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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Virtual Travel Offers New Perspectives, Accessibility to Hard-to-Reach Natural Wonders

While tourism has returned to pre-pandemic levels and the industry re-embraces physical travel, virtual travel operators see a different future on the horizon.

As you ascend, your eyes sweep over the shimmering, snow-dusted landscape. It is raw, barren — like much of Iceland’s otherworldly, sweeping views. You turn your gaze to the left, then to the right — taking in the enormity of Hverfjall Volcano’s gaping crater.

A popular hiking destination during other times of the year, the crater is hard to reach in the winter. But here you are with a live, birds-eye view of this natural wonder — from the comfort of your living room — thanks to NatureEye.

“I’d have to choose Hverfjall Volcano in Iceland as my favorite,” said Michelle Weil, NatureEye’s chief marketing officer, about the company’s six available experiences. “Our guide, Johann, is so knowledgeable about the area’s geology and history; and flying over the volcano during the winter is one of the most stunning sights you’ll ever see.”

From Hverfjall Volcano to the Mekong River in Cambodia and Machu Picchu Pueblo in Peru, NatureEye’s immersive, 30-minute drone flights offer perspectives few people see. Co-piloted with experienced guides, the company’s aerial adventures use cutting-edge technology to offer disturbance-free tourism.

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In March 2020 — when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill — many tourism-related businesses found creative ways to invite travelers in, even when they couldn’t leave home. From virtual shopping excursions in medinas and treks through national parks to 360-degree tours of many of the world’s most famous museums, people could (ironically) access more of the world from home than many of them ever could in reality.

However, as tourism rebounded, many of these virtual opportunities went offline or into disrepair as efforts returned to in-person travel. For some companies, though, the pandemic was a wake-up call and invitation to embrace virtual experiences as a long-term strategy.

“I’ve always looked into the future because I had to,” said Michael Nees, founder of Virtual Journeys New Zealand — which offers nearly 20 360°, downloadable experiences that can be viewed via a virtual reality headset or on a media player. “You feel immersed in that environment. You can look around. You get the sense that you’re actually there.”

For many years, Nees has worked as a tour guide and trip designer for New Zealand, Australia and other South Pacific Islands — all destinations that often require ample time, cost a lot of money, and create a large carbon footprint to visit. Learning about the sophistication of tech during the global lockdown, he said, “I thought, we can use that kind of technology and storytelling in tourism as well.”

The concept of travel has always been defined by a person’s physical movement to and through a space; but there’s also an urgent need to address some of the most problematic aspects of tourism: Aviation’s high carbon footprint has spurred a flight-free movement, which leaves islands and destinations with few land-transportation alternatives vulnerable to a loss of tourism. Extreme weather events and the impact of tourism on fragile ecosystems also call the industry’s future into question. Plus there are accessibility issues: Minimal vacation time, increased living costs, and other limitations make it impossible for many people to travel.

Virtual travel also offers a way to visit hard-to-reach (or completely inaccessible) places — allowing people to experience, learn about and support them without contributing to overtourism or leaving behind a negative impact. At NatureEye, for example, up to 50 percent of revenue is shared with local partners to cover costs, pay guides and invest in conservation efforts.

“We have created a new way for people to experience conservation locations around the world, and to give back to them in the process,” Weil said. “We believe that by seeing these spectacular locations through a NatureEye flight, people will be more likely to contribute to our partner organizations to help conserve them for the future.”

Travel experiences such as those offered by Virtual Journeys and NatureEye offer a solution to the myriad of issues facing the tourism industry. Nonetheless, Nees said, “the industry is very, very hesitant; and it’s still not accepted that (virtual travel) could be something.”

The pandemic — and its resulting impact on tourism — took the industry by surprise. While organizations such as the World Travel & Tourism Council are buoyed by its return to 2019 pre-pandemic levels and keep an enthusiastic eye on a future dependent on physical movement, businesses focused on virtual travel see a different future on the horizon.

“We have this perception that we need to travel from A to B — 20 hours in a plane — hop off, do our trip, and then fly back again,” Nees added. “It seems to be a little bit strange; but I think in the future, our grandchildren will ask us why we traveled all the way for this.

“I really see that virtual travel needs to be part of the mix of the tourism industry, full stop. We need to do this for the next generation.”