Virtual travel has been around long before the internet. The internet simply pushed it to a whole new level. Then the pandemic boosted it again. There now seems little doubt that virtual travel is here to stay. The only real question is how it will fit in with traditional, real-world travel.
Understanding virtual travel
Experienced travelers may think of virtual travel as a contradiction in terms. In one sense this is true. Looked at literally, virtual travel isn’t actually traveling at all. You don’t go anywhere physically. You don’t even get a complete sense of being in a place. As yet, the internet only engages the senses of sight and hearing. The real world also engages taste, touch, and smell.
On the other hand, sight and hearing convey a huge amount of information on their own. This means that, effectively, virtual travelers can get a significant part of the travel experience without actually having to go to the destination. Effectively, therefore, virtual travel empowers people to decide how much of a place they need to experience.
If a person really wants to get a real feel for life in a destination, then physical travel is the obvious way to go, if possible. On the other hand, if a person simply wants to visit certain attractions, then a virtual trip may be the perfect option. For example, art galleries are highly visual destinations anyway. This means a virtual experience is likely to be very similar to a real-world one.
Virtual travel and business
Unsurprisingly, virtual travel has really taken hold in the business world. Companies have now largely replaced travel for regular meetings with video calls. Technically, video calls may not generate quite the same level of engagement as in-person meetings. In practice, however, this is compensated for by the reduction in friction to get to them.
For example, a person who’s had to pack their bags and travel a long distance to reach a meeting is probably going to be at least fairly low on energy. By contrast, somebody who’s just fired up Zoom on their laptop has basically made no effort to get to the meeting. What’s more, they’re going to be working out of their regular comfort zone.
Virtual travel and leisure
This is where the situation gets more interesting. By definition, leisure travel is something travelers do because they want to do it. It might therefore seem like virtual travel is only useful for researching a destination or exploring places you really can’t visit. The signs are, however, that virtual travel could actually play a much broader role than this.
The big driver behind virtual travel is sustainability. Most stakeholders in the travel industry are trying to improve their environmental standards. This includes more peripheral stakeholders such as cultural attractions e.g. museums (Freddi Wald has written about this).
Virtual travel clearly reduces the travel industry’s carbon footprint. It can also help to alleviate other issues related to excessive tourism. For example, it can limit the wear and tear at key attractions, particularly natural ones. Similarly, it causes less disturbance to wildlife and, indeed, locals.
For all these reasons and more, it seems like virtual travel will be increasingly promoted as a complement to real-world travel. It’s highly unlikely to replace it completely but it will create exciting new options for both travelers and the travel industry.