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The Virtual Resilience of Travel and Tourism

By: Alison Rooney
First Published: May 5, 2020
Topics: Applied Knowledge, Covid-19 Response, Faculty, STHM School, Tourism & Hospitality

The travel and tourism industry has been highly sensitive to the COVID-19 pandemic, given that social distancing and travel restrictions are grinding the industry to an almost complete halt. And yet, in these challenging times, many international and domestic tourism sites are demonstrating that the use of technology such as virtual reality is one of the best ways for destinations and attractions to stay in touch with potential clients. 

Thinking broadly about these issues in recent weeks is Benjamin Altschuler, assistant professor and academic director of the Master of Science in Travel and Tourism Program at Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management (STHM).

“Technology is now not just an enhancement, but may often be the tourist experience in itself,” says Altschuler. Virtual reality, he says, allows destinations to tastefully promote themselves, while also presenting viewers with useful and fun tidbits of information. He notes that many top destinations and destination management/marketing organizations (DMOs) are using this technological tool to remain in contact. 

Altschuler says what works, rather than a hard sell, is presenting sites in a respectful manner, which is sensitive to people’s current economic situation. “The ‘soft sell,’” he says, “is asking visitors to remember what is great about the place without selling them anything. It’s simply about keeping the destination at the top of people’s minds.”

Transforming sites near and far

Local as well as international tourist sites are using their online presence to highlight their unique features in new ways. “The question sites are asking,” Altschuler says, “is how do we whet people’s appetite for when these conditions end?” He cites recent media coverage of Greece as an example of how the industry is reacting to the crisis via greecefromhome.com and its virtual tours. England’s governmental DMO, for example, focuses on aspects of the culture, such as Shakespeare and the Monarchy, which resonate with the public. Portugal’s DMO centers on food and the arts the country is known for. “The approach is to distill down what makes a place special and then highlight those in online experiences people can enjoy at home,” he says. 

He offers Visitphilly.com as a local example of a site keeping people in touch with the destination and its attractions—from cheesesteak recipes to virtual tours of historic sites. “These experiences bring happiness, which is the best we can do at the moment,” he says.

Responding to unique challenges

There may be light at the tunnel for travel and tourism, whether it is months from now or later. But given that most travel requires planning at least one or two months in advance, this presents a challenge to the industry. And once sites reopen, Altschuler observes, they will likely have to follow social distancing protocols, so that attractions from the Liberty Bell to the Oracle at Delphi may only allow a fraction of the normal number of visitors at any one time. Given the health concerns for the foreseeable future, the majority of visitors may not go to the site in person. “Destinations that create augmented reality experiences may need to up their game,” says Altschuler, “until people feel more secure that we have overcome this pandemic.”

Designing these online experiences is not easy and requires both resources and proficiency in technology, he notes. Smaller organizations might not be fully interactive but are still working to stay relevant—posting information and keeping people in the know through social media channels. “Even without high-end technology, remaining in contact with potential clients and playing a role in the community is a great way to use more basic technology to remain relevant.”

Adjusting to a changing outlook

Ultimately these conditions require rethinking and reimagining what tourism looks like, Altschuler says. Given that we don’t know if there will be a second or third wave of COVID-19, it will be necessary to continue these virtual solutions even once this initial phase subsides. “These tourism organizations can play an important role,” he notes, “not only in providing potential clients with practical and up-to-date information but also in helping to prevent a resurgence of the virus. For smaller organizations, this might be the best way to utilize limitations in their technological prowess.”

“Organizations are finding ways to reposition themselves within their communities and be of service,” says Altschuler. “This will be increasingly important as sites gradually begin to reopen.”