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The Faroe Islands, an autonomous territory of Denmark, takes virtual travel to another level with a remotely controlled local tour guide.

Kirstin Vang/Visit Faroe Islands

It’s 8 p.m. and I’ve settled in with my comfiest airplane pants and a glass of red. Headphones and WiFi on. I’m ready to go to Italy, but I’m not on a plane. I’m at my kitchen table, logged into a Zoom group tour with Toronto-based G Adventures that will take me through six Italian cities in an hour.

Such is travel today: Instagram, Facebook Live and drone videos galore. But what often compels people to travel is a personal connection to a place – a tangible, emotional and interactive one. That’s where some providers are taking virtual travel to a new level, such as tonight’s tour of Italy.

Our guide, Stefano, gives a “cheers” on screen, then we’re off to the canals of Venice. With Google Maps, past tour photos and videos, plus Stefano’s personal accounts of each location, the hour passes by entertainingly. We online travellers chime in with questions throughout the moderated live chat.

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Local tour guides with in-depth knowledge have been the key for G Adventures in real life. Virtually, they’re all the more important.

Avid traveller Julie Spiropoulos, 53, went on an in-person tour of Italy last year with her daughter. Tonight’s session was her first virtual travel experience.

“Our actual trip was brilliant,” Spiropoulos says. “This virtual tour was a really great hour of just escapism and feeling connections to fellow travellers, Italy and the tour guide. It brought back a lot of memories, too.”

For me, viewing a video is one thing. But being able to interact, ask questions and have control of your tour? That’s truly engaging.

“The message still has to be more important than the medium,” says Rosie Spinks, a global reporter with Skift. “You actually have to be sharing good content. Just because there’s some interactivity online isn’t going to make it successful.”

Faroese locals will be equipped with a live video camera, allowing virtual visitors not only to see the views from an on-the-spot perspective, but also control where and how they explore.

Kirstin Vang/Visit Faroe Islands

The key is to be genuinely innovative, and the tiny Faroe Islands – an autonomous territory of Denmark, located between Norway and Iceland – provide an intriguing example.

With a population of just 52,000, the islands have already had more visitors on virtual tours during the novel coronavirus pandemic than in-person visitors last year. More than 160,000 viewers from 189 countries have virtually walked around the islands, thanks to locally guided online tours that viewers direct using an online controller.

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“The controller was the creative twist that gave the idea a real spark,” says Levi Hanssen, a tour guide who also works for the Faroe Islands tourism board. “Being the first in the world to offer people the chance to remote control a guide in real time, that was truly unique.”

With the Faroe Islands’ free weekly tours, online travellers can direct a kayak excursion, a tour on horseback or even a helicopter ride.

I joined a tour of the seaside village of Tjornuvik on remote-tourism.com. After a quick intro to our guide, a remote controller pops up on the screen. Clicking “join” means participants direct where the guide walks in 45-second spurts on the hour-long tour.

The main traveller will control the moves of the Faroese islander(s), who will not only explore locations on foot, but also take to the skies by helicopter giving the virtual visitors a bird’s eye perspective.

Kirstin Vang/Visit Faroe Islands

You wait in a queue for your turn at the controller, and you can have the guide head left, right, straight forward or backward. There are even run and jump buttons – which can delight viewers but probably confuse locals.

The guide may talk to locals, give history and share insight into daily life. You’re also certain to see a lot of sheep – there are almost 30,000 more of them than people on the islands.

“What the Faroe Islands did is obviously really cool because there was a certain level of extra thought with the ‘control your own drone’ situation,” Spinks says.

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Another pivot in the virtual world comes from Airbnb Experiences, which booked in-person activities with local guides before COVID-19. Now, the online version has taken off. Airbnb co-founder and chief executive Brian Chesky recently told Skift that “online experiences is by far the fastest growing product that we’ve ever launched.”

One big attraction: low prices. “It’s a low consideration purchase,” Chesky says. For less than $10, you can log into an hour-long coffee master experience with Ricardo, a judge in Mexican national coffee competitions.

For $15, you can take a virtual historical walking tour in Prague, following the route of a doctor who treated the plague in 1713 – which resonates during the current pandemic – and seeing sites such as the famous Charles Bridge.

Puerto Rico was the first destination to do Google Earth free guided tours starting on Tuesday. Each tour is 30 minutes in length, with three tours covering the island. Participants are able to ask questions while seeing El Yunque National Forest, bioluminescent bays and the city of Ponce.

But will these next-level virtual tours be as popular when the world opens up again? Spiropoulos says she thinks so. “It’s a different experience than reading a must-do or must-see list. You can ask questions while you’re on the virtual tour that you can only really get in person. I almost wish I’d been able to do it before I had gone on my trip last year.”

The potential is there, says Skift’s Spinks. “I see this as not a replacement for travel but a way to spur future bookings. And, in that sense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that kind of approach persisting once travel returns as a kind of a marketing tool.”

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In the meantime, maybe don’t make those poor tour guides jump too much.

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