Lifestyle Travel

Virtual Tours: Can they ever replace the real thing?

With the majority of the world under some form of lockdown, travelling for pleasure is practically impossible right now. In a bid to escape the confines of their own homes, many are turning to alternatives – and virtual tours have become a particularly popular option. 

According to Forbes, Google searches for the term increased by 600% between February and March. This number has likely only grown since then. Such demand has been met with new daily releases and led to publications compiling lists of the “best” virtual travel experiences. Yet, despite this growing attention, few are questioning whether these tours are actually worth their weight. 

Virtual tours come in many varied shapes and forms but most fall into two main categories: Google Street View-style click-throughs, and videos. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, but all were certainly not created equal. 

The first type is both the most common and most likely to disappoint. From niche museums to sports grounds or ancient sites, Google has been busy making world-wide venues digitally accessible through initiatives such as Street View Treks. In theory it’s a great alternative, especially from a sustainability perspective. Virtual tours are undoubtedly the most environmentally-friendly way to visit far-flung locations especially as tourism is estimated to account for almost one-tenth of global emissions. What’s more, you can see UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as  Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China, which are vulnerable to tourism-induced erosion, without causing any physical damage. 

Frankly though, it’s a mixed bag. Exploring the renowned “Rose City” in Jordan, Petra, via a tour subtitled “Walk with the Nabateans” promises to be highly engaging. Yet, while the site was stunning and the accompanying commentary appropriately educational, navigational difficulty lets the tour down. As anyone who’s ever used Street View will know, virtually manoeuvring yourself is inevitably a rather clumsy and frustrating experience. 

This style lends itself better to inside spaces. Given it lets you move at your own pace and even zoom to admire details, it’s well-suited to virtually touring galleries and museums. The Louvre consistently ranks in “best” lists, and it’s easy to see why. Typically packed rooms are totally unpopulated, allowing for an intimate moment between you and the artwork that wouldn’t normally be possible. Virtually traversing its immaculate white corridors is also oddly soothing. 

Tours of the Vatican make for a similarly relaxing experience. In real life, the mass of bodies jostling for prime position in the Sistine Chapel rivals the chaos depicted in Michelangelo’s paintings. The memory that sticks with me after visiting it six years ago isn’t the painstaking art but feeling claustrophobic. Unless you’re willing to splash out for a pricy after-hours tour, you’re unlikely to ever get to explore this venue as leisurely as this format allows. 

Virtual tours in video format are arguably far superior. These tend to comprise a series of short 360-degree photos or clips stitched into longer videos, often set to evocative music. Since you’re not required to manually click your way through the tour, this format is far less disruptive. In fact, coupled with headphones, the auditory stimuli of realistic background noise –  wind, birdsong, bells – and mood music makes these videos downright immersive

This feature is particularly beneficial when it comes to outdoor tours. A 2018 study published by The International Neuropsychiatric Association demonstrated that “virtual” contact with nature can be a valuable alternative to physical experiences, with the potential to benefit mental health. For me at least, viewing Hampton Court Palace’s Pond Gardens and Keukenhof’s tulip fields offered some respite from anxiety on days I didn’t take walks. The “Virtual Aurora Tours” run by Lights Over Lapland, AirPano’s numerous panoramic land- and cityscapes, and The Guardian’s Wilderness, are all especially calming.

The age of virtual tours is clearly upon us – but is it here to stay? In their current state, these replacement experiences are hardly the same. For those who’ve had to cancel plans, virtually traipsing through a city you’d booked to go to via Street View will only make for bitterness. What’s missing in all of these is certain physical stimuli: no virtual tour can replicate the feel of sun on skin, or a place’s unique smell. Unless you have a VR headset or a commitment to replicating missing stimuli by using a fan as a wind stand-in, it’s unlikely these tours will feel like a true substitute for the real thing. 

But virtual travel has undeniable perks, especially during lockdown. These tours enable access to places we’d otherwise never see in such optimal conditions, as well as to those unable to travel due to physical or economic constraints. The right tour lets you pretend even just for a moment that you’re elsewhere – and that’s valuable. What’s more, being forced to travel only virtually may encourage us to be more mindful when restrictions are finally lifted. Is our desire to see certain places just a tick-box exercise? How do our travel habits impact locals or/and the environment?  

And when VR equipment gets more accessible, who knows? Maybe virtual tours will become a genuine rival to physical travel.