Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Madrid’s tourism authority has embraced virtual tourism as VR tours like the ones it offers gain in popularity. But will they ever replace real travel? Photo: The Tourism Authority of Madrid

Could virtual reality trips replace real travel? With VR headset tours already here and the metaverse afoot, experts weigh in

  • Virtual tourism got a big boost during the pandemic, with VR trips around cities and museums becoming increasingly popular, but will this trend continue?
  • Researchers think virtual travel will remain, but only ‘where it makes sense’, allowing previews of places and as a substitute for those unable to take trips

From your sofa, climb Mount Everest, visit a museum in New York or dive through a coral reef: virtual experiences have received an enormous boost from the pandemic.

This has not gone unnoticed by the travel and leisure industry. No longer is the technology being used just for their marketing, but also as a product. Is the hype here to stay? And if so, where is the journey heading?

Two experts – Armin Brysch, who researches this topic at Kempten University of Applied Sciences, and Tristan Horx, who studies new trends at the Zukunftsinstitut (future institute) in Frankfurt, Germany – share their thoughts about the future of virtual reality travel.

If you look at virtual travel, it quickly becomes clear that the industry is only just trying its hand at it. For example, the Tourism Authority of Madrid has begun offering a virtual experience to see the Spanish capital before an actual trip.
The baroque dome of Madrid’s Royal Palace, viewable by VR tour – but wouldn’t you be tempted to see it for real?. Photo: Getty Images

A visitor needs to book a 30-minute appointment on the authority’s website, with the tour using a video phone call via Zoom. Once connected, a tour guide virtually surfs through the streets of Madrid, stopping at places when the visitor has questions.

Soon, 360-degree images appear with the tour guide zooming in, for example, at the Royal Palace. The service provides a useful first impression of a city, but it really doesn’t amount to a complete virtual reality (VR) experience.

Armin Brysch of Kempten University of Applied Sciences. Photo: Kempten University

VR travel requires a “computer-generated, virtual, three-dimensional environment that you perceive with VR glasses”, explains Brysch.

Shielding all outside light by means of the VR glasses – in what is called a “cave”, or a room fully equipped with monitors – is necessary for the viewer to be completely surrounded by the virtual world.

“The deeper the traveller is immersed in the world provided them, the more realistic the artificial experience is,” says Brysch. Experts call this immersion, and it requires high-resolution images and an exciting narrative.

‘Travellers’ enjoying a virtual tour of Berlin at Timeride. Photo: Timeride

Even if some tourism experts still call virtual reality travel a niche development, there is no doubt that something is afoot.

With German company Timeride, for example, you can go on a virtual journey through cities at different points in history, and immerse yourself in the life of earlier eras.

Does all this have a future? According to a recent survey by market researcher Bitkom Research, it would appear so.

Timeride offers the chance to virtually travel to cities at a particular point in history, such as Cologne in the 1920s. Photo: Timeride
The next big thing is the “ metaverse” – the virtual space that expands on today’s internet and in which one moves and interacts as a digital model of oneself.

The Bitkom survey found that 21 per cent of respondents aged 16 and over expect to explore foreign places with the help of VR goggles in 2030 instead of travelling there in the traditional way.

The proportion is higher among younger people, but even among the over-64 age group, 15 per cent share this view.

Tristan Horx, trend researcher at Germany’s Zukunftsinstitut. Photo: Zukunftsinstitut

“[VR] will remain where it makes sense … By looking at four places with VR glasses and then deciding on one, that can work,” Horx says about choosing a travel destination. His remark should please the tourism experts in Madrid.

The question remains whether virtual travel will replace real travel. Brysch is sure it won’t: “Just because we can look at the destination in 3D, we won’t give up going there.”

For some target groups, however, there could be trade-offs, he says. For example, those people who cannot travel because of physical limitations, or for people who find travel too expensive, stressful, dangerous or harmful to the climate.

“VR can create a substitute experience,” Brysch says.