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Virtual tours of China giving a ‘try before you buy’ taste of the country could be what tourism industry needs

HONG KONG — Mr Cao Wenfei, a freelance tour guide, has spent the past four years leading tour groups, both foreign and domestic, around Shanghai and the surrounding region. In May, with international travel shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic, he did what many tour operators around the world had started doing after finding themselves suddenly idle: he began hosting virtual visits.

People walk in the tourist area surrounding Houhai Lake in Beijing, China.

People walk in the tourist area surrounding Houhai Lake in Beijing, China.

HONG KONG — Mr Cao Wenfei, a freelance tour guide, has spent the past four years leading tour groups, both foreign and domestic, around Shanghai and the surrounding region. In May, with international travel shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic, he did what many tour operators around the world had started doing after finding themselves suddenly idle: he began hosting virtual visits.

He now leads travellers interested in old Shanghai, for example, through the Yuyuan Garden, the Shanghai Confucian Temple and centuries-old neighbourhoods with his iPhone or GoPro.

"I try my best to give them a tour that's as engaging as an in-person one," Mr Cao says. "But the experience is completely different. The guests don't ask as many questions. They're not as wowed by an attraction.".

Mr Cao's physical tours used to last for at least half a day but his virtual ones are only a couple of hours long, because it's harder to hold people's interest and some attractions remain closed, he says.

"Bookings are down 70 to 75 per cent for the virtual tours, in comparison to in-person tours before the pandemic," he says, adding that he also has to charge each visitor less. "I don't know if I can realistically keep making a living this way forever. It's an alternative source of income for now. Without it I'd be unemployed."

Mr Cao is not the only one in China looking to the virtual world for survival, but not everyone can adapt so readily. Mr Cao says he already had some basic knowledge of shooting video, but many of those involved in tourism, such as in rural villages, do not have the equipment or know-how necessary to create content that is engaging enough to entice online tourists.

Even if they could, the limitations of virtual reality (VR) are quickly becoming apparent.

"[VR] can never replace the feeling of arriving in a foreign country in person and feeling the local customs," says Mr Jin Jianhong, a former travel guide who has led Chinese tour groups at home and abroad. "Virtual reality has extremely high technical requirements, and it is impossible to achieve the same effect … based on the current level of technological development."

An exception, Mr Jin says, may be static attractions. The Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMOA), for example, currently closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, is among many museums and galleries that have begun offering art lovers the chance to learn more about their collections from home. Virtually@HKMOA is a curated resource of multimedia programmes and pamphlets that share insight into the museum's most notable collections.

Museum director Dr Maria Mok Kar-wing says the goal is to immerse would-be visitors in art-focused stories and experiences.

"I'm hoping that they would be able to understand us a little bit more," says Dr Mok, although she too believes virtual experiences are no substitute for a physical visit. "I don't think they should be really comparable experiences."

Mr Sandy Lee, an art enthusiast who lives in Hong Kong's Pok Fu Lam neighbourhood and was a regular visitor to Hong Kong's art museums before the pandemic, has spent a lot of time exploring HKMOA's virtual collections recently.

"It's an escape from the monotony of staying at home. Leave the pandemic behind and dive into the world of art for a while," he says.

The advantages of a virtual visit include the lack of crowds and no waiting in line.

"I can spend as long as I want analysing or learning about an art piece," Mr Lee says. "The digital content has certainly taught me things I never knew about some famous works, and it's inspired me to visit again as soon as it's allowed. The virtual experience is not exactly the same as seeing the real thing with your own eyes. It's simply the next best thing."

Virtual tours will almost certainly remain just the "next best thing" when international travel resumes, says Ms Johanna Bonhill-Smith, a travel and tourism analyst from data analytics firm GlobalData. "As the technology becomes more advanced this may change, but right now there is still an overwhelming desire for travellers to see a destination first-hand."

But that doesn't mean there won't be a place for the new technology. "Rather than substituting the whole experience itself, tourist attractions commonly utilise VR technology as an effective marketing tool to generate future interest," Ms Bonhill-Smith says. "Attractions can create engaging travel experiences online, showcasing the main pulls of an iconic area and offering real-time exploration for a potential consumer."

Through interactive online exhibitions, visitors around the world can now virtually tour major attractions in China such as the Great Wall and Forbidden City. "It's really going to get people to want to go even more, and especially now, with everybody being confined for the last five months," says Mr John Graham, president of Travel World VR, a US company that uses VR technology and 360-degree videos to help travel agents market destinations.

A tourist may use VR to explore a destination first-hand before travelling, to decide whether the trip will be worth the additional hassle or cost, Bonhill-Smith adds.

Dr Mok says the virtual experiences being offered by the HKMOA can serve as good publicity and help the museum attract future visitors.

"There are visitors who are not currently in Hong Kong. These social experiences can arouse the curiosity about the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Then, when they come, they'll be able to enjoy, physically, the visiting experience, which is irreplaceable if you ask me," she says.

According to travel agent Su Jialing, who is based in Guangzhou, China can do with all the positive publicity it can get as "China doesn't have visa-free agreements with very many countries."

"The pandemic also generated some stigma around travelling here. VR can give people a preview of some tourist sites in the country and hopefully they'll see that any stigma is unwarranted, and that it's worth the trouble of applying for a tourist visa. They'll see that China is very much worth visiting."

Mr Cao has seen preconceptions towards China change in real time. "I've led some virtual tours where people in other countries are surprised that Chinese society has largely returned to normal after Covid-19. They're also stunned that many establishments still require a temperature reading in order to enter the building. China is still taking precautions, and will probably continue to do so until there is no danger of another wave. That should be reassuring for people."

This "try before you buy" approach to travel planning should prove to be another benefit of VR as borders reopen.

"[Health and hygiene] concerns will likely act as a hindrance to many future travel decisions," Ms Bonhill-Smith says. "However, virtually exploring a hotel room, an attraction and different facilities within a destination will act as a way to ease consumer doubt before venturing to a specific location."

Air travel, another new area of concern for many would-be travellers, could benefit from VR by offering would-be passengers a preview of the safety measures they can expect to encounter during a flight.

"If one airline has a 360 VR experience on how they're adjusting with the times, I think that the consumer would feel a lot more at ease booking them," Graham says.

As well as serving as a marketing tool, virtual experiences may nudge world travel in a more inclusive direction, offering an opportunity to see the world to those who otherwise may not be able to.

"I had a guest who is wheelchair-bound, but always wanted to visit China," Mr Cao says. "He told me my tour was his first experience of our country. So even after the pandemic is over and in-person tours resume, I think I will keep holding virtual tours."

If nothing else, Covid-19 is forcing people from all walks of life to think outside the box.

"What this pandemic is teaching us is we have to be proactive, creative and responsive," Dr Mok says. "And I think as an art institution, we should be the leader in acting creatively to a difficult situation." SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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China tourism virtual reality tours

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