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Virtual reality devices could transform the tourism experience

Luke Graham, special to
Can VR transform tourism?

Virtual reality devices, such as the Oculus Rift and the Samsung VR Headset, are poised to transform several sectors of the economy over the coming year, including gaming, cinema and even pornography, but the latest industry looking to exploit the latest in experience tech is the travel business.

"Virtual reality, which I think is going to change the way both many of the things that we do today are and some new and important areas are transformed, like tourism, " said Shaun Collins, CEO of research group CCS Insight, told CNBC.

The big opportunity for VR will be helping consumers make decision about where to travel, according to analysts at tourism market research firm Phocuswright.

"It can be especially valuable for destinations that may not have a top-tier attraction with a lot of name recognition, but has great natural cultural attractions that can give travellers confidence that this is the place to go," Douglas Quinby, vice president of research at Phocuswright, told CNBC via email.

A participant demos Oculus VR glasses at CES 2016 in Las Vegas.
Justin Solomon | CNBC

An example of this comes in the form of virtual tours, which will allow travellers to experience a holiday destination before booking their trip.

This week, Matoke Tours, a niche African travel operator, launched a virtual travel brochure: an app featuring 360degree videos of six experiences in Uganda, where users will come face-to-face with a gorilla or go up in a hot air balloon.

"This app enables us to convey the intensity and emotion of the travel experience before the journey has even started," said Wim Kok, director of Matoke Tours Uganda, in a press release. "Travellers are then better able to decide which excursions they want to book."

There are already several apps offering this kind of experience; Ascape is a free app for the iPhone offering 360degree videos and virtual tours of locations such as San Francisco, Berlin and Botswana.

CES attendee tries out the NextVR headset at CES 2016
Welcome to the future: Virtual reality at CES

Travel agents can also benefit from offering these immersive, "try-before-you-fly" experiences.

In January 2015, U.K. travel agent Thomas Cook partnered with Samsung and virtual reality filmmakers Visualise to create a series of short films of several destinations. Customers visiting stores in the U.K., Germany and Belgium could then try these taster experiences using the Samsung Gear VR headset.

"In the first three months (the campaign) generated flights and hotel bookings totalling £12,000 ($17,500) in U.K. and Germany and has seen a 40 percent return on investment. There was an 190 percent uplift in New York excursions revenue," Visualise said in a case study.

The Samsung VR Headset is part of the Marriott Hotel's VRoom Service kit
Marriott Hotels

Meanwhile, hotel operators are using VR devices to offer more experiences to guests. In September, Marriott Hotels launched the "VRoom Service", where guests could borrow a VR device and experience "VR Postcards": immersive stories where the users can visit Chile, Rwanda or Beijing.

"Travel expands our minds and helps push our imagination," said Matthew Carroll, vice president of Marriott Hotels, in a press release. "VRoom combines storytelling with technology, two things that are important to next generation travellers."

The potential benefit from offering these VR experiences may depend on how quickly devices are adopted by consumers. The launch of several high-profile VR headsets in 2016, including the Oculus Rift, will drive adoption of seven million devices globally by the end of the year, according to figures published released this week by market analysts IHS Technology. They expect 37 million headsets will be actively used by the end of 2020 and the consumer VR market will be worth $2.6 billion that year.

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