Explore landmarks, cultural epicenters, and new world views from home—experts give us a sneak peek into the technological innovations happening today.

By Amy Marturana Winderl
September 15, 2020
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Back in March, when concerts and festivals started being canceled and, eventually, official stay-at-home orders were put into place, public events as we knew them changed. At the time, we thought just for a few weeks, maybe a month. Five months later, it's clearer that in-person events, tours, and gatherings may never return fully to their pre-COVID operations. The good thing about 2020 is that we have the technology to make virtual tourism a reality—and so far, plenty of brands and venues have jumped on the trend to keep visitors coming. And every day, more companies are getting in on the trend.

While face masks and Zoom baby showers have just become part of normal life, virtual tourist attractions and events mark the new norm of pandemic-era travel. It's something that tourism companies and travel experts think is here to stay—even after a vaccine is finally here.

What will virtual tourism look like?

Virtual tours and events started popping up left and right once travel came to a halt. The National Park Service started encouraging people to take virtual tours of various historical sites and opened up livestreams of various parks, bringing the natural scenery into their homes. Museums like the Louvre in Paris and MoMa in New York launched virtual tours of their famous halls. Airbnb launched online experiences, which include cooking and mixology classes, magic shows, and dance and photography classes.

Tourism departments that work to bring visitors to cities and countries have also jumped on the virtual tourism bandwagon. For example, Choose Chicago, the city's tourism company, has a whole summer calendar of socially distanced events. You can go to an improv show or magic show, visit an art gallery, or even participate in a beer tasting (after you pick up your package of brews). Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, and most other large cities across the country are offering a similar lineup of virtual tours and events. As are the attractions that rely on tourist traffic to keep business flowing.

Anthony Freud, president, general director, and CEO of Lyric Opera of Chicago, says that they knew they had to offer virtual experiences pretty immediately once tourism came to a halt. "We knew that keeping our existing audiences engaged and providing opportunities for wider audiences to experience Lyric Opera was essential," he says. In mid-March, the team began producing original content to share with their audiences via email, web, and social media. "The response has been great," says Freud. They're still adapting as the times continue to change: They recently debuted their first full new concert offering on Facebook and YouTube, and plan to air another concert event on September 13.

Similarly, the tourism bureau of Riviera Nayarit, a region along Mexico’s pacific coast, launched a #StayHomeWithRivieraNayarit initiative, says Richard Zarkin, PR manager for the Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau. They shared local experiences (think: cooking and mixology classes, arts and crafts classes, and yoga classes) on their Facebook page and streamed virtual tours of the region's beach towns every Wednesday and Sunday. 

Virtual tourism is here to stay—at least in some form.

Virtual experiences give us opportunities to see and experience places we can't physically visit. They provide a much-needed change of scenery, and give us something new to do, even if we are still sitting on our sofas. "Being confined at home, oftentimes in small apartments with limited access to outside spaces, has been a challenge for avid travelers and adventurers from around the world," Zarkin says. "These virtual experiences offered by destinations, hotels, and other global tourism entities have proven to be sweet, temporary escapes from the news cycle, and have given viewers the opportunity to learn about new places and cultures."

Small companies can get in on it, too, says Dennis Watkins, owner of The Magic Parlour in Chicago. "The amazing technology available to us in 2020 helps us achieve community in new ways," he says. "And if a teeny-tiny company like mine that produces magic shows can find ways to reach audiences all over the world, I think the opportunities presented by hybrid experiences will just be too amazing to resist!" While locals do attend his shows, Watkins says his company serves a large number of tourists; until travel ramps back up, virtual experiences are important for business.

Of course, virtual travel isn't a perfect substitute for in-person experiences. We don't get to interact with other people in person, and the sensory experience of exploring a new place is lost, says Rachel Harrison, owner of Rachel Harrison Communications and founder of Buy Now, Stay Later, a program that lets travelers buy hotel bonds for future visits. Interest in virtual experiences may wane as we can start traveling more freely again, but the trend will be here to stay, says Harrison. "While virtual experiences will never be a true replacement for real-life exploration, they have become a part of our daily lives, satisfying our need to travel in the short-term. As humans, we've adapted to a way of seeing the world virtually and I think it's a trend that will continue long term."

Watkins is optimistic about what virtual experiences can ultimately add to the travel and tourism space. "A true gift of virtual travel is that we can safely and efficiently access experiences we've always wanted to access. People separated by oceans can look each other in the eyes and share stories, cultures, and ideas. When I do a show for a single family who logs in from London, Leeds, Norway, or Chicago, I start to see the power of the virtual space," he adds, "and I think we're just now starting to understand and leverage that power."

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