel approach from Virtual Trips, a live-streaming platform with real-time tours using real-time guides. While these are technically free, the guides are professionals and they do need to make a living, so please leave a tip!
BEST VIRTUAL TOURS OF THE NATURAL WORLD
One of the biggest challenges we travelers face when we have to stay home is our lack of contact with nature. Virtual visits are something of a substitute but they’ll never capture the utter beauty of our environment or the delight we’ll feel when we’re in contact with our natural surroundings.
If we’re unable to travel, we can still stay in touch with nature, whether wildlife or national parks, the sky or the seas.
- San Diego Zoo live cams
- Houston Zoo webcams
- Panda bears at the Wolong Reserve in China
- Wildlife in the Brazilian Rainforest and under the rainforest canopy
- National Parks of America
- Virtual Yosemite National Park
- Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba and in Greenland
- Red Sea shipwrecks
- Access Mars with Google
- Exoplanet Exploration
MORE VIRTUAL TOURS ONLINE
Ready for more virtual trips around the world? Not enough above? Here’s more!
- AirPano: 360º photos from around the world
- Google Arts and Culture collection
- 52 places to visit by the New York Times
- Virtual tours of Disney World rides
- Or these virtual tours from around the world…
— Originally published on 13 September 2018