Virtual tourism, which got a boost during the pandemic when travel was curtailed around the world, is entering a new phase as real-world travel resumes.
Despite concerns in some quarters that virtual tourism’s days are numbered once travelers are able to visit actual locations, some are pointing out its advantages.
An establishment set to open in Osaka city in May, called anywhere cafe, is attracting some attention for its virtual tourism features. Set in a house more than 70 years old on a historic street, it features a traditional interior including seating on tatami mats on the floor.
However, putting on a pair of virtual reality goggles allows access to the “other” anywhere cafe in the metaverse. This one has a distinctly modern feel with large floor-to-ceiling windows.
In early March, the scenery outside the virtual window was an Okinawan beach, and visitors to the cafe enjoyed talking about the tropical southern islands while listening to a live performance of the sanshin, a stringed instrument native to the region.
In one part of the virtual space, customers could listen to a description of Okinawa’s sightseeing spots. In another, there was a portal leading to various tourist destinations in Japan and abroad.
Removing the goggles returns customers to the traditional old house in an older part of Osaka.
Though still under development, the cafe will boast hybrid features such as a screen in the garden displaying scenery of Japan’s Northern Alps combined with the serving of a famous confection from that part of the country.
A dome screen is also planned for the garden for viewing sports events.
Keiichi Koshiba, CEO of G1, which operates the cafe, set it up as a lab to shape the future of tourism. He aims to work with local governments, business operators, creators and students to build that future in an era where the virtual and the real coexist.
Koshiba sees virtual tourism as having unique advantages. While working at Panasonic, he was seconded to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, helping to manage a live stream of the Olympic opening ceremony and some events at eight planetariums around Japan.
“Unlike regular public viewings, people were able to enjoy the feeling of actually being there surrounded by the images,” he said.
About 1.47 million people visited Japan in February, roughly 60% of the number before the pandemic, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. Japanese people are also doing more traveling, as the travel market regains its pre-pandemic energy.
Some have called virtual tourism a temporary trend stemming from the pandemic that cannot compete with real travel. And virtual reality has its drawbacks, like the size of images and the goggles.
But others say virtual tourism has less of an environmental impact than regular travel, and is a sustainable and accessible trend that can be enjoyed by the elderly as well.
As Japan’s labor shortage becomes more serious, it may be advantageous to create a system where real and virtual complement each other rather than compete.