Will virtual reality tech ever replace the traditional holiday?

I was lucky enough to see Abba in concert in their heyday.

While they were still young and beautiful and when even Benny and Bjorn could pull off silver Spandex.

I didn’t really see them of course.  I’m not quite that old! But after experiencing Abba Voyage in London, I genuinely feel as if I’ve seen the band live. I wasn’t sure what to expect before the show – but it certainly wasn’t this mind-blowing!

The close-ups on the giant screens might look a tad robotic, but on the stage Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Frieda look and act like the real thing…but from 30 years ago.  Judging from the chorus of ‘wows’ around me, I wasn’t the only one struggling to get my head around the fact that the performers weren’t real.

Our collective awe at this technological miracle was matched only by the sheer joy of the event. Arms aloft and singing along to every line, the crowd were on their feet throughout – Dancing Queens, the lot of us!

Even if you’re not a huge Abba fan, this show is worth catching. It’s a glimpse into a future in which reality is optional. It’s interesting to think about the implications for tourism – especially from a sustainability perspective.

Already in the metaverse big brands are recreating their top hotels: allowing customers to stroll around, admire the facilities and select the room with their preferred view for when they visit IRL. And I’m wondering how long it’ll be before the virtual exploration replaces the real experience? After all, suits are apparently being developed that can mimic the cold rush of air and crisp snow sensations of skiing.

With projected climate impacts on winter sports, given the choice of risking £2,000 on a  potentially snow-free winter sports holiday in the Alps, or trying virtual skiing with its guaranteed perfect conditions, the latter looks very tempting.

Okay, holidays are much more than just the physical experience of swooshing down a slope or bronzing on the beach, so VR experiences will probably complement holiday sales rather than replace them, at least in the short term. But you’d imagine there would be a ready market amongst those constrained by financial or physical limitations.

And what of those destinations that are so far flung, difficult to get to, or ecologically sensitive that they can’t, or shouldn’t have many visitors? Will it be possible to create and monetise a virtual experience that leaves us feeling satisfied enough not to want to go there in person?

Perhaps tourism authorities from a remote Pacific island will be able to collaborate with tech developers to authentically recreate the experience of snorkelling its pristine coral lagoons and exploring its cultural sites in virtual reality?

This would have to be immersive and go far beyond current VR and gaming. But think of the carbon emissions saved. Tech uses energy too of course, but unlike aircraft contrails, this can at least be repurposed; Heat from data centres is already being used to warm swimming pools in the UK.  Virtual tourism would also reduce the environmental damage from hotel building by allowing visitors to explore an unfamiliar environment without ruining it.

The ability for those in the destination to earn income has to be factored in. Opportunities around the sale of virtual national costumes for avatars, or NFT souvenirs are a couple of ideas that spring to mind.

I’m well aware that this is old school thinking and more technologically creative brains will come up with innovative ways to spread the benefits. Ideally, communities would get a percentage of the profits made through virtual access to their destination.

Okay, climbing into a simulation suit and donning a headset may never entirely replicate a real life visit. But if it’s an immersive, compelling experience which feels substantially like the real thing and costs a fraction of the price, many of us would probably consider it.

In our lifetimes tourist trips to the moon could become possible. Few will be able to afford it, but who wouldn’t want to give the virtual experience a try? As the tech improves we might well also get to enjoy earthbound experiences previously beyond our reach. Like canoeing down the Congo River, tracking polar bears in the Arctic, perhaps even climbing Everest!

So how soon will travel agents start promoting holidays in the metaverse? I have a hunch that many of us, especially as we get older and less mobile, will be frequent digital tourists. Perhaps virtual tourism will keep us travelling long after our knees and wallets give up.

I do worry that the deeper we dive into the digital world, the more we might stop caring about trashing our real life planet. But I’m hopeful that technology can help travel and tourism become more sustainable rather than less.

Holidays are made up of so many sensations, experiences and interactions, virtual reality is a long way from replacing them yet. But it does open up an exciting new world of possibilities.

Will technology ever replace real experiences? Would you consider a virtual holiday?  Share your ideas and opinions in the comments section.

By Rachel McCaffery Green Case Consulting

In this article