Bring The Destination Home: Meetings & social events are scheduled on online platforms, so why not travel?

March 17, 2021 5:30 AM

Periods of adversity in human history have usually witnessed technological advances and innovations, and there are new innovations in the travel economy, too.

Periods of adversity in human history have usually witnessed technological advances and innovations, and there are new innovations in the travel economy, too. (Representative image)

By Dhanendra Kumar

Travel and tourism have been the hardest hit sectors during Covid-19, with grounded flights, travel restrictions and sealed borders. A year down the line, countries are still battling the virus with international travel reeling under severe curbs. As vaccinations progress, industry is expecting a slow and hesitant recovery.

According to an online survey by MakeMyTrip this January, 65% Indian travellers are considering their next holidays of some sorts in the coming two months. However, while domestic leisure tourism may be picking up slowly, with some post-lockdown ‘revenge travel’, international travel—the major contributor to the travel economy in pre-Covid-19 times—continues to remain depressed. According to some estimates, it may not be until 2023-24 for the pre-Covid-19 levels to be achieved.

Periods of adversity in human history have usually witnessed technological advances and innovations, and there are new innovations in the travel economy, too.

As a result of lockdowns, the new normal has evolved with a new business and social culture—work from home (WFH)—and with the ease and economy, it is likely to stay. Meetings and social events are also scheduled on various online platforms. So, why not travel?

The global e-commerce giant Amazon has recently introduced a new online travel service (cutt.ly/8zk3SSk), initially for US customers. The service, called the ‘Amazon Explore’, allows virtual tourists to partake in live, interactive virtual tours of popular tourist destinations with professional local guides all over the world at highly affordable prices. Many of these tours also allow customers to shop in real-time as their tour guides show them around their chosen destination, thus perfectly marrying the idea of online travel with e-commerce.

TourHQ, a start-up by a young Indian couple, which focuses on such customised private experiences around the world, with its 34,000 registered guides, was one of the first to launch online tours, and is now a major supplier to Amazon for the ‘Amazon Explore’ offering. TourHQ is similarly providing these online experiences on a number of other platforms around the world; for instance, MakeMyTrip in India and Traveloka in Indonesia as well.

While there are a few other virtual tour platforms emerging overseas, the ‘Online Experiences’ offered by tourHQ have been meeting with an ever-burgeoning customer base in India, the US, Europe, South-East and elsewhere. While the world waits for vaccination to make headway and for herd immunity to seep in, these professionally-guided, interactive tours are enabling people to take mini family vacations to faraway attractions—be it a safari in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, a boat ride down the Amazon rainforest, a visit to the Colosseum in Rome, a walk down the streets of Paris, or any other place among the hundreds of experiences on offer—many for less than Rs 2,000 a live, interactive tour.

The advantage with these virtual tours is that scattered family at various places around the world can coordinate and join in a tour, real-time, sometimes even having family celebrations like birthdays or anniversaries, corporate offsites or any other milestone at their chosen exotic destinations where a professional guide can show them around or even organise a customised event. Other than travel experiences, people are also enjoying cooking or music classes, or even dance lessons online. Major corporates are providing these tours in business breakouts to their employees and clients.

Given the success of online tourism, and the uncertainties on when it will be safe to travel again, many see the idea developing into a permanent offering going forward. For instance, people unable to step out in person will increasingly start opting for hiring tour guides to do their shopping for them or plan their celebration at a chosen venue, say, in Udaipur, Venice, a fairytale-like Neuschwanstein castle, the Republic of Ireland’s stunning Cliffs of Moher, or the pristine waters of the Maldives, a world museum etc. This has endless possibilities in a multicultural country like India, where online tourism may help shopping for the perfect wedding trousseau to extend from domestic hubs like Varanasi to more distant shoppers’ paradise, such as Paris and Copenhagen, all from the comfort and safety of their homes.

We have seen significant innovations to address some other pandemic-related problems—such as the problems faced by prospective college students who are set to enrol in university next year. In the past, these students would have gone to visit these overseas campuses to make a decision. But now these students do not have this option to travel for their choices.

A grade 11 student in Singapore facing this dilemma recently launched a service called Campus Tours Online. This service provides a comfortable solution to this issue by offering live, interactive online tours of university campuses across Europe, North America and the Asia Pacific with professional local guides, consulting university alumni. This service allows both local students under lockdown and international students currently facing travel restrictions to explore various university premises in real-time and clear all their doubts about campus life and history without stepping out.

According to BBC (cutt.ly/kzlusMp), virtual travel has now come to stay and opening new frontiers, popularising tourism to hitherto less familiar and exotic destinations and events. Researchers are refining virtual reality with augmented reality for giving closer to a real experience. For example, a new research in the US for virtual travel, using advanced mathematical techniques and combining livestream video with existing photos and videos of travel hotspots (cutt.ly/rzlisRD), could open new vistas to revitalise the virtual travel.

The travel sector is witnessing a new metamorphosis as new digital technologies are closing the gap between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’. As the technology advances, a famous Urdu couplet seems to become a reality: “Manzil ke liye do gaon to kya ek gaon bhi chal kar kyun jaun, jab khwaishe manzil paida ho to samne manzil aa jaye (why undertake travel to a destination, whenever there is an urge, let it appear in front!)”

The author is former chairman, CCI, and ED, World Bank

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