VR Technology Gives New Meaning to ‘Vacationing at Home.’ But Is It Really a Substitute for Travel?

Participants in a virtual reality travel experience reported a sense of relaxation, similar to that gained from travel in real life.
Participants in a virtual reality travel experience reported a sense of relaxation, similar to that gained from travel in real life.
By The Conversation

Tourism is often about seeking deeper emotional and personal connections with the world around us. It’s a quintessential part of the “experience economy,” creating memories that can be recalled, re-lived and re-shared for a lifetime.

But not all travel experiences take place in the real world. With the evolution of virtual reality (VR) technology, tourism is increasingly a mash-up of physical and virtual worlds. VR can even remove the need to travel entirely.

Excessive tourism, or over-tourism, in popular destinations, can degrade heritage sites, the quality of life of host communities, and the experience of visitors. Virtual reality not only offers alternative forms of access to threatened locations, it also recreates historical experiences and provides virtual access to remote locations you might not be able to visit otherwise.

Evoking a Sense of ‘Being There’

Our brains seem to have an inbuilt VR-like mechanism that enables us to live imagined experiences. Much of our waking life is spent thinking about either the past (retrospection) or the future (prospection). This is known as mind wandering.

During these events, we’re not paying attention to the current world around us. Instead, we’re recalling memories or creating and processing imagined futures.

When we’re engaged in mind wandering, our brains process and appraise mental images via the same neural pathways they use to receive stimuli from the real world. So, the imagined past or future can evoke emotions and feelings similar to how we react to everyday life.

VR can elicit these same feelings. Virtual worlds use sensory stimulation and vivid imagery to generate authentic experiences. Immersion in these environments can lead to a deeper understanding of a place or event than simply reading about it or looking at pictures.

There is evidence virtual reality can create absorption, or a state of attention, leading to a sense of “presence” or “being there.” After a VR tourism experience of the Great Barrier Reef, for example, participants reported experiencing a sense of relaxation, similar to that gained from travel in real life.

What VR Tourism Looks Like

Choosing a Destination

Immersive videos of Australian holiday destinations created by Tourism Australia have been viewed more than 10.5 million times over the past two years. Research conducted by Tourism Australia shows that almost 20 percent of consumers have used VR to choose a holiday destination, while about 25 percent plan to use VR to choose a future destination. There is evidence VR can sometimes surpass reality, potentially leading the participant to choose an alternate destination.

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