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The Evolving Travel ‘Experience’: Virtual, Actual and In Between

Guided excursions have long been at the heart of travel, but like everything else, the pandemic disrupted such experiences, and many went virtual. But as travel begins to tick up, existing tour companies are adapting to social distancing in other ways.

Some are complementing virtual experiences — for instance, guided chocolate tastings with chocolate shipped before the tour — and tailoring closer-to-home actual adventures, like kayaking and hiking. Others are making groups smaller or private and moving outdoors.

This fall, a new player, Amazon, took a deep dive into the strictly virtual model with the start of its Amazon Explore platform, which offers everything from online shopping tours in Peru to tango lessons from Argentina.

Even in destinations that are reopening to international tourism, some operators are waiting for travel to rebound before switching entirely from virtual to actual. Since Panama reopened to international travel last month, Jerin Tate, the owner of Panama Day Trips, has guided just a few in-person tours and plans to continue offering free virtual birding tours in Soberanía National Park near Panama City into December.

“We’re crossing our fingers and hoping, hoping, hoping there’s some semblance of normalcy then,” he said.

In the meantime, the trend reflects a continuum from virtual to actual, as seen below.

The online retailer Amazon applies its shopping prowess to the sourcing of souvenirs with the new platform Amazon Explore. In one-on-one sessions, armchair travelers can visit a leather maker in Seattle ($20), vintage shops in Tokyo ($49) and a Norwegian department store ($90), accompanied by local guides. In many cases, relevant items are available to purchase during the experience — via Amazon, of course.

Not every experience is shopping related. Amazon offers tango lessons with an instructor in Buenos Aires ($90) and a voodoo and cemetery tour in New Orleans ($90). A category devoted to creativity, including a class in Mexican salsa making ($39) and in the Japanese tie-dye style known as shibori ($40), often includes a list of items to have on hand to work alongside an instructor.

“Amazon Explore is designed to complement, rather than replace, traditional travel,” the company stated in an email.

Though Amazon has long threatened small retailers, the new platform uses its size and distribution power to link customers to small businesses around the world. Currently, Amazon Explore is offering 175 experiences, ranging from $10 to $168.

“Shop owners, guides, teachers, chefs, stylists, artists, and artisans can get access to millions of customers on Amazon while setting their own prices and hours,” the company stated.

To test the system, I signed up for a shopping tour of Kappabashi Street ($25), the “kitchen town” of Tokyo filled with shops selling kitchenware. In a quick 45 minutes, Giulia Maglio, a guide with Ninja Food Tours, used a hand-held camera to take me to three shops in the neighborhood where we discussed the different styles of chopsticks (fat and flat for tofu, ribbed for ramen), how to hold a rice bowl by the pedestal and the preponderance of lifelike plastic food restaurants use to signal what’s on the menu.

“The purpose is also to make you hungry,” she said.

Beware the temptation of browsing abroad. I ordered two rice bowls for $20, which cost an additional $20 to ship. But Amazon made it seamless — it charged the credit card I used for the tour in a matter of seconds at the end of the session — and I doubt I’ll forget how I acquired them.

With travel curtailed, Americans sought real-life diversions outside of their homes, according to Peek, a booking management platform for small businesses offering experiences from farm tours to kayak rentals.

This summer, it saw a shift to what it calls “daycations,” or excursions close to home. In June and July, 70 percent of bookings were from people residing within 150 miles, compared to 50 percent at the same time the year before.

Trending activities included wild mushroom foraging in Santa Cruz, Calif. ($90) and nighttime boat tours in St. Augustine, Fla. ($31). A Peek user, Tanaka Farms in Irvine, Calif., adapted its farm tours as drive-through events, including an upcoming holiday lights festival (from $49 a car).

“People have been stuck indoors and wanted to find things to do in real life,” said Ruzwana Bashir, the founder of Peek, noting that the company set a record for October bookings.

The San Francisco-based chocolate maker Dandelion Chocolate, another Peek client, adapted its experiences online, now offering chocolate tastings ($70) and truffle making ($100) that include shipments of chocolates to participants in advance for a blend of virtual and real elements.

