towards a generalization of virtual travel?

The metaverse is occupying an increasingly important place in the media landscape. While some position themselves cautiously or stubbornly, others see this technological development as an opportunity to develop new offers. Tourism is a sector that develops largely according to information and communication technologies, so it is very relevant to question the way it could integrate this virtual universe. And since Mark Zuckerberg announced the formation of the Meta Group, the term has spread massively around the world. The metaverse can be defined as a set of virtual spaces that are persistent, shared, indexed in the real world, and accessible via 3D interaction.

So how could the metaverse adopt tourism, a practice that requires physical travel?

Do tourism and technology go hand in hand?

There is a clear connection between the development of tourism and the development of technologies, which always go hand in hand. From computerized reservation centers in the 1970s to the domestication of the Internet in the late 1990s, technology has always been introduced into tourism to create new practices. The metaverse is part of this evolution of the Internet, which increasingly uses immersive technologies to offer phygital experiences, i.e. where the boundaries between the real and the virtual become increasingly porous.

Whether in museums, national parks or heritage sites, the health crisis has also allowed many actors to increase and sustain the use of technological tools to offer virtual reality tours. The “Fly Over Zone” application not only offers the possibility to explore cultural world heritage sites, but also enables the digital restoration of damaged sites. Web giant Amazon created “Amazon Explore” to literally “travel around the world virtually”. This commercial component is an interactive live streaming service that claims to allow you to discover new places from your computer. If this offer is still in its infancy with a beta version, it is certain that this virtual tour service will evolve to offer even more immersive formats.

In terms of tourism, Asia is at the forefront with proposals already very advanced, such as the “Seoul Metaverse” project, which aims to be the first major city in the world to enter the Metaverse, with a tourist route that will reproduce the main attractions of city tour. But in France we find with MoyaLand one of the most successful projects: a tourist virtual universe built like a virtual and immersive artistic reproduction that has a tourist office, museums, an airport, a historic center where residents and tourists can live develop virtually through their avatars.

Other tourism players could follow suit, because according to the American company Gartner, by 2026 25% of people will spend at least one hour a day in the Metaverse. How will these people experience tourism in this virtual environment?

The Metaverse to encourage travel

There are two main tendencies to define the tourist experience: the first relates to the order of the process with a transformation of the world into knowledge, the second relates to the lived moment in which hedonism and the sense of achievement are central. If tourism by definition requires physical activity, there is in fact a contradiction in the tourist experiences that the metaverse offers, which it can nonetheless replace, but above all arouses the desire to travel.

Remember that virtual reality is an immersive environment created with a technological device that offers the user digitally generated sensations of sight, hearing, touch and even smell. Therefore, in order to awaken their senses in the virtual tourist areas of the metaverse, users must be equipped with visual, acoustic, haptic, tactile and olfactory devices. Aside from the acquisition costs, the use of these new devices challenges the perception of the senses that humans have with their environment.

By reproducing a tourist decor, the Metaverse forms a unity between the device, the user, who puts himself in the shoes of a tourist, and the other viewers. Although the experience is virtual, the senses are put to good use by stimulating certain situations that are desired but not currently accessible. The virtual reality helmet or haptic sensors would make it possible to experience previously intangible things and reconnect with sensuality, enabling an immersive practice. Through his avatar, the user of the metaverse can embody a tourist, virtually constructing a visit route, interacting with other avatars and therefore imagining what they are feeling by stimulating what Giacomo Rizzolatti calls mirror neurons.

Social and ecological constraints

The only thing left to be imitated, reproduced or simulated is that travel and vacations represent tourist practices that represent a break from everyday life. For some, these moments are also an opportunity to find loved ones or to pursue activities that are difficult to carry out in the normal course of life. Observing animals during a safari, discovering archaeological sites or practicing a foreign language are activities that evoke unique physical and mental sensations that are essential and different from those generated virtually by the devices of the metaverse.

Read more: Parallel Universes and Virtual Worlds: The Metaverse War Has Begun

Also, the Metaverse, which is itself a technological advancement of the Internet, is not yet complete. It requires financial investment and building a regulatory framework to regulate user behavior. Because if Mark Zuckerberg wants to create a virtual and alternative world in which users can also travel, we must not lose sight of the fact that user data is also used. And if some see the metaverse as a way to avoid flying and gravitate toward sustainable tourism, the digital pollution it creates could well go in the opposite direction of virtuous tourism.

While tourism in the metaverse cannot replace a tourism experience away from home, certain tourism professionals could benefit from it to publicize places that are not easily accessible or are ignored by tourists who will discover them virtually.

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