Virtual Tourism: Experiencing Cultures in the New Normal

Elina Sazonova/Pexels
Elina Sazonova/Pexels

My family loves travelling, so when borders were shut, we had to find ways to fill that need of exploring our favourite cities without booking a flight.

Then my father had the ingenious idea to watch walking tours of night markets and cities on YouTube. These tours consisted of a local with a camera strapped to themselves as they walked through tourist spots, stopping occasionally to focus on a street hawker frying pad thai or a craftsman making jewellery.

It doesn’t beat the experience of actually being there, of course, but the idea of visiting a multitude of cities virtually has at least helped squash the travel bug in us.

The idea of virtual tourism isn’t exactly new, but it is one way tourism boards are ensuring sustained interest in the country, and revenue is still generated by countries who depend on it for foreign exchange earnings.

Partnership of STB and Airbnb for virtual tourism

In Singapore, this is being done with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Airbnb. On 22 October 2020, a two-year Memorandum of Understanding was co-signed by the two to co-promote and grow a range of unique, authentic Airbnb Experiences hosted by passionate locals on the Airbnb platform.

The agreement comprises three strategic pillars: the development of Singapore Experiences in the new tourism landscape; co-marketing of Singapore to stay top-of-mind among global audiences; and facilitating data and knowledge exchange to enable effective recovery.

What’s available in Singapore Virtual Trips?

In kicking off this partnership, the two organisations have launched a collection of Online Experiences – Singapore Virtual Trips – to iconic landmarks around the island. Some of these tours include trips to Peranakan home museum ‘The Intan’, hosted by owner Alvin Yapp, an interactive bingo tour of the one-north tech hub by Monster Day Tours, and a heritage tour of Old Kallang Airport with Jerome Lim, founder of The Long and Winding Road.

How does a virtual tour work?

Booking a virtual tour is easy – simply log onto Airbnb to book a day and timeslot for when you want to attend the tour. Attending the virtual tour is even easier – click on the provided online videoconferencing link to join your host from the comforts of home (pants not required, but may be advised).

STB is hoping this partnership will encourage Singapore tourism businesses to digitise their products and services, and pivot towards hybrid business models that are more sustainable in the long run beyond the pandemic.

“This is an exciting new way for Gardens by the Bay to continue to delight people, enabling us to connect with friends and fans around the world,” said Chad Davis, Deputy Director of the Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay, who is also host of the A Mountain Under Glass – Cloud Forest online experience.

“I look forward to sharing my passion for our Cloud Forest and helping virtual visitors rediscover the region’s most extraordinary, cooled conservatory through this unique virtual format.”

How virtual tourism connects people from far and near

It is not just tour hosts that are excited about the prospect of virtual tourism. The Lim family, for example, are thrilled that a virtual platform allows for their clan to bond over an activity together, especially when COVID-19 restrictions are still in place.

“We used to have large family gatherings with all my siblings and their families, but with COVID-19, we haven’t been able to meet up,” says Mr BH Lim, a 63-year-old retiree and the oldest of four. “We hope a virtual tour would be able to help our overseas family members connect with us too.”

Secrets of Singapore’s Smallest Museum/Alvin Yapp

As the Lim clan is Peranakan, Mr Lim plans to book the Peranakan home museum tour at the suggestion of his mother, a Nyonya who used to live in Penang but moved to Singapore after she was married.

“My mother is in her late eighties now, and like any Peranakan matriarch, she holds onto tradition firmly. We’re hoping that this tour stirs up nostalgia for her, but also gives her a chance to share her culture with the younger generation that may not know much about our heritage and history,” he shares.

Virtual experiences bring a taste of history to travellers

Learn the Secrets of Singapore Kaya Jam/Daniel

Bringing forgotten history to the foreground is what many of these hosts plan to do. Like with Daniel’s Singapore Kaya Jam online experience, where guests don’t just get to follow along in a hands-on coconut jam making session (you’ll get a list of ingredients and equipment to procure before the session), they will learn the history and cultural significance of this must-have breakfast staple.

His tour is part of the larger Social Impact Cultural Cooking Class he hosts in real life, as a way to connect foodies to a community of stay-at-home mothers and active seniors who have been preparing traditional Singapore recipes all their lives.

Neryl, who attended the experience earlier this year, said that it was the anecdotes shared by her host that sold her on the class. “[Our host] told lots of personal stories that made it more cultural and the class felt connected,” she said.

If anything, this is what STB hopes to achieve in partnering with Airbnb – connecting tourists from around the world to an authentic Singapore experience, even when travel seems impossible right now.

Growing international interest

Already, the online experiences are attracting foreign tourists, such as with Chef Malcolm Lee’s Secrets of a Michelin-starred Chef experience. The Head Chef of one Michelin-star Peranakan restaurant, Candlenut, is sharing his great-grandfather’s recipe for crab curry with interested guests.

Takako, from Japan, participated in Malcolm’s class all the way from Tokyo. Even with slight difficulty in getting all the ingredients necessary, he enjoyed cooking alongside the chef. “[Chef Malcolm] has a way with the storytelling of his experiences growing up in the kitchen and I appreciate learning about his culture through this experience,” he said.

Virtual tourism doesn’t just benefit travellers

Even as travel gradually resumes, it is safe to say that virtual tourism is likely to stay. Although it is filling a need for frequent travellers, people like Mr Lim are also seeing the benefits of virtual tourism for those who are not able to travel.

Like with the experience he plans to book, Mr Lim is glad that the tour can be held virtually, as this means he would not have to worry about arranging transport for his mother who is mostly immobile without the aid of a walker or wheelchair.

National Geographic has also pointed out that virtual tourism is a much eco-friendlier solution to the problem of overtourism. Apart from cutting down the carbon footprint of air travel, it cuts down on the massive pollution problem many countries face with large crowds of tourists.

As technology advances, National Geographic also expects virtual tourism to head closer to the real deal, such as through the use of virtual reality headsets that give virtual tourists the option of 360-degree walkabouts of tourist spots.

While nothing beats the full sensorial experience of being at your choice of destination, virtual tourism at least gives tourists a taste of what they can get, which would hopefully entice them to visit in real life once this pandemic is over.

“We want to focus on strengthening Singapore’s brand image in the minds of audiences around the world, and ensure that our destination remains top-of-mind,” said Keith Tan, chief executive of STB.

The full list of online Airbnb Experiences in partnership with STB is available here.


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