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VIRTUAL REALITY TOURISM

14.12.19

With the sad demise of yet another High Street stalwart - Thomas Cook - earlier in 2019, it’s clear to see how the challenges posed by these ever-changing times are fast becoming insurmountable. Online competition, comparison sites and uncertain political and social climates are all contributing factors. And it’s not just travel companies – from BHS to Toys “R” Us to Mothercare, the familiar facades of our local towns and cities are fading – and fast.   

All of which begs the question – should companies be doing things differently? Clearly the tried-and-tested methods of old are failing, and it’s the innovative, online giants - such as Amazon - that are cleaning up. So, how can travel agents change tack to ensure they soar not sink?

What I find particularly exciting is how accessible VR tours can be. You don’t need to own – or even have access to – an expensive Oculus Rift headset to reap the benefits that VR has to offer. In fact, billions of people all over the world are merely a few clicks away from immersing themselves in far-flung locations. 

An interactive, 360 video of the Maldives taken by Sam Earp has received over 2.6 million views on YouTube. With navigation arrows in the top left-hand corner, users can freely explore various serene scenes filmed at the Amilla Fushi resort.

And if sun, sea and sand on a budget is more your bag, why not check out the VR video of Whitby Holiday Park

 

Recent comments on a video of the Eiffel Tower, posted on YouTube by VR World 360, provide an insight into just how powerful a tool VR can be:

Thank you very much...it might sounds [sic] weird but I was in tears... I never went there but wanted to so badly

And:

Really thank you. I am a student and never been to foreign country. Happy to see Eiffel on YouTube by VR! It seems like I am in here.

Virtual reality is one option, and an area of tourism that I’m particularly intrigued by. Could travel agents better sell holidays using VR headsets? Could VR replace brochures altogether by enabling customers to explore hotels and attractions in all their 360-degree glory?

 

Indeed, could people “experience” popular holiday destinations without travelling at all? Think the Empire State Building or the Taj Mahal with no crowds and no limitations – perhaps the perfect solution for nervous flyers, elderly nostalgia-seekers or cash-strapped families. 

Many businesses operating within the travel sphere have been quick to adopt virtual reality technology. Consumers are seeking experiences, not products, and VR offers an effective way for marketers to offer an immersive insight of what lies in store. Booking a holiday can be a stressful experience in itself. You want to ensure you choose the right destination for a fair price. Full-time UK workers are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks paid holiday a year (known as statutory leave entitlement or annual leave), which equates to 28 days. That’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things. Who then wants to spend precious time at weekends trawling through reviews, manipulated images and room descriptions when you could embark on your own virtual tour in a matter of moments? It’s try-before-you-buy travel for the digital age! 

In 2017, Amadeus IT Group announced Navitaire, billed as “the world’s first Virtual Reality travel search and booking experience” on their YouTube channel. Although still in the project phase (with patent pending), they hope to offer an VR experience that:

Allows travellers to spin a globe of the world, visit a destination, search for flights, walk through a plane to select their seat, check out different rental cars, and pay for their entire trip— all without leaving virtual reality.

As a frequent flyer, I can tell my A320s from my 737s with my eyes closed, but I can certainly see the value in allowing passengers to select their own seats in this manner. The ability to determine the amount of leg room you’ll have, for instance, could make a huge difference for those of greater stature than myself. Low-cost airlines such as EasyJet charge variable prices depending on position within the plane. Sitting nearer to the front will cost you, but is it worth it?

 

VR could prove to be an invaluable tool for deciding which upgrades are genuinely worth parting with your hard-earned cash for. Is the Sea View room really superior to the Garden Room? Or will the noisy kids’ pool between your balcony and the ocean leave you fretting that you fell for the phony photographs?

In 2016, YouGov released the results of a study that sought the opinion of over 10,000 travellers across 21 countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region. 

51% of respondents deemed the concept of a try-before-you-buy virtual experience an appealing one, with many also indicating that virtual reality would add value to their decision-making process. 64% were willing to visit a travel store with VR technology and 71% were prepared to download travel specific VR content to their devices. 31% also confirmed that they would be happy to book their next holiday following a positive in-store VR experience.

 

And, with the ever-improving nature of technology - higher camera resolutions, quicker download speeds, increased accessibility - I would be incredibly surprised if those percentages weren’t even higher as we approach the end of the decade.

As with most technological fields, however, there are downsides. 

Try as it might, VR is never going to replace the real thing. Even with 4D offering immersive sights, smells and sounds, technology cannot replicate genuine, sensory human experiences. And whilst sun-soaked 360 videos of the Maldives might tempt a few to take the plunge, the pool of people who don’t have the time, money or inclination to travel there will always be significantly larger.

What’s more, not everyone who wants to book a trip is digitally-savvy - either by choice, means or lack of know-how. As with many industries, there are customers who prefer to speak to a real personface-to-face, or on the phone, for whom technology will always prove troublesome.

 

Nevertheless, VR holds endless, exciting possibilities for travel and tourism from both inspirational and practical perspectives, and is sure to be a game changer in the months, years and decades to come. Which leaves just one question: where to next?

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