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Travel & Leisure

Asia tourist sector blends real and virtual to lure back visitors

From Thai elephants to Japanese fish, digital tours gain ground after coronavirus

An avatar robot lets people tour the New Yashima Aquarium on the island of Shikoku from the comfort of home. (Source photos by Ken Kobayashi/ANA)

TOKYO/HONG KONG -- Shintaro Kobara paid a different sort of visit to a Japanese aquarium last month. Amazed by rare "sea cows" as well as blue and yellow fish, the 12-year-old took a tour of the New Yashima Aquarium on the island of Shikoku -- all while staying at home, thanks to an avatar robot.

Kobara used his computer to control the robot, developed by Avatarin, a spinoff from airline ANA Holdings, and guide it through the aquarium on a tour led by a member of the staff. He viewed the tanks full of brightly colored fish through a camera on the robot while his own face was displayed on the robot's screen.

"I got to know the names of many beautiful fish," said Kobara. "It was easy to control, and I felt like I went there, just like in real-life. I want to go there again."

His experience was part of a two-day event staged by the aquarium during Japan's state of emergency in April and May, when authorities requested that nonessential businesses close. "We received a lot of comments on our Instagram posts asking how the otters and other animals are doing, but an avatar is the best way to tell how they live during the closure," said Emiko Kato of the New Yashima Aquarium, which offered the experience free of charge. "We believe people would want to come to see them when we reopened."

The aquarium is part of a growing list of leisure businesses across Asia that have embraced "virtual tourism," giving travelers a taste of being out and about without setting foot out their front door. The experiences offer much-needed relief for people stuck at home -- and for an industry hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak and measures to contain it.

The Potala Palace, a centuries-old fortress in Lhasa, in western China, has created digital tours with the help of Chinese technology conglomerate Alibaba Group Holding, allowing visitors to enjoy traditional Tibetan architecture through livestreaming for the first time. Mogao Caves, another UNESCO World Heritage site, has teamed up with Chinese social media giant Tencent Holdings to build an online presence on messaging app WeChat, enabling the company's 1.1 billion users to admire the site's ancient wall paintings from home.

"Virtual tourism through livestreaming is no longer just a special way of life during the pandemic situation, but the new normal," said Xu Xiang, who leads the livestreaming division of Alibaba's tourism arm Fliggy. The travel platform has hosted at least 25,000 livestreaming events since February, attracting more than 70 million viewers.

Ctrip, one of China's largest online travel companies, operating under the Trip.com Group, is also betting on virtual tourism. It announced in March that it will invest 1 billion yuan ($140 million) in a tourism revival plan that includes "cloud" tourism. The company partnered with tourism authorities and nearly 10,000 tourism brands including airlines, hotels, and tourist attraction operators, giving tourists access to online tours with live-action videos, and allowing the to book travel arrangements for the summer and afterward.

While some travel is reviving, overseas tourism was all but eliminated at the height of the pandemic as countries shut borders, resulting in a 22% decline in international traveler arrivals over the first quarter of the year, according to the World Tourism Organization. The Asia-Pacific region saw the biggest decline, with a 35% fall in arrivals during the period. Lockdowns in the region also forced domestic tourists to abandon travel plans.

Most digital tours are offered for free, but analysts believe they will help build an appetite for traveling once more people are allowed to.

"A travel purchase journey is very psychological -- the role of images, descriptive content, videos, and so on goes a long way in fostering decision-making," said Chetan Kapoor, an analyst at travel market research company Phocuswright.

Virtual tourism was previously aimed mostly at tech-savvy travelers, but the pandemic has brought a larger consumer group on board, said Kapoor, adding that this change in consumer behavior "may get a boost" in the post-pandemic era.

Some players remain skeptical that virtual content can spark actual visits. "We are struggling to find synergies between digital content and real experiences," said an executive from a travel startup in Asia, who asked not to be named as his company receives offers to collaborate with tech companies.

Real experiences require taste, smell and touch, the startup executive said. "Virtual content could backfire -- potential customers might feel it unnecessary to visit real places because what they see through a digital content may not be as great as they imagined."

Other hospitality operators in the region have been able to cash in on their online popularity. John Roberts, director of conservation at Minor Hotel Group whose resort in Chiang Rai, Thailand, specializes in looking after elephants, is one.

Since the resort was closed in March, Roberts has been livestreaming the activities and interactions of his 21 resident elephants twice a day on Facebook, aiming to entertain viewers and help the resort.

John Roberts has been livestreaming the activities of his 21 resident elephants twice a day on Facebook.  (Courtesy of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation)

As Roberts explained, people stranded at home need fun moments. Keeping the hotel in the spotlight via livestreaming could yield financial gains down the road. He said he has received roughly $6,000 in donations since the streaming started.

"I think there are certainly people who would not have known about us [who] know us now and would visit us in the future," Roberts said. "When traveling does open up, perhaps it could help us win over a few more guests and help us recover more quickly."

Thousands of kilometers away, Helen Hu, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, has also seen business pick up thanks to her virtual efforts.

To make her pet-friendly establishment better known, Hu began recording the lives of her pets online in February. Her live streams have not only attracted eyeballs, generating millions of clicks in some cases, but also helped Hu financially. Hundreds of viewers who found her videos interesting booked rooms, paying 50% of the fee upfront.

"If all the prebooked customers turn up, our hotel will be fully occupied for the second half of this year," Hu said.

But creating an engaging travel experience online is no simple matter. In fact, "almost every B&B owner I know has tried but failed in livestreaming," Hu said. "Since the hospitality sector traditionally runs offline, few tourism businesses know how to attract attention in the digital world, let alone turn online traffic into revenue."

Hu struggled to figure out what to say during her streaming events and faced technical problems. To improve her streaming skills, she took online courses. She hosts a streaming session at least once a week. "I'm now a hotelier-turned-live-streamer," she said, laughing.

Japan's Avatarin partnered with a subsidiary of Sony in May to distribute hundreds of thousands of avatar robots globally by 2024. It is working on a plan to charge customers, depending on the content of the attraction. "If you can go to a famous pop star's concert and shake hands through an avatar, for example, the content would be quite expensive, like selling a premium ticket," said Akira Fukabori, chief executive of the startup.

Fukabori is confident about the market outlook. Last year he and his team hosted a virtual fishing trip for people in Tokyo who, using fishing rods with smart sensors, could feel the tug of fish biting in a pond in Oita, some 1,000 km away. The Tokyo anglers were invited by Oita's fishermen to visit in person to enjoy fresh sashimi on-site.

"This human touch really made travelers want to visit the destination," Fukabori said.

Using an avatar "is not a virtual visit but a real one," said Kevin Kajitani, Avitarin's chief operating officer, after expanding the service from fishing to admiring fish in the aquarium. "The avatar offers a new process in tourism: Travelers can choose a location and build relationships with locals even before going there."

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