The tourism industry tries out VR FEATURE
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From tour operators to app developers, people are applying virtual reality technology to tourism.

African tour operator Matoke Tours offers consumers considering a vacation in Uganda a true-to-life feel for what a safari is like, safe in the confines of its offices. It accomplishes that feat with a virtual reality app offering 360-degree videos of lush countryside and groups of mountain gorillas. When they put on a VR headset, vacation-shoppers are immersed in the environment, including a baby ape so entranced by the videographers' equipment, it started licking the camera.  

"When you're wearing goggles, it's like the gorilla is walking right up to you ," says Wim Kok, managing director of Matoke Tours "VR helps people realize how special it is to experience one of these trips."   

As Kok can tell you, virtual reality is slowly being embraced by the tourism and hospitality industry. With a headset in place, travelers can come close to experiencing the real thing. "It allows people to go beyond boring flat photos and for companies to tempt them into booking different holidays," says George Jijiashvili , wearables and VR analyst at CCS Insight, a mobile device and services marketing consultancy. And in some cases, the technology is being used to expand the traveler's experience.

A VR brochure

The most popular use for VR is as a marketing tool by travel agencies, tour operators, tourism offices and hotels, among others. "The technology presents an incredible opportunity," says Douglas Quinby, vice president of research at Phocuswright, a travel industry research firm.

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"When you're wearing goggles, it's like the gorilla is walking right up to you"Working with Visualise, a virtual reality developer in London, for example, the travel agency Thomas Cook recently tested out the technology for use in various offices, according to Henry Stuart, CEO of Visualize.  First stop: a three-minute "dream day" in New Yok City, with which people planning trips could put on a headset and take a virtual helicopter ride over the Big Apple, visit Grand Central Terminal and hear a jazz band play in Central Park, among other activities. Those who tried it out were almost three times more likely to choose that trip, according to Stuart. Visualise also created VR trips to a variety of other destinations, from Singapore to Cyprus.

"VR is a really effective way to transport people to a location," says Stuart.  

Off the beaten track

It's particularly useful for destinations and trips that are off the beaten track or potentially unnerving for the less-adventurous. "The technology helps to convince first-timers," says Quinby. He points to cruises as a case in point. "It's a challenge for cruise lines to convey the experience to people who haven't cruised before," he says.

For Matoke Tours' Kok, that's one benefit of using the technology to promote its Uganda trips. His gorilla-tracking tours are unusual and expensive; thus transporting travelers to those locations for a virtual trip is a useful selling tool. To that end, videographers recorded five episodes, including a hot air balloon trip and a boat safari. But the gorillas proved to be the piece de resistance, according to Kok. "It helps to make people realize how close you can get to the apes and how huge they are," he says.

Enhancing the experience

App developers also are using VR to enhance the actual travel experience. Take Timelooper. With its app, travelers experience what certain places were like in historical settings.  For example, visitors to Times Square in New York City can download the app and not only step into the Augst, 1945 V-J day celebration, but also watch the famous kiss between a sailor and nurse, immortalized in a picture taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. Or tourists in London can see the Great Fire of 1666. Coming soon, there also will be interactive experiences--say, the ability to play the part of a Chinese solder and shoot Mongol invaders by the Great Wall.

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For small outfits like Matoke, however, the high cost of producing high-quality VR segments makes them too expensive to use extensively. "If we did that for every destination it would be too much of an investment," says Kok.

Then there's the matter of headsets. "Most of these experiments have been small-scale trials," says CCS Insight's Jijiashvili. That's because, while consumer awareness of the technology is high, ownership of headsets is low. The VR industry shipped 6.3 million devices in 2016, according to research firm Super Data. Still, he expects that, as a new generation of headsets comes on the market, that situation will change.  Within two years, the tourism and hospitality market is likely to step up its investment in VR significantly, according to Jijiashvili.

Says Matoke's Kok,  "This technology has huge potential."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.