After the pandemic, will we still travel virtually?

The pandemic dealt a body blow to mass tourism, and it is uncertain whether it will return as it was, given how destinations like Amsterdam and Venice are enjoying being able to explore their own cities without fighting their way through crowds. While no one knows what tourism will look like post-pandemic, some alternative approaches to tourism offer ideas for a more sustainable approach that contributes to the community and the tourist.

Photo by Aleks Marinkovic on Unsplash

Virtual tourism became popular during the pandemic, for a variety of reasons. It allowed people in hospitals or care homes to “travel”, and it also allowed destinations that were difficult or far away to host visitors. The Faroe Islands, for example, created a virtual tourism campaign to give people an alternative option to traveling to the location. 

“Early on in this global crisis, we sat and wondered how we could recreate a Faroe Islands’ experience for those who had to cancel or postpone their trip to the Faroe Islands – and for everyone else stuck in isolation around the world. We had an idea. What if we could allow people anywhere in the world to explore the islands as virtual tourists through the eyes of a local? Or even better; what if the virtual tourists could control the movements of the local in real time?”

Photo credit: Kirstin Vang / Visit Faroe Islands

The World Economic Forum sees all kinds of future possibilities in virtual tourism. “Imagine a human-centric designed, interactive space online that makes a destination accessible and so real for a sightseer with sound captured by electro-acoustics researchers. You could view holiday sites in a video or through self-navigation using voice or joystick controls, interact with people using video-calling platforms, travel through the streets of said location, eavesdrop on local music and much more. This could be stitched together in a single platform individually or in silos on the internet and further enhanced by setting up physical experience tourism centres locally. Such a setup would allow tourist guides, artisans, craftspeople, hoteliers and transport business to create their own digital and virtual offerings and interact with possible customers.”

While many of the ‘tours’ were free, some generated revenue for tour companies and guides, and some attracted up to 100 participants per tour, The Conversation reported.

“As long as the pandemic increases and we are spending more time indoors, we should see adoption keep on growing,” Ralph Hollister, a tourism analyst at Global Data and the author of a report on VR in tourism, told the Guardian.

“Oculus launched its Quest 2 headset in October and the most popular experiences include National Geographic VR, which takes users to places such as Antarctica – where they can navigate icebergs in a kayak, climb an ice shelf and survive a raging snowstorm as they search for a lost emperor penguin colony,” the Guardian noted. “Another app, Wander, can teleport VR travellers from the pyramids of Egypt to the gardens of the Taj Mahal, while Alcove offers immersive experiences from hot air balloon rides to city tours.”

“Virtual reality may never replace traditional travel, but it still offers intriguing possibilities. If the technology becomes sophisticated enough, the more environmentally conscious among us—especially those aiming to reduce our carbon footprint (or people sensitive to flight-shaming)—might prefer this form of escape,” says National Geographic. “VR travel does bring parts of the world to people who are physically unable to visit certain landmarks. Most of all, it could help bring people to places that are otherwise inaccessible.” Such places might include fragile places, such as the site of the world’s earliest cave paintings in southern France, or areas where governments have limited access.

As the pandemic has stretched on, more such options have appeared.

Other, more specialized tours that focus on local communities and their history, also may offer ideas for sustainable tourism. Such tours contribute to the community in a positive way, not just an extractive way  – whether it be supporting the protection of natural ecosystems, supporting peace agreements sustainably, helping people learn about nature, or learning more about local food and culture.

I read recently about Moses Martin, chief councillor of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, who co-owns Clayoquot Wild, an environmentally focused tour company in Tofino on Vancouver Island. He offers visitors whale watching, and fishing trips, and tours of the old growth forest on Meares Island he was instrumental in protecting. But he also shares stories from his life and community, such as stories about the logging protests on Canada’s west coast during the 1980s and ’90s; stories about how the smallpox and tuberculosis epidemics of the late 1800s and early 1900s decimated his people, even up to his birth in 1941, when his mother sheltered in a cave with two of her children for four years to protect them from smallpox; or stories about the residential schools that Indigenous families were forced to send their children to.

This is the kind of tourism that elders who recently spent time at a protest about the logging of other old growth trees visualize, and it is one of the strengths of what used to be called ‘cultural tourism’. People come for the stories, the local knowledge, the local history, and the local food, and it had been growing slowly before the pandemic, even if it often was often overwhelmed by the tsunami that is mass tourism.

Another ‘niche’ form of tourism that has flourished during the past decade or more is post-conflict or ‘guerrilla’ tourism, which provides visitors with an insight into the realities of long-running conflicts and former combatants with a way to make a living. Some example are tours in Vietnam that let people scramble through the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war, or in Aceh, where former rebel fighters take people to see where the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) hid from or fought against the Indonesian army (TNI) until as recently as 2005 when the two sides signed a peace agreement after three decades of fighting.

It was from high up on a jungle-clad hill where they hid from toops that Marjuni Ibrahim and his unit saw the tsunami hit Aceh on December 26, 2004. The disaster led to the death or disappearance of 170,000 people and destroyed much of the Aceh coastline, but provided an impetus for both sides to pursue peace. Indonesia withdrew troops and police, while GAM fighters came out of the jungle and gave up their weapons in exchange for an amnesty. Marjuni found work rebuilding homes and infrastructure for a couple of dollars a day. Then one day, he was approached by Mendel Pols, a Dutch citizen who had founded a small adventure tours firm called Aceh Explorer and who was looking for former GAM fighters to take groups of tourists trekking in the jungle. “When I told GAM my idea they looked at me like I was from Mars,” said Pols, who is married to an Acehnese and lives in the capital Banda Aceh. But the idea took off, at first among foreign aid workers  in Aceh for the post-tsunami reconstruction. 

It’s an idea that caught on in other places, including Colombia, where a number of former FARC combatants have opted for tourism as a form of reintegration. Such programs also have been run in Guatemala and El Salvador and in Mexico by the Zapatistas. In Namibia, demobilized fighters have become members of Anti-Poaching Units which also work to locate minefields.

“With their knowledge of the local territory, and specifically of those places that have only been explored by armed groups, ex-combatants could help open up areas for tourism,” says one survey paper. “Furthermore, not only is the tourism narrative enriched by this local knowledge but also by personal stories. Many visitors seek a deeper understanding of the people and the ‘sense of place’ moulded by the historical events.”