Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are two of the more quickly evolving fields of digital consumer technology, and travel industry players have already begun using the tech to market experiences to Chinese tourists. The technology can allow potential tourists to “test” the experience of being in a destination without leaving home–but its not enough for a destination to release a beautiful VR experience, it also has to be accessible to consumers.

The goal of the matchmaking hub is to connect European tourism and travel businesses to their counterparts in China to drive sales and tourism to Europe

To aid that, the first-ever EU-China Virtual Travel Fair on Cultural Tourism promises to bring B2B networking to more travel companies with VR exhibitor booths. The goal of the matchmaking hub is to connect European tourism players to their counterparts in China to drive sales and Chinese tourism to Europe.

On the consumer end, some of the most impressive VR travel experiences, like The Grand Canyon Experience and VR Museum of Fine Art, are primarily made for Western owners of the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift and to show off the capabilities of these devices, not necessarily to promote travel.

htc vive

The HTC Vive retails for almost $500, which puts the VR experience out of reach for most potential travelers. Photo: Shutterstock

Nonetheless, destination marketing organizations (DMOs) have already recognized the marketing potential of VR technology, even if they can’t match the quality of experiences produced by experienced software studios. Fáilte Ireland, for example, has jumpstarted its Chinese marketing efforts in the past few years, including a photo and television partnership with National Geographic this year. However, the organization also piloted a VR experience at ITB Berlin back in 2016. The experiences were eventually made available to potential tourists online, viewable through traditional browsers, smartphone VR setups, and full desktop computer VR setups.

Smaller cities in Japan have even latched onto the trend by publishing city-specific VR apps for smartphones so that users can explore scenic getaways before booking.

Fáilte Ireland’s initiative in Berlin mostly featured 360-degree videos. And while those videos can be more immersive than a standard video, the highest quality experiences will most certainly be through full VR desktop computer setups, as viewing a 360-degree video on a smartphone or browser isn’t nearly as realistic or engrossing. Unfortunately, higher-end VR promotional materials are not a priority for DMOs as not enough consumers have adopted the technology.

Ctrip.com International, the largest online travel agency in Asia, intends to bridge this gap in China. The company stated that it plans to set up VR stations at its physical retail spaces to bring virtual access to over 1,000 attractions to customers. Ideally, it will give consumers access to high-quality travel VR experiences without having to fork over a hefty sum to purchase the necessary equipment. The initiative may also give Ctrip a substantial marketing edge, as there are currently no other online travel agencies with physical spaces or the funds necessary to host these kinds of promotional setups for consumers.

Augmented reality, unlike virtual reality, is fully accessible to anyone with a smartphone. And beyond simply promoting a destination, AR can help improve a visitor’s experience after arrival

While AR technology offers a less immersive experience compared to VR, it’s vastly more accessible. Virtually any consumer with a smartphone can use AR software. Baidu Inc., operator of China’s most popular search engine, has launched its own AR WeChat mini-program for the Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou, China.

The mini-program displays a virtual animal on the smartphone screen imposed on the real-life surroundings that the tourists are currently seeing. The mini-program is designed to boost digital interactivity and provide visitors information about the animals they’re seeing, along with guiding them around the park. While AR may seem gimmicky, it’s proven to have incredible potential with programs like Niantic’s “Pokemon Go.”

VR and AR offer potential for DMOs travel companies to connect with potential consumers. The EU’s use of the technology for travel fairs is an interesting approach, but only time will tell if virtual reality travel fairs will prove to be a popular alternative to physically attending fairs and expos. The key advantage this approach has is that it would be available year-round and be accessible to anyone with a computer or smartphone.

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