Flights canceled, famous attractions closed to the public, once crowded streets now vacant— emptied of tourists snapping photos. In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional tourism has ground to a screeching halt in most places. Tourism has had to evolve to match the unprecedented and prolonged global travel restrictions, a situation that has made a profound impact on nations and industries around the globe. It has been indicated that the global tourism sector should expect to suffer a drop of about US$8.1 trillion in revenue due to the pandemic and will likely not recover until 2024. With many of their most popular landmarks, cities, and heritage sites closing or implementing restrictions, countries have had to radically rethink their tourism industries and cultural institutions have had to adapt to a time of reduced visitors and in-person engagement. The intersection of innovation with the need to digitize experiences and content in order to reduce human interaction have converged uniquely in 2020, marking a critical moment in the rise of virtual reality tourism and the digitization of culture.
Virtual reality tourism technologies have been evolving for the past few years, used primarily as an educational tool, allowing users to engage with the history, geography, and cultural aspects of location and serving as a substitute for physical visitation. It incorporates cutting edge technologies, such as high resolution 360- degree imaging and simulated movement capabilities to enable users to view, tour, and engage with landmarks and tourist destinations without leaving their homes. Museums, cultural sites, and locations of worldwide-renown can be explored on personal computers and tablets. One such site, the Seokguram Grotto hermitage and monastery complex in South Korea, utilized VR technology to construct a 3D stereopsis of the site and provide a digitized experience for visitors. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an additional opportunity for virtual tourism to provide travel-related content accessible around the world and explore the additional benefits of VR technology.
Many governments have been crafting virtual tours in hopes of attracting viewers who wish to visit cities around the world without the current risks of travel: exposure to the virus, or the logistical complications of widespread, pandemic-related bans and restrictions. Cities such as Paris, which attracted 38 million tourists in 2019 alone, have adopted virtual technology to continue to showcase iconic landmarks, by using the interactive features of Google Arts and Culture: users can select sites of interest and navigate the landscapes by clicking their way from one vantage point to another. The Paris Tourist Board website, for example, also allows users to view landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Palais Garnier. Because of the 2020 Olympics’ postponement, the Japan National Tourism Organization created a 360-degree virtual tour that can be viewed via smartphone or with VR goggles, Japan: Where Tradition Meets the Future, which virtually transports users to well-known landmarks including the Tokyo Tower and the Sagano Bamboo Forest, blending culture and technology in an innovative and engaging way. Smaller towns that are less tourist-dependent are also hoping to retain exposure and relevance by creating virtual representations of their architecture. This way people can continue to experience the landscapes and perhaps become inspired to travel to the destination post-pandemic. Germany’s Herrenberg is one such town; they created a “virtual twin” utilizing computerized technologies usually used for high-level aerospace tasks to replicate the town’s architecture on a digital platform, enabling visitors to immerse themselves in the sites of the town center via VR glasses.
Digitization of Culture
Outdoor landmarks and city streets are not the only places that can now be enjoyed virtually as people hunker down in their homes. Cultural institutions, particularly museums, which face a severe reduction in the number of visitors strolling through galleries and perusing collections due to pandemic-related restrictions, have also started to adapt and modernize to continue to attract attention and virtual visitors. An empirical study of 100 of the largest state museums in Italy revealed that, throughout the most restrictive period of national lockdown, there was a sharp increase in online cultural initiatives conducted by museums via social media in order to continue stimulating viewer engagement through digital material. In this way, social media platforms—such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter—have been an invaluable tool in promoting cultural engagement during the COVID-19 crisis.
Besides simply engaging people in museum content, social media and digital platforms have also connected people during this time of limited social interaction. The Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, for example, organized unique, virtual community events including the ArtYouReady virtual flash mob, an initiative that encouraged online users to post pictures of their favorite Italian cultural sites. Such virtual opportunities and initiatives have continued throughout the pandemic, likely remaining a staple for cultural organizations’ public engagement strategies.
The evolution of digital engagement at museums in Europe was highlighted in a post written by Chiarra Zuanni, assistant professor in digital humanities at the Centre for Information Modelling at the University of Graz, for Europeana, a European organization that works to support and empower the digitization of cultural heritage. Zuanni compiled a map to visually depict the evolving digital activities of museums throughout Europe. The map identified various categories of digital offerings, such as contemporary collecting projects, social media initiatives (local hashtags, targeted projects, etc.), streaming content, virtual tours, online exhibitions, games, and educational content. The map enables users to select locations or activities of interest and access direct links to the respective museum’s interactive sites. The map shows a widespread rise in online activity from museums across the continent, providing a look into just a small fraction of museums that are adopting modernized and digitized tactics to maintain and foster relationships with a global audience in a time when in-person interactions and the usual flow of tourists have been severely curbed.
COVID-19 has caused museums’, galleries’, and historic residences’ usage of digital technology to transition from being a mere supplementary tool used to offer additional and secondary services and content to being the primary source of continued engagement with the arts. The pandemic has created the unique opportunity for museums to radically redefine their marketing and content strategies, forcing traditionally archaic institutions to adapt to the modern world at a rapid speed.
New Opportunities to Explore
Is this the future? Are the days strolling through cobblestone streets, snapping photos at iconic landmarks and wandering through bustling art galleries simply experiences of the past? Not necessarily. When the pandemic subsides and the world reawakens from lockdowns, restrictions, and travel bans, travel will likely resume. While it may take years for the industry to fully recover, tourism will eventually reemerge as a prominent economic sector. Cultural institutions will reopen, welcoming visitors from around the world to engage with history and art once more.
Yet, although the COVID-19 pandemic devastated numerous economic sectors and rendered several aspects of daily life and travel unrecognizable, it has also unlocked the enhanced opportunity for countries and organizations to harness the full potential of virtual reality tourism. Museum attendance across several countries, particularly attendance at art museums, has been in decline in recent years. Virtual offerings however, seem to be driving significant user interest due to the increase in virtual engagement with cultural and artistic content on cultural websites. The increased adoption of technology could help prevent museums from buckling under the weight of low visitor rates if they can identify ways to accrue revenue through digital means.
In the same vein, the COVID-19 epidemic and subsequent lockdown have prompted countries to rethink their tourism strategies, opening the door for an already burgeoning virtual tourism industry to take root. Easily accessible for users around the world, providing access to landmarks and locations that are currently restricted, and free or low in cost for users, virtual tours allow for global experiences to be enjoyed by large, international audiences. While not a replacement for the thrill of physical travel, the virtual tourism sector offers intriguing opportunities for accessible global experiences.
The intersection of modern, cutting-edge innovation with a global pandemic has created a pivotal moment in how we access, view, and support tourism and cultural markets, both of which are critical to developing and sustaining national economies. The use of digital technologies in light of the COVID-19 epidemic highlights the benefits of rising technological innovations, offering viable and fascinating avenues for nations to adapt to a largely unprecedented world in the years ahead.