After five months locked down in his home, Pat Carroll desperately needed to get away. He was missing travelling, and was sick of only being able to go on the same walks around his home again and again. "It just felt like Groundhog Day, you know?"
Carroll dreamed of jumping on a plane, jetting off to some exotic destination or soaking up culture in a European city. But, leaving his local area, let alone the country, was out of the question .
Or was it? Just one day later, Carroll found himself in the middle of Venice, ferried around by "a really knowledgeable local guide". "At one point, we tried to go into a chapel, but were told we couldn't because of Covid restrictions."
It was, Carroll sighs, "almost as if I was really there". Almost, but not quite.
Carroll is among the swathes of people who, locked down, have instead turned to virtual holidays and experiences during the pandemic.
As travel restrictions remain in place for some of the world's most popular tourist destinations, adventure-hungry travellers have had to content themselves with logging into live-streamed or "virtual" trips. It is a market which has surged in popularity over the past year.
Virtualtrips, one site which launched last June, now has more than 130 people tuning into its virtual tours on average. Its guides are operating in more than 100 locations around the world, with around 40 different free tours happening every day, available for people to tune in over their desktop to a live-stream where they can ask questions as their guide takes them around various cities.
"You almost get teleported to someone else’s world," says Virtualtrips co-founder John Tertan. "You get to walk with the guides and learn from them, experience what they see." This is sometimes easier said than done.
"We did have a blizzard the other week in London," laughs Tertan. "And we've had someone in Venice when it was flooded, walking around in the water."
The idea of virtually visiting locations may seem like one which only looks tempting when holidays are off the table, but, before Covid-19 hit, virtual travel was already emerging as a trend – just in a slightly different form.
Back then, a growing number of travel firms were starting to adopt virtual reality [VR] tools in their marketing campaigns, offering potential customers the option to see locations before they took the plunge and booked trips – either through VR fully-immersive headsets or, simply, through mobile apps and desktop applications which offered 360-degree videos.
John Graham, the president of Travel World VR, a virtual reality and 360-degree video marketing and production company, says "the headset really is the best way to view the videos and give the true immersive experience – but not everybody has one and they’re kind of bulky still".
Before Covid-19 hit, his company was already experiencing significant demand for its services, offering VR experiences that hotels, resorts and cruise lines could use to market to tour operators. It provided the first VR experience for Jamaica, for example, and is the "official VR company for the American Business Association".
But now, Graham says, things are busier than ever. "We're getting a ton of calls for productions. I'd say it's no longer a luxury to have VR, it's a necessity."
Using virtual reality as a marketing tool may seem a no-brainer – and something which looks likely to continue after the pandemic. But there are signs that virtual travel may also become more common even once travel restrictions lift. Already, by 2019, around half of those asked said they would be willing to pay for VR-based tourism if offered, in a study by start-up Kerckhoffs.
The longer the pandemic goes on, the more likely VR will be seen as a "valid form of alternative travel", Global Data analyst Ralph Hollister explains.
There is science to suggest there could be benefits to this. Researchers at the University of Exeter have been conducting a four-year study into whether virtual experiences of nature could reduce people's stress and improve their moods.
A report published by the group last October found that any kind of nature-based experience – be it watching waterfalls on TV, using 360-videos or using VR headsets – increased people's positive mood, alleviated boredom and connected them more to nature.
"Of course, the real thing always comes out on top," says Alex Smalley, a PhD researcher on the project. "There's a rich, multi sensory experience, how can you recreate that? But without doubt, there’s definitely a role for things like digital nature for people who simply cannot get outside." When it comes to virtual travel, "it’s certainly not as good as the real thing," says Smalley.
However, he thinks it may be the case that by "being taken away from their current place, albeit virtually, gives people's minds a chance to think about something else and have a distance from the things which are weighing them down".
Within care homes, VR has been a real boon. The Knights Care Home in Lytham has been using VR sets for its residents since early 2019, taking them virtually to "Hong Kong, swimming in the sea to see the turtles, and even a safari in Africa", and says most of its residents "love it".
For Gwen Tarvares, who is launching her own VR travel service Virtually Visiting, she says there is a huge market for people who are physically unable to travel. "We’ve had an email from a lady who said she'd always wanted to take her husband to see the Northern Lights, but he was in a wheelchair and she was caring for him full time. She felt VR was the only way that she could do it".
Others may struggle financially to travel after the pandemic and find VR to be "the next best thing", Tavares says.
During the pandemic, it has proven to be a lifeline for Tavares, who moved from South Africa to London and has been missing being able to visit. "If I flip those goggles on, I can almost feel the sun on my face," she sighs.
Have you been on a virtual tour or holiday? Share your experience in the comments section below
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