Virtual travel experiences: opportunities for travelers and tourism enterprises

I have devoted much of the past 15 years to creating travel experiences, predominantly in Costa Rica and neighboring countries, anchored by meaningful human encounters that positively impact local hosts and communities, visitors, and the environment. In the months and years following the COVID-19 pandemic, travel focused on human encounters will be one key to fortifying tourism-influenced economies worldwide. Virtual experiences are emerging as one tool to help power this type of travel forward.

The lightning rod

Overnight, the pandemic brought the tourism industry to a standstill. Shock, despair, anger and depression are but a few of the words that became part of the lexicon. My heart ached for so many professional colleagues and friends – especially local guides and small business owners and employees- some confronted by loss of a loved one and for all, an immediate loss of work and in-person connections so vital for their livelihoods and overall well-being.

In the spring of 2020, renowned Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy wrote the following: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Roy was right. In the midst of so much loss, words such as fight, tenacity, determination and reinvention also became part of the 2020 lexicon. Myriad actions followed. The pandemic became a lightning rod for innovative technology change across every industry, including travel.

A number of exciting online initiatives enabling meaningful human connections between hosts, host communities, and visitors continue to emerge. It is possible now to visit families, communities and support local businesses far or near from the comfort of one’s own living room.

A few examples

Screenshot from Local Purse. El Colectivo 506

In my ongoing quest to learn about the virtual travel arena, I’ve recently sampled offerings of the following businesses:

Local Purse. I first fell in love with Local Purse when I heard co-founder, Lola Akinmade Åkerström, share her vision during a travel webinar last October. Local Purse is a cultural and live shopping travel experience. Facilitated by local guides, participants visit markets, farms and local enterprises to hear directly from artisans about the rich culture, traditions and evolution of their products. See an item you’d like to buy? The Local Purse technology enables you to make your purchase and also tip your guide right then and there.

Most recently, I participated in the “Costa Rican Artisan Coffee Experience” which Local Purse ran in partnership with Costa Rican companies,Local KeepsandViajes Wikol. We began by meeting on a farm in San Marcos de Tarrazu to learn about coffee production and culture and concluded learning about creative uses of coffee in artisan made products offered for sale during the tour. The purchasing process was quick and easy.

Mejdi Tours. In the absence of its in-person tours, Mejdi offers currently 360-degree Virtual Interactive Tours as well as Virtual Experiences, including cultural culinary adventures. Each small cooking class (10 people maximum) includes a box of local ingredients and a traditional recipe shipped in advance. Middle Eastern, Asian or Latin American chefs/hosts guide your meal preparation while conversing with participants about the cultural significance and personal stories associated with each dish.

Screenshot from Medji Tours. El Colectivo 506

In the past few months, I’ve joined a 360 Virtual Interactive Dual Narrative Tour of Jerusalem and have stretched my cooking comfort zone in learning to prepare and serve Vietnamese and Palestinian specialties that have personal meaning for the host chefs and their families.

Chicago Detours. In the early months of the pandemic, founder Amanda Scotese pivoted her company’s unique in-person and cultural tours to meet the growing demand for creative participatory virtual experiences. Full of engaging visuals, often lesser-known details of Chicago’s history, and plenty of fun interaction, these events are great for learning more about a community, organizational team building or hosting a party. Now Chicago Detours engages clients from all over the world.

Screenshot from Chicago Detours. El Colectivo 506

What lies ahead?

If one had asked my personal feelings six to nine months ago about the future of virtual travel experiences, I would have said that I hoped for a finite lifespan because nothing is better than in-person human encounters. I continue to believe deeply in the power and benefits of in-person human encounters, yet in my quest to learn and engage more in virtual travel experiences, I now advocate for a future in which they play an important role in offering unique opportunities and lasting value as well.

Virtual travel experiences open a door to meeting people where they are—whether that be in a city center or a small rural community often challenging for visitors to reach. They offer price points to many unable to afford vacation-related costs of airplane travel and accommodations and access for those unable to travel or travel any longer due to physical limitations.

COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerability of many individuals and businesses that had been totally dependent on tourism as their sole source of revenue. Selling virtual travel experiences offers a degree of income resilience to lessen the negative impacts of future pandemics or natural disasters that could curtail in-person travel again.

A diversity of income streams may be particularly helpful to local guides whose livelihoods have been tied historically to the “peaks and valleys” of seasonal visitor flow. In addition to income, virtual tours can offer the guides brief welcome respites in between the 24/7 demands of managing small travel groups.

Screenshot from I Like Local. El Colectivo 506

More people than ever before are aware of our global climate emergency and asking themselves how they can step up and take action. Some are beginning to forego the long flights associated with international travel, opting for trips closer to home. Virtual experiences are one way that long-time travelers can still connect meaningfully with local people, local cultures, and local communities almost anywhere in the world.

Virtual travel experiences are a powerful tool for marketing small group trips. Imagine an opportunity to meet the guide, hear their personal story, and have this local expert address one’s questions or concerns? How about a 30-minute demonstration and conversation with a Costa Rican “Mama Tica” about how she prepares gallo pinto in her own very special way? Or, how about MEJDI’s virtual dual narrative tour of the Old City of Jerusalem with both Palestinian and Israeli tour guides drawing you in through sharing their different perspectives?

Experiences such as these can also be invaluable as part of a group’s pre-departure preparation. Envision a brief online meeting with one’s host family. It has the potential to be a perfect kind of ice breaker—reducing anxiety, building excitement for meeting in person, and even stimulating thoughts about an appropriate homestay gift for the family.

Once in-person travel returns, organized virtual experiences also offer benefits. Envision one’s guide facilitating a reunion of the group of visitors with their local hosts to share reflections and also bring one another up to speed on community happenings, accomplishments and contemporary challenges. Deepening connections can also help build or strengthen, as appropriate, a culture of traveler philanthropy.

Screenshot from Ten Local. El Colectivo 506

Recommendations for action

The world of virtual travel experiences continues to grow. If you’re a traveler, I suggest dipping your toe in and testing the water. In addition to the examples above, check out the virtual offerings that have piqued your curiosity or from the companies below. Give one or more a try. Take time afterwards to provide feedback and/or a review, and if it’s appropriate, tip your guide. All will be appreciated!

If you’re a guide or owner of a rural tourism enterprise, these examples—Intrepid Urban Adventures from Home, tenLocals, and I like local—may spark your own thinking or inspire you to reach out to an existing platform to lobby for your virtual experiences to be added to the current mix of offerings.

Virtual travel experiences are new to most of the tourism industry. Each enterprise must decide if this new avenue is a prospective fit for its future. Online research is important. So, too, is conversation with fellow entrepreneurs and colleagues. Consider using this article as a discussion starting point.

The field is ripe for brainstorming, learning and sharing with each other, and experimentation. It’s critical to explore thoroughly the technology elements, including equipment costs and necessary expertise or technical assistance. Equally important, learn how and who can best communicate stories, the good and the troubling, that will engage travelers and inspire them to think more deeply about the impacts of their travel choices on communities, the planet and themselves.

Inspired by 15 years of leading small group experiential adventures in Costa Rica and neighboring countries, Ann Becker launched Travel with Ann Experiential in 2020 to forge strategic connections and share her expertise with travel leaders and others passionate about creating authentic tourism experiences with a beneficial impact on hosts and their communities; visitors; and our planet.

Our April edition, “The Trailblazers,” focuses on rural community tourism. Check out the full edition here.

Screenshot from Urban Adventures. El Colectivo 506