The Evolving Travel ‘Experience’: Virtual, Actual and In Between

Guided excursions have long been at the heart of travel, but like everything else, the pandemic disrupted such experiences, and many went virtual. But as travel begins to tick up, existing tour companies are adapting to social distancing in other ways.

Some are complementing virtual experiences — for instance, guided chocolate tastings with chocolate shipped before the tour — and tailoring closer-to-home actual adventures, like kayaking and hiking. Others are making groups smaller or private and moving outdoors.

This fall, a new player, Amazon, took a deep dive into the strictly virtual model with the start of its Amazon Explore platform, which offers everything from online shopping tours in Peru to tango lessons from Argentina.

Even in destinations that are reopening to international tourism, some operators are waiting for travel to rebound before switching entirely from virtual to actual. Since Panama reopened to international travel last month, Jerin Tate, the owner of Panama Day Trips, has guided just a few in-person tours and plans to continue offering free virtual birding tours in Soberanía National Park near Panama City into December.

Greg Hill, a professional skier and 57Hours guide based in Revelstoke, British Columbia, champions the “300-Mile Adventure Diet,” which he writes about for the site, espousing trips within a tank of gas as a way to travel more sustainably and appreciate what’s close by.

“Often, the romanticism of what’s far away kind of blinds you to what’s in your own backyard,” he said. “I find that if you stay within a radius of home you’re going to see those rivers and mountains again and again and then your trips will resonate longer than a mountain in Pakistan, because you’ll never see it again.”

Even the culinary company Traveling Spoon, a network of cooks who open their homes to travelers for meals, has found ways to resume in-person operations, including moving outdoors with barbecues in Manila (from $74), picnics in the Azores islands (from $76) and cooking classes in an outdoor kitchen near Florence ($170).

For those ready to take a city walking tour but eager to avoid other travelers, including guides, Sherpa Tours uses avatar narrators and augmented reality technology on itineraries downloaded to a mobile app.

GPS technology directs users from site to site where an avatar appears on your smartphone screen, discussing the landmark from scripts developed by local experts including historians, professional guides, architects and writers.

After a disappointing walking tour of Quito, Ecuador, with a dull guide, Michael Suskind, a private investigator based in Chicago, dreamed up Sherpa, which launched in 2019 and now has more than 150 tours in 80 cities globally.

“I wanted to come up with something that removed the risk of getting a bad guide,” he said.

Having tried the Sherpa tour of Millennium Park in Chicago, I found the contactless excursion a socially distant way to tour — we were able to stand well apart from other park-goers and still enjoy the narrative — with the high-tech novelty of following a virtual person at an affordable price (most tours cost $4.99).

“It’s very flexible,” said Bori Korom, a guide, writer and editor based in Budapest who has written three tours for Sherpa. “If someone likes to be spontaneous, you can stop and check out a museum or get a bite to eat, and then come back to the tour three hours later.”

For 17 years before the pandemic, Context Travel linked travelers with very specialized guides, including architects, historians and artists on private and small group tours, recently in more than 70 cities globally.

When the pandemic shut down travel, the company quickly moved to virtual tours online in a series called Context Conversations, featuring live 90-minute lectures on cultural subjects — such as the music of Ireland and the Hindu festival of light called Diwali — with its experts (from $36.50).

“Our key points of difference are offering scholarly tours for the intellectually curious or lifelong learners,” said Evan Frank, the chief executive of Context Travel.

Online, the Conversations — about 600 to date — often use location as a springboard to investigate topics like the women of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural history of Japanese green tea and portrait painting as propaganda used by the Tudors in 16th-century England.

Compared to in-person guiding, “It’s a little more professorial,” said Marie Dessaillen, an art historian and Context guide in Paris. “You can’t read the clients to know if they are understanding, but you get that in Q. and A. at the end.”

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