“We’re able to reach more people now,” said Cynthia Jonasson, the head of education for Dandelion, who said private bookings often celebrate a birthday or other milestone with attendees from various locations.

Adventure outfitters are booking locally, too. Traffic to 57Hours, a site launched in 2019 that links travelers to outdoor adventure guides, picked up over the summer as users, primarily locals, turned to outdoor adventures for socially distant diversions, especially in private bookings.

Guide services start at $80 for a half-day of hiking or surfing and average $200 to $300 for a full day of climbing or backcountry skiing.

“A lot of guides who normally are doing international trips or working in the Swiss Alps are now home and have to market themselves for the first time,” said Perica Levatic, a co-founder of the company.

Greg Hill, a professional skier and 57Hours guide based in Revelstoke, British Columbia, champions the “300-Mile Adventure Diet,” which he writes about for the site, espousing trips within a tank of gas as a way to travel more sustainably and appreciate what’s close by.

“Often, the romanticism of what’s far away kind of blinds you to what’s in your own backyard,” he said. “I find that if you stay within a radius of home you’re going to see those rivers and mountains again and again and then your trips will resonate longer than a mountain in Pakistan, because you’ll never see it again.”

Even the culinary company Traveling Spoon, a network of cooks who open their homes to travelers for meals, has found ways to resume in-person operations, including moving outdoors with barbecues in Manila (from $74), picnics in the Azores islands (from $76) and cooking classes in an outdoor kitchen near Florence ($170).

For those ready to take a city walking tour but eager to avoid other travelers, including guides, Sherpa Tours uses avatar narrators and augmented reality technology on itineraries downloaded to a mobile app.

GPS technology directs users from site to site where an avatar appears on your smartphone screen, discussing the landmark from scripts developed by local experts including historians, professional guides, architects and writers.

After a disappointing walking tour of Quito, Ecuador, with a dull guide, Michael Suskind, a private investigator based in Chicago, dreamed up Sherpa, which launched in 2019 and now has more than 150 tours in 80 cities globally.

“I wanted to come up with something that removed the risk of getting a bad guide,” he said.

Having tried the Sherpa tour of Millennium Park in Chicago, I found the contactless excursion a socially distant way to tour — we were able to stand well apart from other park-goers and still enjoy the narrative — with the high-tech novelty of following a virtual person at an affordable price (most tours cost $4.99).

“It’s very flexible,” said Bori Korom, a guide, writer and editor based in Budapest who has written three tours for Sherpa. “If someone likes to be spontaneous, you can stop and check out a museum or get a bite to eat, and then come back to the tour three hours later.”

For 17 years before the pandemic, Context Travel linked travelers with very specialized guides, including architects, historians and artists on private and small group tours, recently in more than 70 cities globally.

When the pandemic shut down travel, the company quickly moved to virtual tours online in a series called Context Conversations, featuring live 90-minute lectures on cultural subjects — such as the music of Ireland and the Hindu festival of light called Diwali — with its experts (from $36.50).

“Our key points of difference are offering scholarly tours for the intellectually curious or lifelong learners,” said Evan Frank, the chief executive of Context Travel.

Online, the Conversations — about 600 to date — often use location as a springboard to investigate topics like the women of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural history of Japanese green tea and portrait painting as propaganda used by the Tudors in 16th-century England.

Compared to in-person guiding, “It’s a little more professorial,” said Marie Dessaillen, an art historian and Context guide in Paris. “You can’t read the clients to know if they are understanding, but you get that in Q. and A. at the end.”

An expanded offering called “Courses” features a series of lectures, including a recent two-day, eight-hour exploration of the Trans-Siberian Railway with a Russian historian ($175).

Henry Lummertz, a lawyer based in Pôrto Alegre, Brazil, has taken the Trans-Siberian course among more than 250 Context Conversations since they launched in March.

“Traveling and learning are very important to me and I lack that now,” he said. “This is a way to interact with people from a place I would like to visit.”


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