COVID-19 and opportunities for VR based tourism economy

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Virtual reality-based technologies, using 360-degree videos of tourism destinations viewed on a VR headset can substitute for real trips and help tourists dream or plan for the next vacation. A new survey indicates an opportunity for creating a parallel economy for tourist guides as 360-video content providers.

Composite Image of man wearing VR headset and imaginary scenery with river, mountains and high-tech buildings Photo: Using a Virtual Reality headset to experience remote destinations. (Google)

Virtual reality-based technologies, using 360-degree videos of tourism destinations viewed on a VR headset can substitute for real trips and help tourists dream or plan for the next vacation. A new survey indicates an opportunity for creating a parallel economy for tourist guides as 360-video content providers.

Global tourism is a trillion-dollar industry, representing in the order of 7% of global exports and contributing significantly to global gross domestic product (GDP). International arrivals and tourism receipts have been growing at an annual rate of 3 to 5%, outpacing the growth of international trade, and in 2019 exceeded EUR 1.29 billion and EUR1.57 trillion, respectively. The tourism industry is one of the business sectors most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) foresees a decline of international tourism of 60% to 80% compared to last year, amounting to losses of between EUR 840 billion to EUR 1.100 billion in export revenues worldwide, and the World Travel and Tourism Council has warned the pandemic could lead to a loss of 50 million jobs worldwide in the travel and tourism industry.

Some of those most affected by this will be small tourism operators and tourist guides.

Under lockdown conditions, tourism destinations and businesses across the world have intensified their efforts to place themselves on the screens of millions of customers, showing the delights of their scenery, attractions and tourism activities that may encourage visitors to their cities and regions, once the crisis subsides.

Restricted to our homes, new technologies can allow us to enjoy ‘virtual tourism’ as a way of substituting real trips – for a while – and to dream or plan for the next vacation.

Virtual reality-based technologies, using 360-degree videos of tourism destinations, viewed on a VR headset, offer the sense of ‘being there’, which undoubtedly stimulates the urge to travel and enjoy new experiences. Moreover, the immersive experience of places enables viewers to gain the confidence to travel by letting them explore and interact with the projected surroundings.

We should not overlook the importance of the human, interpersonal element in virtual tourism, and this is where tourist guides could play a crucial role as ‘360-content-providers’. With their deep knowledge of history, monuments, landscapes, stories and the cultural setting, tourist guides are specialists in communicating with visitors.

We propose that virtual reality-based tourism can provide an alternative or, more likely, an additional revenue stream for tourist guides, working in collaboration with tourism operators, destination managers and tourist boards. This would create a parallel revenue stream not only during this period of tourism decline but also in the long run as an enabler of, and alternative to, traditional tourism.

Tourist guides survey

Funded by Oi2Lab, the technology start-up, Kerckhoffs Ltd, UK, in collaboration with the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT), carried out an online survey in order to understand the challenges and interest of tourist guides to take up VR-based tour guiding by becoming 360-degree-video content providers for a global Virtual Tourism platform, ‘Eyemmersive’ (EYEM).

The survey ran for three weeks in the global lockdown period, April-May 2020, and received responses from 64 tourist guides across the globe. 73% of the respondents are registered professional tourist guides from Europe.

Key observations

We found that

  • 32.8 % of the registered tourist guides have previous experience of creating videos and documentaries. Interestingly, 93% of the respondents who said that they do not have any previous experience in video production, are willing to take part in training for VR content creation.
  • 90% of respondents expressed their interest in taking part in a training programme for VR content creation.
  • 95.3% of the respondents can provide tourist guiding in the English language. In second place comes French with 28.1% followed by Spanish (25%).
  • Only 13% of the respondents have never heard about VR, and about 22% of the guides have also experienced VR in some form. This suggests that VR is not an entirely new paradigm to tourist guides.
  • 73% of the respondents are ready to make a one-time investment if they see an opportunity of having a revenue from VR based tourism.
  • Only 23% of the respondents currently have a second job, which means registered tourist guides may be at risk of losing their livelihood due to the COVID-19 pandemic or other situations where tourism is curtailed for a longer period.

VR traveller survey

In a previous survey by Kerckhoffs Ltd. carried out in September 2019, we asked travellers how VR might offer a better experience of travel and tourism.

We examined people's perceptions about experiencing immersive technologies (Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Extended Reality) in relation to tourism and found that more than 50% of the respondents would be willing to pay for VR based tourism if it was offered to them.

More than 60% of the respondents would like to have VR based tourism at a cost of less than 5% of the actual travel cost per person, if they travelled to the destination.

Concluding remarks

Traditional tourism can never be replaced by VR based tourism; however, VR based tourism can be an enabler for traditional tourism, particularly post COVID-19 where the tourism industry needs rejuvenation.

VR technologies have been around for some time already but now we see a definite interest and potential for its wider use, and, particularly, for creating a parallel economy for tourist guides.

Consumers currently own 26 million virtual reality headsets globally, according to data from tech consulting firm Omdia (formerly Ovum). Another tech-watcher, Statista has projected a growth in the global sales of VR headsets to private consumers and educational institutions of 250%, with an estimated value of 16 billion US dollars by 2022, indicating that VR is moving steadily into the mainstream consumer market after its initial growth came mainly in the industrial, manufacturing and gaming sectors.

Just as the tourism industry needs to reinvent itself post COVID-19, the VR industry and particularly the VR market also needs a new domain to achieve its expected growth. Hence we predict there will be a great synergy between VR emerging technologies and tourism industry in the coming years.

Related content

Eyemmersive Project on ENAT website