Can a virtual tour really feel like traveling?

This year has been a relentless little jerk when it comes to global crisis. This autumn, the coronavirus pandemic will be accompanied by the flu — so now more than ever, there’s reason to stay the hell at home. Fear and safety mandates have led to a sharp drop in business for the travel industry, but it’s also leading to innovation. One sector of the industry has started offering an alternative to the in-person excursions: an online tour from the comfort and safety of your home. As an adventure-thirsty person though, I wondered if virtual tours actually felt close the real thing.

Since guided tours, normally an up-close-and-personal service, can’t run as usual in most parts of the world, virtual tours make perfect sense as a socially distant alternative. So, how do they differ from just firing up travel documentaries on Netflix?

Take Airbnb’s blueprint as an example of how much a person can do from their couch and some wifi. Airbnb already offered tour experiences IRL, and now some hosts have pivoted to offering these short tours online. These experiences are interactive, too — although entirely virtual, you can sip sangria with drag queens in Portugal, make pasta with Italian grandmas, and meditate with a Buddhist monk in Japan. One particularly unique $18 experience will have you “travel back in time and virtually experience the empty streets of Prague during the Black Death and plagues of the 17th and 18th centuries.” Macabre in the time of COVID-19, but for some goth historians out there, a recipe for a happy socially distant Halloween.

You can also visit landmarks virtually without a tour guide if you prefer. The Guardian reports that Stonehenge offers an online experience care of the English Heritage virtual tour and Angkor Wat, Cambodia offers the Virtual Angkor project both which include 360° video simulations, by archaeologists and CGI artists.

If these aren’t your bag and you want a more creatively inspired experience, you can curate it, literally. Museums around the world are offering tours as well with the Louvre in Paris being an extremely popular option. New York landmarks such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum have virtual experiences too, the latter offered through Google Street view. Meander as you please, without the sore feet and $10 hot dog afterward.

When I was offered a press pass to a virtual tour offered by Black Girls Travel Too, a tour company that caters tours for travelers of color, I was ready to find out for myself, if virtual tours are worth it. BGTT, owned by Dianelle Rivers Mitchell, started as a travel Instagram account in 2015, and grew so popular (currently at around 128K followers and counting), Mitchell launched her tour company from it, offering travel experiences with the intent on stretching, growing, and enriching women of color through exploring the world. The Black-owned agency usually travels to adventures in South Africa, India, and Thailand, but pivoted online due to travel restrictions.

BGTT took me on a culinary historical journey of Northern Georgia, which ordinarily costs $75. Our tour guides, Jen and Margaret, took us and about 10 other participants, on a virtual tutorial of southern cooking shaped by three cultures, the British and other Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous Peoples. The tour was educational as well as enlightening — we learned about how Indigenous Peoples and African enslaved people had their recipes and innovations stolen from and profited from. This is information I knew about, but only vaguely — History in American high school covered subjects like this in one hour, but the knowledgeable guides offered little known historical facts that contextualized this part of history. It was fascinating.

Afterwards, we participated in a live cooking segment of a southern staple, a hoecake (a cornmeal flatbread). This was my favorite part: Just cooking with my sister on a Saturday while learning about the historical context of the food reminded me of past trips and the culinary and cultural joys they brought.

Before the tour, BGTT sends out a food subscription type box with items and ingredients directly from the region you’re “touring” to use, including a recipe booklet and art work. My tour also included a mobile game based on what we were learning, which brought out everyone’s latent game night tendencies. The one caveat is that we didn’t get any social time with other participants which I think is kind of crucial for these virtual events, and also at an hour long, the tour left me wanting more, but in a good way.

The bottom line, for me, is that real life traveling is like no other experience. But, these are trying times, and one can’t just hop on a jet whenever they want unless they’re a presidential candidate (like, come on, Kanye). And even if we could, when we get to the place we’re headed, is it safe?

Still, virtual tours take out all the guesswork. While my tour with BGTT was wonderful, hearing about North Atlanta’s history for the first time made me want to go and experience all the sights, deep-fried okra, and hoecakes that the area has to offer, in person.

But there’s one simple reason why I think virtual tours are a great option for a travel-lover stuck in a quarantine rut: the memories you can create by just being with people interested in the same thing you are. My usual schedule of binge streaming and anxiety was replaced, for a few hours, with some delicious fun, all golden brown and drizzled in honey. And I’ll take that trip anyday.

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