In The Independent’s new travel trends column, Trendwatch, we explore types of travel, modes of transport and the top buzzwords to watch.
How much research do you do around your destination and hotel before booking a trip? Coming to a recent holiday in Mauritius, I’m afraid I’ve stumbled into stalker territory – searching the internet for any photo a passerby might have taken of my future beach, hotel grounds and area surrounding coast. I clicked compulsively from TripAdvisor’s “traveler” images – the real ones, with room service trays and dirty towels left out – to Oyster.com’s “mystery shopper” images; through row after row of sparkling #filtered Instagram images posted that day.
It made me wonder if – having not traveled far, or freely, in some time – we are more obsessed than ever with what our vacation is going to be like.
Enter our latest travel trend, which promises to let you look left, right, up and down at your chosen vacation destination before you even hit ‘book:’ virtual reality glimpses.
These have garnered a lot of attention in 2020. As many struggled to travel, tour guides and entrepreneurial destinations have taken to trying to conduct “virtual tours” – often video presentations of everything from cities to iconic museums. No one was suggesting we’d rather watch a three-minute video of the pyramids than see the real thing; Plus, in times of inaccessibility, technology can provide a wonderful shortcut.
Today, “going there without going there” is a growing trend, with entire content companies thriving around virtual reality. One of them is Gecko Digital, which captures 360° gyroscopic images of a destination or resort, for use by tourism boards or hotel marketing. Its founder, James South, compares the shift to virtual reality to something as seismic as the shift from black-and-white television to color, or the migration of journalists from static image to video.
“We want to change the way people see the world forever,” he says, sounding only a tiny bit of the Bond villain. Today specialized in capturing the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, Gecko Digital aims to be the world’s largest supplier of this type of content. The 360° digital experience “is becoming the new medium, along with photography and videography, for people to visualize destinations and hotels,” he says.
And you don’t need a great VR headset, like an Oculus (from £299), to see it – “For most people we know, it’s always going to be niche,” says South. Instead, those who book a resort that has been captured in 360 will be able to visit and scroll through it using their fingers (on a smartphone) or mouse (on a desktop), looking around from them over time. It’s a bit like those virtual house tours where you click through the next room, then the next – albeit more comprehensive and with much higher quality images.
He sees this type of VR as a more honest and accurate overview for travelers, before they book. “Most destination photography shows a very wide-angle, highly retouched view,” he explains. “The video is a story that this videographer wants to tell you – a story with models and makeup.
“Virtual reality puts you in control. This is the exact window into what you are booking – this is the view from the hotel. This is the most honest, transparent and best view of the hotel.
It’s a way of looking at our vacation that will initially reach the high-end, luxury travel market – South describes a space-conscious punter able to check how close his water villa will be to his neighbor’s to five Maldives resort. In May, it will launch Igoroom, a “virtual travel agency” where luxury travel enthusiasts can explore the world’s exclusive high-end hotels from every angle using 360.
It won’t be the first to offer a VR look to luxury audiences. British Airways trialled VR headsets in select First cabins in 2019, with in-flight entertainment in 2D, 3D or 360° formats; while Barrhead Travel used VR simulations of theme parks to allow families to preview rides before booking trips to Orlando.
A slightly more inclusive use of the same technology is Virtually Visiting, a company that captures distant tours with 360° video technology and uploads them for travel fans around the world to try. It’s a thoughtful model, which pays its own production costs when capturing the experience, gives the tour guide (often a small independent business) a share of the profits, and allows people who find it difficult to travel – whether whether due to prohibitive costs or mobility issues – to see more of the world.
On the website’s video tours – which can be a rickshaw guide to an Indian city or an ice kayaking adventure in Swedish Lapland – you can use your mobile, desktop browser or VR headset to look around of you, admiring the whole panorama as a guide. chat with you.
“Some of the tours we offer are an hour or two in person. We condense that into a sample 20 or 30 minute tour, so it’s not a substitute for the real-world experience,” says Jonathan Cooper, Founder and CEO.
A standard 20-minute visit on Virtually Visiting costs from £1.99 – after production costs, this fee per view is split 50-50 between the company and the tour operator who ran it. I log in and opt for a tour of Mount Lady MacDonald in the Canadian Rockies, choosing “continue with browser” rather than “VR headset” when I play the video (if you have a headset, you can use it for the full, dizzying real experience).
As my mountain guide chats with my virtual tour group, I switch left and right for an impressive panorama from the top of the mountain. I look up to a spotless blue sky and down to my non-existent feet. The virtual breeze whistles around my virtual ears. I can see the walking sticks stuck in the snow on either side of me swaying in the wind. The website’s tour guides are selected for their experience and quality, and you can tell – the friendly Canadian style of mine is filled with fascinating facts about life in the Rockies.
Then my guide “guides” me up the side of the mountain on a GoPro style stick. Turning away from him, I have an unobstructed view as I go (and I don’t feel rude for focusing my attention on the landscape instead of him). It’s surprisingly fun and engaging. Elsewhere on VV, I take a “walk” through the Sydney Wildlife Park as a guide points out wallabies, koalas and wombats with shots of unmistakably Australian humor. You can see that this kind of tour could really open up the world for families and schools.
It’s still early days for visual capture technology, however – while videos load well and the quality is good, there’s a slightly blurry and disconcerting quality to the 360° experience viewed on a web browser. Because the cameras are handheld, there’s a balance between capturing the tour in one take (for authenticity) and ensuring the good views are in focus (for “as if you’re there” quality). But Virtually Visiting also has a nice community approach – you can create a profile, collect stamps on a virtual passport, add experiences to a “to do list” and buy friends a ticket for one of its tours and send it as a gift. And the technology just keeps getting better.
For Cooper, the platform “reaches that point between travel research and actual travel.” He sees it being used as an escape—the way we might watch an Anthony Bourdain or Joanna Lumley get away on our lunch break—or as part of practical vacation research. “Imagine Netflix, for travel, with 360° programs – but always with a professional guide. We don’t exaggerate or modify too much, so this is the real experience,” adds Gwen Tavares, Marketing Manager.
There are even potential benefits for the impact of travel on climate change – such as DMCs virtually “sending” agents to distant destinations, such as the Indian Ocean, which is well covered by content from Gecko Digital, via realistic webinars.
Both founders agree that nothing beats actually going anywhere. But it makes sense that online travel research is moving, along with the rest of the web, into the “metaverse” – basically, the interactive future of “cyberspace”, where people are expected to increasingly interact in virtual spaces, using avatars and virtual currency. ,
“Technology is increasingly aligning with the metaverse, whether it’s established things like Google Street View or something more forward-thinking,” South says. “But all the big tech companies are really going in that direction.”
Cooper agrees. “There’s a lot of talk about the metaverse right now, and we have a lot of ideas about it, long term. We see this as a stepping stone for people entering this world.
So, what is the future of this type of content?
“In the future, I see an opportunity for people hosting a business meeting to put on their VR headsets and ‘get together’ on a beach in Fiji,” says Cooper. The quality is improving all the time, and Virtually Visiting’s next step is to connect to smart TVs so families and school groups get a much more immersive look at its destinations. Interactive home visits are also on the program. “You could do a wine tour where you walk through the vineyards of Cape Town while you’re at home sipping the wines that are grown there,” Tavares adds.
As Cooper puts it, “As soon as technology makes the virtual indistinguishable from the real, the simple question becomes: Why don’t we go there?”