While there are several examples of why people might choose to travel in the metaverse versus in real life – for those with mobility challenges or financial limitations or during a global pandemic, for example – most virtual reality and tourism professionals agree that it’s not going to replace traditional travel anytime soon.
“The feel and excitement of real travel can’t be reproduced with current or near-future technologies,” says Jedrzej Jonasz, who works at LNG Studios, an agency that specializes in virtual reality, and has offices in Vancouver, Toronto and San Francisco. “But we can reproduce many of the sights and sounds of a travel experience and even some of the social aspects.”
Hence, travel brands and tourism boards are flocking to the metaverse. In mid-March, Travelzoo announced a new metaverse division, a paid subscription-based service that provides its members with access to virtual travel experiences. And in April, Emirates, the largest airline in the United Arab Emirates, announced plans to launch experiences as well as non-fungible tokens (a digital asset that can be sold or traded) in the metaverse for both its employees and customers.
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This past December, hotel reward program Marriott Bonvoy teamed up with three digital artists to create travel-inspired NFTs that debuted at Art Basel Miami Beach. Qatar Airways recently unveiled QVerse, which allows passengers to tour the premium check-in area at Hamad International Airport and interior of the aircraft, as well as interact with a virtual cabin crew. And the Singapore Tourism Board’s Tourism Technology Transformation Cube offers support to businesses for augmented, virtual and mixed reality projects.
Why the excitement then if it’s not going to replace physical travel? Many virtual reality and travel professionals believe that the metaverse will not only function as a new source of revenue for travel brands and tourism boards, but it’ll also be an important marketing tool that will help travel companies reach a different segment of consumers and hopefully inspire taking a trip in real life.
It will also improve the travel experience, starting with improving planning. “The metaverse will help people choose their destinations by getting a feel for the location before they book,” says Gavin Miller, executive vice-president of Travel Edge, North America’s largest luxury travel agency. “There is nothing worse than having an idea of what you want in your mind, only to find out that you were wrong about a place.”
Second, it has the opportunity to enhance travel while on the ground. “It can allow for travel experiences that are not possible in real life,” Jonasz says. “Such as animations that can show the past come to life around you, viewing places at different physical scales or interacting with delicate artifacts.”
Disney, for example, secured a patent in December, 2021 for technology that will project personalized 3-D images and visual effects onto physical spaces. One family might see Star Wars characters greeting them at a restaurant, where someone else might see Mickey Mouse.
The metaverse can make physical travel more accessible for some folks, too. For people who have phobias and anxiety around flying, large crowds, being in new places or social situations, virtual reality provides a controlled, safe environment for exposure therapy. Several clinics across Canada offer virtual reality therapy already, including the Brain Wellness Centre in Calgary, the Ottawa Institute of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and In Virtuo in Gatineau.
As virtual reality and the metaverse become more mainstream, there will be an increased demand for this type of therapy, says Dr. Stéphane Bouchard, a professor at the Université du Québec en Outaouais and Canada research chair in clinical cyberpsychology, who has been doing research on the use of virtual reality for anxiety disorders since 1999.
It also has the potential to help with navigation – superimposing digital directions, translating street signs – says Kelowna-based Parisa Rose, a VR advocate and teacher. And while some might be hesitant to embrace the technology – in travel and in life – Rose says it’s not going anywhere. “People and businesses are still figuring out how to use it and how it can fit into our daily existence, but just like other big leaps in technology – home computers, internet, smartphones – I think it will become a part of all our lives.”
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