Published 2 months ago.
About a 4 minute read.
While tourism has returned to pre-pandemic levels and the industry re-embraces physical travel, virtual travel operators see a different future on the horizon.
As you ascend, your eyes sweep over the shimmering, snow-dusted landscape. It is
raw, barren — like much of Iceland’s otherworldly, sweeping views. You turn
your gaze to the left, then to the right — taking in the enormity of Hverfjall
Volcano’s gaping crater.
A popular hiking destination during other times of the year, the crater is hard
to reach in the winter. But here you are with a live, birds-eye view of this
natural wonder — from the comfort of your living room — thanks to
“I’d have to choose Hverfjall Volcano in Iceland as my favorite,” said Michelle
Weil, NatureEye’s chief marketing
officer, about the company’s six available experiences. “Our guide, Johann,
is so knowledgeable about the area’s geology and history; and flying over the
volcano during the winter is one of the most stunning sights you’ll ever see.”
From Hverfjall Volcano to the Mekong River in Cambodia and Machu
Picchu Pueblo in Peru, NatureEye’s immersive, 30-minute drone flights
offer perspectives few people see. Co-piloted with experienced guides, the
company’s aerial adventures use cutting-edge technology to offer
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In March 2020 — when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill
— many tourism-related businesses found creative ways to invite travelers in,
even when they couldn’t leave home. From virtual shopping excursions in medinas
and treks through national parks to 360-degree tours of many of the world’s most
famous museums, people could (ironically) access more of the world from home
than many of them ever could in reality.
However, as tourism
many of these virtual opportunities went offline or into disrepair as efforts
returned to in-person travel. For some companies, though, the pandemic was a
wake-up call and invitation to embrace virtual experiences as a long-term
“I’ve always looked into the future because I had to,” said Michael
Nees, founder of Virtual Journeys
New Zealand — which offers nearly 20 360°,
downloadable experiences that can be viewed via a virtual reality headset or on
a media player. “You feel immersed in that environment. You can look around. You
get the sense that you’re actually there.”
For many years, Nees has worked as a tour guide and trip designer for New
Zealand, Australia and other South Pacific Islands — all destinations
that often require ample time, cost a lot of money, and create a large carbon
footprint to visit. Learning about the sophistication of tech during the global
lockdown, he said, “I thought, we can use that kind of technology and
storytelling in tourism as well.”
The concept of travel has always been defined by a person’s physical movement to
and through a space; but there’s also an urgent need to address some of the most
problematic aspects of tourism: Aviation’s high carbon footprint has spurred a
which leaves islands and destinations with few land-transportation alternatives
vulnerable to a loss of tourism. Extreme weather
and the impact of tourism on fragile
also call the industry’s future into question. Plus there are accessibility
Minimal vacation time, increased living
other limitations make it impossible for many people to travel.
Virtual travel also offers a way to visit hard-to-reach (or completely
inaccessible) places — allowing people to experience, learn about and support
them without contributing to
or leaving behind a negative impact. At NatureEye, for example, up to 50 percent
of revenue is shared with local partners to cover costs, pay guides and invest
in conservation efforts.
“We have created a new way for people to experience conservation locations
around the world, and to give back to them in the process,” Weil said. “We
believe that by seeing these spectacular locations through a NatureEye flight,
people will be more likely to contribute to our partner organizations to help
conserve them for the future.”
Travel experiences such as those offered by Virtual Journeys and NatureEye offer
a solution to the myriad of issues facing the tourism industry. Nonetheless,
Nees said, “the industry is very, very hesitant; and it’s still not accepted
that (virtual travel) could be something.”
The pandemic — and its resulting impact on tourism — took the industry by
surprise. While organizations such as the World Travel & Tourism
are buoyed by its return to 2019 pre-pandemic levels and keep an enthusiastic
eye on a future dependent on physical movement, businesses focused on virtual
travel see a different future on the horizon.
“We have this perception that we need to travel from A to B — 20 hours in a
plane — hop off, do our trip, and then fly back again,” Nees added. “It seems to
be a little bit strange; but I think in the future, our grandchildren will ask
us why we traveled all the way for this.
“I really see that virtual travel needs to be part of the mix of the tourism
industry, full stop. We need to do this for the next generation.”
Published Dec 14, 2023 8am EST / 5am PST / 1pm GMT / 2pm CET
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker and solutions advocate who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for her entire career. She is also the founder of Rooted — a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, social impact and storytelling. A returned US Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer and intrepid traveler, JoAnna helps tourism professionals decolonize travel and support sustainability using strategic communication skills.