Will interest in virtual travel last beyond the pandemic?

With about 90 percent of the world under a travel restriction, many would-be adventurers are turning to virtual reality (VR) to bring them to Machu Picchu or the Gal├ípagos Islands. The potential for this technology to ease tourism’s carbon footprint is clear, underscored by some of the unexpected ecological benefits the coronavirus lockdown has surfaced—including cleanerair and water. Now, “the impact of COVID-19 may allow [virtual reality] to shake off its image of being a gimmick,” says Ralph Hollister, a tourism analyst at Global Data and author of a report on the VR travel industry. Valeriy Kondruk, CEO of VR travel company Ascape, has seen app downloads grow 60 percent from December (traditionally the busiest month) and double since January. The company has fielded increasing interest from educators and those working in nursing homes, Kondruk says, even as the airlines and travel agencies thatusually license Ascape’s VR content have paused their accounts. For overcrowded destinations including Machu Picchu, virtual reality experiences could help divert some tourists, easing the burden on the location’s infrastructure. The videos focus on sounds and sights but can’t do much with smell, touch, or taste, and VR experiences tend to only be a few minutes long—hardly the equivalent of a two-week vacation in Spain. But while creating a full-body suit with enhanced sensory experiences might make a video of the Amazon or Antarctica more realistic, it still doesn’t fulfill the deeper needsthatcompel us to travel. He compares the future of virtual travel to a classic thought experiment: Imagine that you could hook yourself up to an “experience machine” and simply feel happy forever. A nearby replica allows tourists to see copies of the paintings in a way that presages the potential of virtual reality travel experiences. And Kondruk, the CEO of Ascape, says that the company has been working with Vietravel, a majorVietnamesetravel agency, on recreating areas of the country where the government has limited tourist travel. So far, advances have been incremental—and not at a scale that is likely to disrupt the travel industry or support a drop in travel-related carbon emissions after the pandemic has ended. But just as travel platforms, from print to social media, offer someof the discoveries of actual exploration, virtual reality might bring faraway places closer—and in so doing encourage travelers to embrace sustainable practices wherever they choose togo(or not go) in the future.Angela Chen is a journalist and the author of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, forthcoming September 2020.