Mixed reality could transform the travel industry in unexpected ways. Here’s how.

It could help reduce overtourism, plus augment trip planning and education.
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· 6 min read

In five years, you could be sightseeing across Rome, learning about ancient ruins on a tour of the Colosseum...all from within the four familiar walls of your living room.

At least, that's what a crop of travel companies and mixed reality startups envision, with the help of augmented reality or virtual reality (AR/VR).

In 2021, about 59 million people in the US will use VR at least once per month, and 93 million will use AR, per eMarketer estimates—a 28% spike from 2019. Many of those mixed reality experiences have been related to spaces like gaming, fitness, and shopping, but the pandemic steered people toward uses they hadn’t considered before—and with borders closed and planes grounded, tourism was one of them.

Lithodomos, an Australian VR startup, specializes in recreating ancient sites for tourism and education—instead of “a handful of monuments that keep getting recycled….we want to open the world to the world,” Grace Olson-Davidson, a cultural client liason for the company, said.

In mid-March 2020, Google searches for “virtual travel” spiked 286%. And from March to June of last year, monthly searches for the term at least doubled year over year. In 2019, just 20% of travel brands planned to invest in AR or VR. But the pandemic wasn’t the only game changer—the rollout of 5G has made waves, too. As networks expand coverage, AR/VR adoption stands to benefit from higher speeds and higher quality streaming. In a 2020 survey about expected benefits of 5G, 44% of US adults cited streaming VR content, and 36% responded with AR experiences.

Here are four potential use cases for AR/VR in travel.

Sustainable travel

“Overtourism,” or an excess of visitors to popular sites or regions, was an Oxford English Dictionary word of the year in 2018—and the problem hasn’t subsided. As borders reopen and travel takes off again, chances are the world’s most popular sights will see an influx of tourists. VR and AR travel startups want to fix that.

Due to overtourism, the world’s most popular sights—including US national parks like Yellowstone and Acadia—have seen a major increase in foot traffic over the years, which doesn’t lend itself well to preservation. For example, Thailand’s Maya Bay, a world-famous beach destination, has been closed for three years after overtourism (think: 5,000 visitors per day) contributed to the decimation of coral reef coverage.

“Everyone’s on their phones, everyone’s geotagging, everyone’s trying to get that image,” Olson-Davidson said. “What if we gave it to them without them having to get all the way there? Or make it accessible to people who can't get all the way there?”

Although it’s unlikely someone with a must-see destination would replace an in-person experience with mixed reality, it could help those who feel they have to check a popular sightseeing destination off their list—for example, experiences that typically require a pricey ticket or time slot, long lines, and a very quick photo op, like Mona Lisa or Machu Picchu. A live, real time VR experience could help fight that fear of missing out, and help people stretch their travel budgets further, spending time and money on more organic experiences.

Educational opportunities

Flyover Zone, an Indiana-based VR startup, specializes in virtual tours of cultural heritage sites and monuments around the world, often in collaboration with researchers and archaeologists. Its current public tours include Baalbek in Lebanon, the Pantheon in Rome, and Hadrian’s Villa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tivoli, Italy.

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The VR tours are accessible in multiple languages on smartphones, tablets, Macs, PCs, and VR headsets, and the company is currently adding a “multiplayer” feature to its app, which allows for multiple users to experience the same VR tour in tandem. That’s part of what made it attractive to teachers.

Since Flyover Zone specializes in reconstructions of ruins, it has a series of scientifically accurate 3D representations of historical sites like the Colosseum and the Forum in Rome. It shows not only a site’s current state, but also how it likely looked thousands of years ago—including a “time warp” feature that allows a user to compare an individual spot’s appearance through time. The tech can be used to augment in-person travel, too, with an audio guide tailored to each point on a site’s map.

Lithodomos is betting on the education sector, too. Its portal is link-based rather than app-based, meaning users can access it on a range of devices via web browser. The company is already in talks with schools and home-school programs about its lesson plans.

Better travel planning

Luxury travel planners like UK-based Black Tomato believe that, while nothing can replace in-person travel, there are ways AR and VR can enhance the experience. Although the company hasn’t invested in AR or VR tech yet—“We’re probably another year or two off before we see that as a really indispensable part of the travel planning process,” Carolyn Addison, head of product, told us—the company projects the tech could be integral to some aspects of travel in the future.

Addison has had hoteliers bring VR goggles along to pitch their properties to Black Tomato, and currently, the company is working with hotel groups on “VR lite”-style filming, e.g., virtual tours of villas and 360-degree camera views of properties. Because travel can be so pricey, VR could help provide a “show don’t tell” approach to planning a trip—written reviews can only tell you so much.

“When we have someone who says, ‘I’m thinking about going to Sri Lanka; I’ve heard the beaches there are great,’ [it’d be great] to be able to have a travel expert talk to our clients and say, ‘Yes, the beaches are beautiful, but they’re beautiful in this way,” Addison said—for example, showing golden sand versus white sand, or giving someone an in-person look at a hotel room versus a suite.

Staying connected

Let’s say you’re headed to a world-renowned safari park: Instead of swiping through your camera roll to tell your friends and family about your trip afterward, maybe there’s a way they can experience it, too, via a 360-degree camera or VR headset. Some current “remote travel” experiences involve a live video chat with a guide who shows you around; instead, this would involve your loved ones experiencing an aspect of a trip alongside you. Think of VR as an evolved version of the vacation slideshow.

“They’re getting to watch what you see, talk to you about what you’re seeing, and you’re having a shared collective experience in that way, but only some of the group is actually there in person,” Addison said. “Obviously the agonizing thing [about] something like that is that VR is ultimately sort of a mirage—it’s so close you can almost touch it.”

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