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The future of virtual reality in tourism


Sharlene King
1 July 2020

Around the world tourism has been brought to a standstill, but new doors are opening for virtual and augmented reality to reshape the industry.

Researchers from Southern Cross University say the technologies could play a significant role in the tourism landscape where close contact with others may not be a reality for the near future.

There are subtle differences between the two. Virtual reality (VR) involves a headset or goggles to ‘transport’ the user to another place, either based on a real location or a completely fabricated world. Meanwhile augmented reality is a type of VR that incorporates elements of the physical world with virtual elements – a classic example being Pokémon Go.

“Augmented reality offers destinations and operators opportunities to layer new ways of experiencing destinations and attractions without the need for tourists to engage directly with others,” said Southern Cross University Professor of Tourism Kevin Markwell.

“Organisations across the globe have turned to internet-based opportunities to maintain customer interest in their businesses and sometimes to generate income via selling advertising that runs alongside live streams, breaking down the barriers that were once posed by physical distance.”

Some innovative examples of virtual tours in Australia include a self-guided tour of the Art Galleries of NSW and South Australia, walking through the Australian National Surfing Museum, Queensland Air Museum, Australian Museum, and live virtual experiences including David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef and Taronga Zoo’s TarongaTV live-streams including an Elephant Cam and Tiger Cam.

Even Southern Cross University’s Lismore campus and the adjacent Koala Hospital in the NSW Northern Rivers can be explored using an immersive virtual tour at

Although VR and AR technologies are unlikely to replace the travel bug so many of us have, Professor Markwell said they can help users experience an attraction as never before.

“The trick is for the technologies to offer qualitatively different experiences to those normally offered when we visit a destination, world famous art gallery or museum.

“Some technologies allow objects to be seen in different ways, to be rotated around, viewed from above, viewed using X-ray and other imaging technologies, for their stories to be told using multi-media, immersive encounters via the computer screen.”

If travel, particularly international leisure travel, becomes more expensive and more difficult to navigate, Professor Markwell said VR might play a greater role in allowing prospective visitors to explore their options.

“Visitors will want to reassure themselves that they have made the right decision about where they stay, which airline they choose to fly with, and which attractions and tours they experience. VR can break down the locational barriers and allow travellers to make informed decisions.”

Organisations investing in these technologies will also add value to the tourist experience of place long after restrictions have eased, by creating immersive, in-person encounters.

“Incorporating opportunities for playfulness and gamification into a physical space will enable visits to a destination to become an adventure that integrates the ‘real’ with the ‘imagined’ into one seamless experience,” said Professor Markwell.

In 2019 Queensland's Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary became the first Tourism Operator to introduce augmented reality into a natural environment to create a unique outdoor experience for kids, with the popular Gruffalo Trail app where characters ‘appear’ virtually throughout the park.

“It’s a clever way to incorporate visitor information and an educational element in augmented reality on a phone to add to the visitor experience of kids and their parents,” he said.

Professor Markwell said there was also more than just a strong educational and sustainability element to the VR technology value-add, with accessibility also a winner.

“This is also an important advancement for tourists with disabilities – which is a very significant market in Australia and around the world,” he said.

“This technology can allow people with disabilities to look at hotel rooms before renting a night to ensure their specific requirements are there, and also to ‘experience’ places that could otherwise be difficult to access.”

By themselves, VR and AR are not going to ‘save’ the tourism industry and millions of workers who depend either directly or indirectly on it from feeling the significant effects of COVID-19, but these technologies could play a role in reshaping the industry and perhaps even creating a more sustainable industry into the future.