Around the world from an armchair: virtual vacations gain currency in pandemic era

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Work from home, yes. Classes from home, that too. But travel from home?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a new normal as people, particularly in urban India, went about their jobs and academics from the confines of their homes. Now, as one month slips into another and the infection shows little sign of abating, the young, the not-so-young and the restless are touring the world from their armchairs, their living room couch or maybe their beds.

The new breed of travel potatoes’ are not just browsing the net but actually booking holidays through major travel operators. So, you can drive around Berlin, walk through the Sistine Chapel or go up the Eiffel Tower.

Virtually if not really is what Vritti Tandon decided to do when the long planned family trip to Europe didn’t happen because of the global pandemic.

“I booked for Florence and Paris. I got to see and know so much more about Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Statue of David, Uffizi Gallery and many others. The guides were well-informed, interactive and gave many fun facts along with tips for future travel, the Class 12 Delhi student told PTI.

It had been a long and difficult summer and the 17-year-old was despondently surfing through images of places she could have visited in a ‘normal’ 2020 when up popped a link for a travel company providing virtual tours.

Tandon knew it was her best bet as leisure travel doesn’t seem possible in the foreseeable future.

With 11,55,191 COVID-19 cases and 28,084 fatalities till Monday, India is behind only the US and Brazil in the global tally and has currently restricted international air travel to repatriation missions only.

So, from no option to suddenly spoilt for choices, Tandon sat in her pyjamas, set the AC to her preferred temperature and explored the two European cities last month from the comfort of her home.

I have to admit that before booking I was a bit iffy about whether this would be worth it. But after having visited Paris and Florence, I am now looking forward to Barcelona. I will strongly recommend this to everyone,” Tandon said.

With no holidays being planned in the near future, several companies have jumped on the virtual travel bandwagon.

MakeMyTrip offers a live virtual guided tour’ experience with local hosts and travel guides taking the tourist sightseeing in video platforms. Others, like Expedia, offer a part live and part recorded experience, including a licensed guide led webinar packed with photos, videos, polls and a fully interactive chat function. There is also a live Q&A at the end.

From driving around Berlin or Barcelona, admiring the stunning treasures of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel and the Uffizi Gallery to a fun-packed tour of Harry Potter Studio in London, there are many journeys on offer for armchair travellers.

Many international tours, with a duration of at least 60 minutes or more, cost less than Rs 1,300 per person on Expedia. International and domestic experiences on MakeMyTrip too are not pocket-heavy and start at Rs 799 and Rs 99 per person, respectively.

Domestic experiences offered by MMT, including a tour of the Taj Mahal and the Khajuraho Temples, are offered depending on availability.

TourHQ, Viator, ToursByLocals are some other platforms providing the facility of this new found form of travel.

According to Expedia’s 2019 annual “Vacation Deprivation Study”, which deep dived into the motivations and benefits of taking a holiday, “the positive impact on mental wellbeing experienced by taking a holiday, can be achieved without the physical act of travelling”.

“In fact, 92 per cent of Indians say taking regular holidays is important for their general health and wellbeing and that they find it de-stressing to tap into those vacation memories. This mindset and mood of positive effects is what Expedia has termed as being in a ‘Vacation State of Mind’.

“These virtual experiences will continue to be available on our website as even with the gradual lifting of lockdown, consumers are still not planning a holiday in the immediate future and thus these virtual experiences are helping fill the gap,” Manmeet Ahluwalia, Expedia India’s marketing head, told PTI.

After more than four months, travellers are itching to go back to experiencing travel, added a MakeMyTrip spokesperson.

“We launched our Live In-City experiences in early July. The response has been extremely encouraging. In the two weeks following the launch, we have received interests from 50k users for both, international and domestic travel and for culinary experiences that bring the taste of a destination home,” the spokesperson added.

Vandana Kinra, who has booked a virtual tour to Paris, is one of those eager to get back on the road’ and just relive her earlier holidays.

Every year we travel for a month or so. This year we had planned to go to the United Kingdom. But of course we had to eventually cancel it because of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown. That’s when I got to know about virtual tours and immediately signed up for a Paris one.

“I had visited Paris in the past, but I wanted to relive those travel memories or see Disneyland again. It was really good,” said the 44-year-old.

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourism could shrink by 60-80 per cent in 2020 due to the ongoing pandemic, resulting in the revenue loss of $910 billion to $1.2 trillion and placing millions of livelihoods at risk.

It’s not just sightseeing. Virtual trips are also helping people hone their skills.

Aspiring cooks, for instance, can learn the secrets of making pasta, perfect the original tiramisu from Italian chefs or transport themselves to the streets of Barcelona and learn the secret to dishing up delicious tapas.

There are other experiences in store.

Airbnb India recently announced the launch of “At Home With Airbnb”, online experiences that bring together India’s most popular celebrities, artists and influencers. It allows guests to visit the host’s personal spaces to learn their craft in small group.

The virtual experiences on offer include workout sessions with celebrity trainer Nam Wook, zero wastage cooking with Sandeep Sreedharan and learning the art of fashion illustrations from popular designers Shivan and Naresh.

“I attended two sessions. One of fashion illustrations by Shiven and Naresh and second of cocktail making by Pankaj Balachandran. Both were pretty good. Since you can’t go out, it is always better to hone your skills by virtual experiences like these for the time being,” said Riaan George, a lifestyle journalist and blogger based in Mumbai and Colombo.

That said, given a choice, George said he would always pick an in-person experience over online and doesn’t see “virtual travel and experiences” finding takers once things get back to normal.

Till then, either wait or watch – literally.