This year, the global tourism industry has declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when social distancing is encouraged and movement is restricted around the world, travel destinations such as Times Square in New York or the Colosseum in Rome are empty. The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has estimated that due to the pandemic, international tourist arrivals around the world could decline by 20% to 30%, this year. Domestic tourism in South Africa has also been negatively affected. The Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, has predicted that domestic tourism will most likely resume in December.Due to the severe restrictions on travel around the world, virtual tourism has gained popularity as it enables people to visit destinations around the world from the comfort of their homes. This allows them to immerse themselves in travel destinations, without physically being there.

 What is a virtual tour?

A virtual tour is a tour of a destination such as a hotel, business, or place that can be displayed on a computer screen, smart device, or a virtual reality headset. It is essentially a simulation of an existing space or infrastructure. Individuals can explore the place in a digital environment as if they were physically at the location through immersion, interaction, or involvement. By using visual graphics and sound, participants can access the destinations from their homes to interact with the culture and history of various destinations.

Street View, which is offered by Google Maps, is one of the biggest virtual tour applications in the world. Google started the 360° filming and photographing of places in 2006. Today, this software allows individuals to tour famous sites and landmarks such as the Palace of Versailles in France, and the Taj Mahal in India. The use of virtual reality headsets has also gained popularity in virtual tours as they provide a more realistic experience for users. Google Earth VR was released in 2016 to give people an enhanced virtual tour by using virtual reality headsets to simulate walking or flying around various locations in the world. According to The Virtual Reality Company, a South African based agency specialising in virtual reality, to create a 360° virtual tour, photographers take a sequence of images in 360° and then stitch the photographs together to create a panorama image. The image is then uploaded into special software that allows a viewer to view the 360° image as if they were actually at the place where the image was taken.

The limitations of virtual tourism

Despite technological advancements, such as virtual reality headsets, the use of virtual reality in the tourism industry still has a number of limitations for users. For example, virtual reality headsets are costly, making it inaccessible to those who cannot afford the technology. The headsets may also be uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time. Another disadvantage of virtual reality tourism is that it is limited to the senses of sight and sound. The absence of a fully immersive experience which needs to be enhanced by sensations such as smell and taste, cannot be compared to the experience of physically being at the location. Virtual tours, however, help to encourage tourism by giving potential guests a preview of the destination. Individuals are encouraged to get in contact with the destination before deciding to visit.

Virtual tour destinations around the world

Today, individuals can take a virtual tour of the Louvre Museum in Paris, and a 3D tour around Rome. Other interesting destinations include the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has also released a virtual tour called Exoplanet Excursions which provides a guided tour through space using virtual reality headsets.

Individuals can also visit game reserves in South Africa. WildEarth is broadcasting an award winning live safari which allows people to visit South African game reserves in real time through their screens, and spot the Big Five if they are lucky. With such a wide selection of destinations available for virtual tours on the internet, this is an interesting time to explore the world from home.

Illustration : Sanele Zulu

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