Road Warrior

Virtual vacations pull out the stops to compete with the real thing

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Source: Start VR

Forget the brochures, tour books—or even your friends' social media boasts about the fabulous time they're having on the beach of some scenic far-flung location.

A growing list of airlines and vacation spots are courting visitors with virtual reality (VR) vacation experiences that offer digital options that nearly rival the real thing.

Some packages include panoramic videos that can usually be viewed online, via YouTube and Facebook. Others require apps and special viewers like Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.

If nothing else, VR can be a time-saver for travelers, said Bjorn Hanson, professor of hospitality and tourism at New York University's Tisch Center. "They can know what to expect and can allocate time to those activities they would like to visit at the destination."

While arguably not as good as the real thing, virtual trips "can help give people a more immersive sense of a destination, so they may then want to go and experience it firsthand themselves," said Sebastian Naylor, online marketing director for Lonely Planet.

Potential destinations range from Connecticut's Mohegan Sun casino and entertainment resort, to Las Vegas, British Columbia and the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia. All of them have VR experiences they hope will transform viewers into visitors.

It's hard to imagine virtual reality matching the experience of sitting on the beach with a Mai Tai in your hand.
Todd Bishop
Editor, GeekWire

Recently, Marriott Hotels made a splash with its Travel Brilliantly program.The company's loaner equipment was loaded with two-minute VR postcards of the Andes Mountains in Chile, an ice cream shop in Rwanda, and the streets of Beijing. Similar experiments were used by Best Western Hotel and Resorts, Hilton Inn Express and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.

Airlines have also embraced the virtual. In February 2015, Australian carrier Qantas ran a three-month program offering passengers virtual reality headsets loaded with a sampler of short tourist features.

More recently, Etihad Airways used virtual reality technology in a film starring Nicole Kidman, while United Airlines is featuring a virtual walk through of an aircraft, as part of a promotion for a business class product called Polaris.

The airline is not only gathering feedback from customers who tour the new cabin virtually, "It's also an invaluable training tool for our employees," said United Air spokesman Jonathan Guerin, "It generates excitement for the product and allows them to get to know Polaris well before it launches."

President Barack Obama watches a VR film of his trip to Yosemite National Park.
Pete Souza | The White House

The technology's rising popularity is swelling the ranks of destinations telling their story with virtual really apps is growing.

Las Vegas is one destination using VR as a "try before you buy" marketing tool. The city's Vegas VR app—which features activities such as zip lining through the Fremont Street Experience to being serenaded on a gondola ride the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian.

In August, when the National Park Service celebrated its centennial, National Geographic introduced a VR journey shot during a trip President Barack Obama made to Yosemite National Park with his family. Separately, YouVisit, has created VR features about a clutch of different cities, including West Hollywood, Houston, New York City, Machu Picchu and Paris.

"VR, when done right with great visuals and audio, offers the most immersive brand experience possible other than the real thing," said YouVisit CEO Abi Mandelbaum. "It's a trip in and of itself."


VR experiences can offer travelers access to places off-limits to ordinary vacationers. For unlikely destinations like outer space, virtual trips—like the mixed-reality experience put together by NASA and Microsoft—will have to suffice for would-be space travelers.

"Those who may never have the opportunity to physically visit a museum due to financial or geographic challenges will have increasing opportunities to access the world's greatest treasures and spaces through immersive VR technology," said Alex Freeman, a senior director at the New Media Consortium in Austin, TX.

Still, despite the hype and money being thrown at VR projects, skeptics abound.

"For now, VR is the closest a traveler can get to the idea of physically being at a destination, but it can't replace the act of travel, it can only enhance it," said Kain Tietzel, CEO and Creative Director of Start VR, the virtual reality content production studio that created the VR experience for New Caledonia Tourism.

A virtual trip is still "not anywhere near a real-world vacation," said Todd Bishop, co-founder and editor of tech website GeekWire. "It's hard to imagine virtual reality matching the experience of sitting on the beach with a Mai Tai in your hand."

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.