Travel has always been so much more than the destination you’re at, and about the experience you have. When virtual travel started trending on the Internet due to the lockdown, it generated an obvious curiosity. When you are in the mood to reminisce and search for your favourite beach on Google search, while getting that 360-degree 3D tour, you remember what it felt like to actually pick up the corals from the pristine white sands that the frothy waves crashed on. You could be on your couch at home, but it almost feels like you’ve been transported back. Almost. However, for starters, you can’t actually feel the wind on your skin, or the sand under your feet. But the worst part? How will you take that holiday selfie for Instagram?

“A travel consumer has five phases in general: dreaming, planning, booking, experiencing, remembering, or sharing. Virtual Travel essentially skips the last three and also the most important phases, of booking and experiencing. You miss out on the feeling of going through immigration, boarding the plane, the anticipation of visiting a new country, also the real-time experience of physically being there. Thus, your experience is incomplete,” says Biswajeet Karmakar, one of the founders of Guiddoo, an app that guides travellers through monuments and landmarks aided by audio and video. For Pranshul Chandok, CTO of Grey Kernel, India’s leading virtual reality and advance visualisation company, the point of VR is that it “gives you a sense of the presence of the actual destination, helping customers make a decision about locations they would like to experience in person”. For him, virtual travel only aids the real deal, it won’t be a substitute for it.

“Virtual Reality provides ease of visiting multiple locations in less amount of time, and at your own convenience, while helping you make a decision about destinations you would like to visit. The next generation of products would allow multiple people to experience these locations in real-time (virtual earth replica), and interact with each other, or get to know about places from important virtual people that helped build those locations. The potential of virtual travel is also not restricted to real locations. You can visit your favourite LOTR movie set. People are already building cool stuff like Silicon Valley VR, Westworld VR, and Rick and Morty VR, which allows you to experience actual series/sets,” he adds.

In that sense, virtual travel becomes a useful tool for travel advisors, and meeting and incentive planners. For instance, if you had a VR experience of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, you would have saved yourself a whole day during the actual vacation when you were probably made to trek up a hill to see caves and mangroves. Not only was it just not your scene, it just didn’t work for Instagram. To add to that, VR travel can also give you an idea of how strenuous a certain tour, trek, or day trip will be, to help you plan better for older companions. “You will never miss out on anything if you are travelling virtually. For instance, we have a virtual tour of St. Mark’s Square in Venice on our platform. A consumer can see how the point of interest looks like during the day, and during the night. Based on their preference, when they actually travel, they know now at which hour of the day they can visit,” says Purav Shah, CEO of QuaQuam, a digital experience platform that integrates 360-degree virtual reality content for the global travel and tourism industry.

According to Shah, the only cons are not being able to touch your favourite monument, or feel the cold water off the feet on the beach. But for Karmakar, those are the most important things, and the reason why he believes virtual travel will not replace the real deal, as of now. “Though Virtual Travel gives you part experience of a destination, it still cannot replace the experience what you have when you are at the destination yourself. It does not make you experience the culture, the people, the language or the food,” he says. Travel World VR is an app featuring 360-degree VR videos of major destinations, cruise lines, hotels, resorts and tour operators. The app allows viewing on smartphones alone, or with simple VR headsets for the ultimate immersive experience. “The Travel World VR app is already the leading distribution platform for VR travel videos,” says president of the app, John C. Graham. “We foresee VR videos becoming the ultimate tool for travel advisors and meeting and incentive planners. This is about creating a new kind of sizzle that will dramatically increase sales.”

Mark Twain once said: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. For Twain, VR Travel to Varanasi would amount to sacrilege. No matter how immersive the VR experience, a dip in the Ganga is more than just a bullet point in your travel journal. Off the record, industry experts state that unless VR Travel can replicate the feeling of being present at a destination of your choice, it will not be a credible substitute, even if the global lockdowns continue.