Although the pandemic abruptly halted international travel, wanderlust never ceased. Forced to stay home, many people felt even more of an itch to explore new places and get out into the world. As a result, virtual tours surged in popularity over the past year as a welcome escape from life in lockdown. And while people are tip-toeing into travel again, there’s still a large portion of the population that loves to take a virtual experience from home without compromising safety.
A range of travel companies adapted during the course of the pandemic, acknowledging our collective reality. They began morphing guided trips into digital experiences available to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. “We’re in an explosive period of virtual tourism,” says Bernard Frischer, founder of Flyover Zone, which isn’t new to the field. Flyover Zone has made a name for itself by creating “teletours” of cultural heritage sites. But with the pandemic, according to Frischer, people have gotten “used to these remote technologies that bring the world to their office or living room.”
Major event companies like Eventbrite, which connects creators with a broad community, introduced new technology to move events from in-person to online, and to attract and reach new audiences. “When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, Eventbrite’s customers were put to the ultimate test—in-person events were paused and the world was told to stay home and apart,” says Tamara Mendelsohn, CMO at Eventbrite. “Yet, from March to April last year, we saw events related to virtual travel and virtual tours increase eight-fold on Eventbrite and show continuous growth throughout the year.”
By transitioning their events to virtual, event creators generated revenue they might have otherwise missed during the pandemic and they connected with new, global audiences. “In fact, of the virtual events hosted in the U.S. in 2020 on Eventbrite, one quarter of the audience came from overseas locations,” says Mendelsohn.
And while the pandemic won’t last forever, Flyover Zone’s Frischer sees virtual tours as a lasting effect that will whet people’s appetite for real-world tourism going forward. “We compare a virtual tour to a sample chapter of a book that you can download for your e-reader. It’s not designed to make you not want to explore the whole book,” says Frischer. “It’s designed to make you want to read it all.”
This seems to be the sentiment across the virtual travel industry. “Even as conventional travel resumes, we continue to see a rise in Amazon Explore experiences booked and anticipate that the new service will continue to grow in popularity,” says an Amazon Explore spokesperson.
Travel the world from your couch through one of these fantastic virtual experiences.
If history is your thing, you can’t miss one of Flyover Zone’s teletours—virtual visits to some of the world’s most important cultural heritage sites. Led by experts in the field, these teletours allow you to see details up close and show you the renderings of how the heritage sites originally looked through 3D modeling.
Try: Baalbek Reborn. Part of the ancient Rome Empire but built thousands of years before Rome, Baalbek is an historic site in Lebanon that is as significant as places like Pompeii and Machu Picchu (but far less well-known). Flyover Zone partnered with the German Archaeological Institute and the Ministry of Culture – Directorate General of Antiquities, Lebanon to create this free virtual experience, which is available on a number of platforms, from iPhone to Oculus. You can see areas that are off-limits and even travel back in time and see what this incredible site looked like in the year 215. The tour is hosted by the very people who excavated the site, bringing the ancient world to life. Cost: free.
The company that sells pretty much everything recently added Amazon Explore—live virtual travel experiences like landmark walking tours and cooking classes—to its inventory. The experiences are livestreamed one-on-one with a host who is on location, and two-way audio allows for plenty of dialogue and question-asking. You’ll be able to browse by a variety of filters to find the virtual experience of your wanderlust dreams. Many experiences allow users to purchase artisan-made products, which supports small businesses and allows guests to shop for one-of-a-kind “souvenir” items.
Try: Explore the Australian Wilderness. Find hidden natural treasures in the wild valleys that surround Sydney. You’ll learn about native flora and fauna and discover majestic sculptured cliffs and caves at Berowra Valley National Park. Cost: $40.
When the pandemic hit, Airbnb migrated its popular Experiences concept to a 100% virtual travel platform. Now, Online Experiences offers hundreds of sessions, allowing entrepreneurs from around the world to connect with and share their passions with the travel-hungry over Zoom.
Try: Aurora Hunting in Iceland. Spend two hours with your on-location host in search of the Northern Lights. As you go, your host will teach you all about the natural spectacle with enthusiasm and expertise. Cost: from $30.
Eventbrite allows businesses to share their events to a broad community. The service is home to millions of global events and experiences, but swiftly worked with event creators to add online experiences to the its platform. In 2020, Eventbrite’s digital platform soared for virtual experiences with over 1 million online events and over 75 million attendees worldwide.
Try: Tutankhamun’s Tomb: Ancient Egypt Virtual Tour. Interested in the story—and the curse— of Egypt’s most famous king? A licensed tour guide hosts this live event from Egypt with a local expert. Together, you’ll explore King Tut’s tomb, the Golden Mask, and treasures at the Cairo Museum. Cost: $10.
Indagare launched its Global Classroom to offer private classes for people seeking new experiences. The company offers a myriad of options, from cooking lessons to guided wine and mixology tastings to history tours.
