El Capitan Meadow from the Virtual Yosemite online VR tour.
As the world waits out the coronavirus pandemic, leisure travel is on hiatus and people are glued to their screens, searching for ways to explore the physical world.
The concept of “virtual tourism” is suddenly being promoted and tested on a global scale.
“You have hundreds of thousands of tour companies and tour guides right now who are really in trouble, and they’re trying to think of creative ways to remain relevant,” said Douglas Quinby, senior analyst at the travel research firm Phocuswright. “They’re trying to bring their experiences into people’s homes because that’s the only place people are right now.”
In California alone, a recent analysis from the state tourism bureau projects losses of $54 billion in travel spending and 554,000 jobs by the end of 2020.
Travel companies in the U.S. and abroad are pivoting to route would-be tourists to video-supported guided tours they can experience from their living rooms. Google is releasing augmented-reality viewing experiences of world-renowned museums and art exhibits. Lonely Planet is promoting virtual hikes. Local tourism bureaus are launching “at home” recreation campaigns. Napa wineries are hosting virtual tastings.
“They’re trying anything that brings that local experience to you through the screen,” Quinby said. “I wouldn’t call that virtual — really, it needs a new name.”
The widespread use of the term “virtual” calls to mind the scintillating prospect of virtual reality’s infusion into daily life. Travel companies have been dipping a toe into the space for the past few years, crafting armchair experiences they hope will heighten anticipation for real trips. Lonely Planet, for instance, added a panoramic video component to one of its travel apps last year.
There’s also been some crossover in video games, where VR has found a niche audience. Developers have conjured high-resolution VR simulations of the Palace of Versailles, Sistine Chapel and other fine art exhibitions.
“Travel is going to change big-time,” said Elizabeth Lee, vice president of programs and development at CyArk, an Oakland nonprofit that digitally maps cultural heritage sites around the world and publishes realistic 3-D representations of them. “I don’t think international travel is going to bounce back any time this year, so I think people are going to look for different ways to experience culture and explore historic sites. Whether that’s virtually or some other way, I don’t know. It’s definitely something we’re thinking about right now.”
Last year, CyArk launched a VR app called MasterWorks that renders historic wonders of the world in sharp texture for users to explore via a headset. Recently, the organization has collaborated with Google Arts & Culture on augmented-reality experiences in the tourism sphere. In the past two weeks, CyArk’s website traffic has risen by 100%, Lee said.
“We’re looking at ways to do more specifically with Google,” Lee said. Google declined to make a member of Arts & Culture available for comment before press time.
Several hurdles stand between culture-starved consumers and VR. The supply of Oculus Rift VR headsets has ground to a near halt along with manufacturing in China. Issues with simulations inducing nausea among users continue to plague the technology.
“Plus, how many people have a room in their house to dedicate as a VR space?” said Scott Highton, a photographer in San Carlos who develops VR projects. “It’s still not terribly practical.”
Still, the virtual tours currently available — most of which rely on 360-degree panoramic photography and video — are showing encouraging returns.
Highton created Virtual Yosemite, which synthesized hundreds of high-resolution landscape photographs into a digital simulation of Yosemite Valley, replete with historic information placards and nature sound recordings. Since Yosemite shut down to visitors last month, site visits to Virtual Yosemite are up 15- to 20-fold, topping out at about 10,000 unique visitors per day, Highton said.
“Just like a real visit to a national park, the experience made us smile and really appreciate the wow factor of the great outdoors,” James Harper of Wales wrote in an email to The Chronicle. Several days into sheltering at home with his children, Harper and his 5-year-old son, Roo, scrolled their way through Virtual Yosemite, exploring Half Dome, Vernal Fall and Sentinel Bridge. “It was lovely to see Roo’s face light up with excitement,” Harper said.
The question facing the broader travel industry during this period of disruption is whether any of these virtual offerings will have staying power or can be monetized after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. It’s anyone’s guess.
“Overall, I personally haven’t seen any virtual tour that has blown me away yet,” Eric Shepard, vice president of Lonely Planet Ventures, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “I think with continued technology enhancements we will get there. But right now, I don’t see virtual tours as a large revenue driver — it’s more of a free offering to keep people engaged during these difficult times.”