The pandemic made traveling very difficult these days, if not impossible. But there might be an alternative travel experience that can help.
Airbnb, Tripadvisor and many other platforms are offering virtual tours that we can enjoy from our own homes. These are online experiences led by very talented hosts who know the destinations intimately, like their own backyard.
Sometimes, it actually is their backyard.
Although it's not the same as actually going to places, you might be surprised with what you discover.
I've always wanted to go to India, to visit the lively streets and to hike the highlands.
But because of all the planning, time and costs involved, I just haven't had the chance yet. So when I saw a virtual tour set in New Delhi, I signed-up right away without reading much about the details.
And that was the first remarkable point. I was very comfortable to sign-up with little to no details.
Because it costs much less in time and money, the decision becomes very simple. Do I feel like doing it this afternoon? Or tomorrow?
The risks are so low that it might actually be better not to plan anything and allow yourself to be surprised. Such carefree abandon wouldn't be as easy to pull-off if you have to book flights, reserve accommodations and arrange for transit.
So what happens is you go ahead and actually do it, instead of just planning forever. It's a good hedge against travel procrastination.
Perhaps at the end of my days, I would like to be able to say:
Better a virtual tour that was taken than an actual tour that could have been.
Traditional Indian music greeted us as colorful photos of elephants and spice merchants flashed thru the screen.
Our host, a friendly young man named Keshav, spoke shortly: "Welcome to India!"
This tour will take us to a street-art district in New Delhi painted by artists from all over the world. I'm not much of a street art person. But I sought to learn more about India, regardless.
Keshav was brilliant. He made everybody feel comfortable right away. He asked us to find a piece of artwork to share. I found a painting of an eagle sitting in a corner.
We used the paintings as an ice-breaker of sorts. Some showed reminders of their travels, one guy was wearing a timely "I Love India" shirt. It was fun.
Soon afterwards, our group set out for the district.
How would you travel if you have teleportation?
First, if teleportation does arrive, I hope it rolls out rather gradually. Or I worry about our accommodation business model 🙂 But I digress...
Online tours have the ability to transport us anywhere instantly. If you get motion-sickness easily, this means you don't have to endure the 3-hour bumpy bus ride, or the 60-minute speedboat nausea.
The host can weave a trail of destinations, not compelled by proximity but inspired by the narrative experience she has crafted for us. She can even bring us back in time.
It also means no waiting in line. Select the tour and time of your choice, and come back at the designated time. Like a "virtual fastpass".
Group tours also benefit a lot from online tours. Have you ever tried to arrange travel for a group of people?
It's not the easiest thing to do. Like a venn diagram of time constraints, budget preferences, transportation choices, selfie agenda, and some occasional drama. It takes a genius to find where the intersection is. (Hats off to travel agents!)
Online tours are self-managing. Just agree on the tour and the time, and everybody can just sign-in at the right time.
And similar to the first point, the difficulty of arranging group tours leads to less of those happening. This is a pity, as we build strong bonds with people we travel with.
So I would think the same thing:
Best if we can do actual group tours, but until that happens, virtual ones are okay too.
Keshav guided us thru the various street paintings and the artists who drew them. Often the artwork was striking, and it was not difficult to see a message — either from the artist or from my own amateurish amalgamation.
Keshav talked about the city's norms and customs. What is considered funny and what is sacred. He talked about how people like to do commerce. Cost of living, wages, etc. He carefully and politely treaded questions bordering on politics and religion.
He also did not sugar-coat some issues. Graffiti was present, yet not unique to the place. If anything, it only added to the reality of the experience.
Most of all, he talked about how to have a good time visiting the place — Thru his own experiences.
I didn't think it was possible to be so immersed in a tour thru a screen. But the host's thoughtfulness and the group's energy created a very worthwhile and unique experience. 90 minutes felt like 30.
In that tour, we got a glimpse of life from a local. (We would later be invited to his wedding... Sort of...)
The online nature made the experience less formal and more conversational.
And I felt this led to a less "manicured" view of the place. Even though the photos and video were curated. (Does that make sense?)
I will have to verify this assumption once I eventually make that trip.
Aside from the knowledge gained, there is also the invitation to learn more. If the trip resonates with you, you might find yourself wanting to learn more. Not necessarily about the tour itself, but about the culture that supports it.
I also took other online tours where I was happy but didn't really feel inspired to dig deeper. And that is the beauty of this. You can "try before you fly".
Get a sense of how much are you really interested to visit a place, before you spend all that time, money and effort.
Granted, your impression might be completely different if you saw the place in person. So focus on your internal motivations, which is more deeply rooted, and therefore more consistent.
How interested are you, not how interesting that place is supposed to be.
After the trip, I signed up for a few Silambam classes (stick martial arts from India) and figured out where we can order Naan bread for delivery. I did want to learn more.
But the most meaningful part of the tour was what happened afterwards.
Continued in Part II.