For the past couple of decades, virtual reality (VR) has been one of those technologies that's always just on the brink of taking the world by storm. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, VR’s fate may have finally shifted, especially as the technology cements its place in the travel and tourism sector.
Until now, the rise of the VR industry was largely propelled by the use of this immersive tech as a training tool in various settings (e.g., healthcare, military, etc.) and in the gaming industry. Research firm Markets and Markets values the global VR industry at around $6 billion in 2020 and predicts its growth to hit almost $21 billion by 2025. But the application of VR in travel has never been more useful than at this moment in time, allowing people to immerse themselves in far-flung places from the confines of their home during a series of lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Julien Goupit, managing director of FlyView, a Paris-based VR travel company – which gives visitors the experience of flying over Paris in a jetpack — says the pandemic has, of course, had a direct impact both on the volume and origin of their visitors. But the situation also made the FlyView team realize that “there was an opportunity to export our experiences outside of FlyView Paris — bringing them closer to our audience by partnering with local museums and tourism operators looking for content and innovative experiences to attract local visitors. It also reinforced the business case for co-producing VR experiences with other partners, augmenting the total market and distribution potential.”
Just like a Zoom call with family or friends isn't the same as being together in the same room, VR travel experiences will never be the same as travel in the real world — and virtual reality travel is not actually meant to replace physical travel. But when circumstances require it, VR tourism can act as a stand-in, giving the viewer a breath-taking moment, a glimpse of an exotic locale, access to the inaccessible — whether that's due to an individual's mobility issues, lack of budget, or a global crisis.
“VR experiences can’t replace the experience of traveling, of being physically there, and experiencing local cultures. However, as the success of our first location in Paris confirms, it provides a new way to inspire people to travel and the possibility to discover a city or a country from a radically new and augmented perspective. We also love the concept of taking people to places that are otherwise inaccessible,” says Goupit.
Applications of VR in Travel
Even before the pandemic, travel agencies had slowly begun to incorporate VR tours as a marketing tool to tempt potential visitors. But the drastic loss of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for the travel industry has led to a renewed interest in VR tech.
In June, New Jersey-based Travel World VR launched a customizable app that can be used by travel and tourism agencies looking to give their potential clients a 360-degree VR video preview of hotels, destinations, walking tours, cruises, and other products and experiences.
More and more national tourism boards, including Japan, Ireland, Germany, and Finland, are also harnessing the power of VR to attract visitors, pique curiosity, and help them plan a trip once travel can safely resume.
In partnership with Google, several famous destinations and landmarks worldwide now have VR experiences that can be enjoyed by people who are restricted from traveling at the moment — but are zealously planning future trips to make up for lost time.
VR tech is also making waves in the tourism sector by becoming an actual part of a physical travel experience, giving tourists an extra and highly unique dose of insight into the destination. VR travel firms, like FlyView, are using drone-captured 360-degree video footage to show visitors rare and unseen angles of landmarks, heritage sites, and cities. While on a trip to Paris, visitors to FlyView Paris receive access via VR to a whole new perspective on the city that they can't find anywhere else.
There is also the potential for VR tech in supporting sustainable tourism. Certain destinations that have become overrun with tourists or are in a fragile state are exploring the advantages of VR tech, which could help limit onsite visits with an alternative VR tour and educate travelers about responsible tourism practices.
In a post-pandemic world, Goupit thinks that “travel restrictions will only reinforce our desire to find new ways to explore the world and our planet’s most treasured places. By accelerating our research and investments into the next-generation of immersive explorations, including real-time free-roaming exploration of our world heritage sites, we will enable people to explore the world like never before.”
Challenges Remain for VR Travel at Home
While most VR tours from travel agencies and tourism boards are viewable simply by opening YouTube or a smartphone app, wearing a VR headset is still required to enjoy a truly immersive VR experience. However, one of the biggest obstacles to the widespread use of VR so far has been the cost of buying a VR headset to use at home.
Although prices continue to slowly drop, the least expensive headset at the moment is the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, which currently sells for $399. In general, this can make VR travel less budget-friendly, and for a family to enjoy a VR travel experience together at home, each member of the family would need to invest in their own headset. Then again, considering the cost of four headsets versus the cost of tickets, hotel, and food for four people, VR travel becomes a more attractive option.
Costs aside, VR headsets are also known to be uncomfortable when worn for long periods of time and can cause side effects like nausea and dizziness in some users. But as with any burgeoning technology, the coming years will bring advances in headset design, as well as lower costs. Goupit doesn't think that VR has had a major impact on the tourism industry just yet. “There is an enormous opportunity to augment travel and local city sightseeing activities, creating experiences that are spectacular, educative and fun.”
Suchi Rudra is a freelance writer who is passionate about covering emerging tech, entrepreneurship, and real estate. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company, VICE, EdTech Magazine, and many other publications.