Try: Wine Tasting with Schramsberg and Davies Vineyards. Virtually travel to Schramsberg, the second-oldest bonded winery in Napa Valley, and meet a second-generation vintner. He will talk you through a few bottlings and highlight the history of the vineyard, set in California’s North Coast. Cost: pricing upon request.
Listen to the most relaxing sounds in the world with Unify Cosmos, a new interactive soundboard featuring audio clips from faraway locales. Some psychologists assert that taking the time to stop and listen to the sounds of your surroundings can boost well-being, increase generosity, and enhance life satisfaction. So step away from the stresses of the pandemic and listen to natural, peaceful sounds from Bora Bora to Barbados.
Try: Motu Tane Island, Bora Bora. Drift away to Polynesia with the sounds of the sea. You’ll hear storm clouds roll in and the waves crashing down. The powerful hums of nature will take you far away. Cost: free.
Arigato Japan Food Tours
Arigato Japan Food Tours launched Online Experiences with local hosts and discovered that this is a great way to connect with future travelers. In fact, the company views these virtual tours as the newest way of travel planning and research—more than just a one-time experience. With each experience, you’ll make new friends in Japan and great local connections for future travel.
Try: Green Teatime in Shizuoka. Learn the magic of green tea, its important role in Japanese culture, and why Shizuoka is so famous for its green tea. You’ll also get all the tips to brew the perfect cup at home. Cost: $15.
Intrepid Urban Adventures
Intrepid’s new Urban Adventures online tours allows families who have been working and learning remotely to connect virtually with local tour guides and their families around the world through hands-on experiences that give a glimpse of local culture and traditions. The collection currently includes four experiences, with plans to expand to other experiences and destinations in the coming months.
Try: Online Krakow Experience: Traditional Pierogi Cooking Class. Learn to make authentic Polish pierogi from scratch. You’ll join a Krakow-based cook from your own kitchen to learn the tricks of the trade. Along the way, you’ll pick up some tidbits about Polish culture and language. Cost: from $29.
Google Arts & Culture
Partnering with over 2,000 museums and archives around the world, Google Arts & Culture is an online platform that allows viewers to experience some of the world’s art and artifacts. High-resolution imagery, augmented reality, and interactive experiences bring these cultural highlights to life online.
Try: 9 Amazing Street Art Murals in New York. Visit the locations of stunning works of art along the streets of New York City. After all, there is no shortage of great street artists in the Big Apple. You’ll be able to “walk” along the streets with the virtual reality features. Cost: free.
This marketplace of tours connects travels with local guides in 193 countries. Until international travel is safe again, ToursByLocals has 175 live virtual private tours to choose from. You’ll be able to chat with a local guide in real-time over the course of your cooking class, history lesson, or walking tour.
Try: Tokyo Cherry Blossoms Tour. Japan’s national flower, Sakura (cherry blossom) is a symbol of renewal and optimism. Much of Japanese culture has been influenced by these beautiful flowers. Join your Tokyo-based guide as you virtually roam under cherry blossom trees followed by a virtual picnic as she shares her experiences in Japanese culture and cuisine. Cost: $125.
Jane Austen’s House Museum
In some cases, individual tourism sites have transformed their usual tours into virtual reality. Jane Austen’s House Museum in the United Kingdom took matters into its own hands when the government ordered nonessential sites to shutter. Over many months, the site’s trustees discovered inventive ways to keep Jane Austen fans engaged with online events and a virtual tour of the famed writer’s home.
Try: 360-Degree Virtual Tour of the Jane Austen House. Launched last October, now anyone can explore Austen’s home without having to travel. The guided tours give avid fans an exciting resource to learn more about the life and times of Jane Austen. Cost: $7.
Fairbanks, Alaska, is among many cities around the world that have digitized some of its leading attractions—including, in Fairbanks’ case, dog sledding and the stunning Northern Lights. With Explore Fairbanks, these attractions are now available to explore as 360-degree “tours.”
Try: 360-Degree Dog Sled Ride. Available to view on YouTube, this digital dogsled ride can feel surprisingly life-like. Set it up to play on the biggest screen you have, and you’ll feel transported into a snow-covered forest. Cost: free.
The Other Art Fair Virtual Editions
The leading artist fair for discovering emerging artists has launched a new series of innovative virtual reality art fairs, The Other Art Fair Virtual Editions. These VR art fairs offer highly experiential programming for fair-goers, including the chance to explore artist booths, take part in a live video chat with artists for a one-on-one about the artist’s process and their work, and participate in live fair tours, workshops and lectures. Virtual Editions is making a worldwide tour in 2021, including dedicated VR art fairs in Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, and Toronto, and each fair will feature artists and VR programming unique to that city. With Virtual Editions, you can now attend local art fairs from around the world, be in-the-know about new emerging artists, and update that Zoom background with new artwork while supporting local talents.
Try: At The Other Art Fair LA (March 30 to April 4), you can explore a curated selection of over 115 independent and emerging local artists with thousands of pieces to suit every budget. Next up after that is The Other Art Fair Brooklyn (May 6 to 9). Cost: free.