Tour OperatorsFrom van Gogh to kaya toast, Asia’s tourism sector embraces virtual experiences to spark future visits. But is the trend here to stay?

The good, the bad and the new reality

Tribe pivoted to virtual tours when the pandemic brought global travel to a halt.
Tribe pivoted to virtual tours when the pandemic brought global travel to a halt.

Founded by Hainanese immigrants in 1919, Killiney Kopitiam is a cornerstone of Singapore’s diverse culinary scene, serving crispy kaya toast and rich robusta coffee at 20 outlets nationwide. But how many locals or tourists have ever seen inside a Killiney kitchen?

To maintain engagement you need to break the monotony of the one-way download; viewers need to actively engage with you and have a conversation.”– Law Yock Song, Tribe

Peering behind the scenes of some of Singapore’s celebrated food and beverage businesses and factories—while munching on their home-delivered products—is the idea behind Tribe Tours’ live stream series. The boutique tour and event planning company is one of many businesses across Asia that expanded to virtual experiences after the global halt in travel.

Virtual travel is here to stay, according to Tribe Tours’ head of partnerships and business development Law Yock Song, but engagement is essential.

“Our livestream tours need to be something that is not so easily searchable on YouTube or Google. To maintain engagement you need to break the monotony of the one-way download; viewers need to actively engage with you and have a conversation.”

He added, “When you go behind the scenes, there is always a constraint in terms of capacity, but with livestreaming we are enabling that access.”

Along with their recent Killiney tour, Tribe guides have invited viewers to a curry puff factory, a traditional bakery, and to learn about Peranakan culture at museum-shop Rumah Kim Choo. Tickets cost S$6 (US$4.40) with various product bundles available.

Despite his optimism, Law admitted that, like most virtual travel suppliers, Tribe is struggling to monetise its online offerings. “Some participants say they could be priced higher, whereas others say they don’t want to pay for virtual products.”

He spoke of China’s vast virtual travel space, where most content is free and monetised through product placement and advertising.

Yet the Singaporean is confident that virtual travel will remain in the post-pandemic era. “We’ve grown familiar with the technology; the acceptance of virtual meetings and conferences has led us to accepting virtual travel too. It gives us all the tools to help us keep our sanity, to know what’s out there and to indulge our wanderlust — and that’s a positive thing.”

Tribe's livestream tours bring virtual viewers behind the scenes of some of Singapore's F&B purveyors.
Tribe's livestream tours bring virtual viewers behind the scenes of some of Singapore's F&B purveyors.

Sampan Travel in Myanmar also acknowledges the potential of virtual tours, despite revenue challenges. The boutique tour operator shifted its historical tour of the Burma campaign online after the physical tour was postponed due to the pandemic. At US$99, the seven-part event is one of the region’s more expensive virtual tours, however, 10% goes towards a local charity and 100% of the ticket price will go towards future bookings with the multi-award winning operator.

Sampan’s managing director, Bertie Alexander Lawson, said that “normally when we do our tours a lot of that money goes directly towards Myanmar people—guides, hoteliers, drivers—but not with this virtual tour. We wanted there to be another beneficiary, as we’re very aware there are a lot of people in Myanmar who are really struggling with loss of income.”

Lawson said Sampan is considering future “lighter, more interactive” virtual tours, although he did admit that in terms of bringing in sufficient revenue, “I don’t think it’s that easy to do in the long run.”

While industry watchers agree virtual travel is now a permanent fixture in the tourism sector, they say it will be temporary on a broader scale.

According to Chetan Kapoor, co-founder and chief strategy officer of VIDEC, a travel, tourism and hospitality analytics and advisory firm, “the things that will remain could be more of the previews and teasers to extensive on-the-ground experiences once travel kicks in.”

Kapoor advised that suppliers need to experiment with virtual being a permanent part of their greater experience. “This could be more mass, and light, and going forward it would not need that much manual effort. That’s the balance suppliers will need to strike to figure out the unit economics.”

In Thailand, virtual experiences enabled arts and antiques centre River City Bangkok to strengthen online engagement, which then translated to significant rises in ticket sales once the national lockdown ended. During its closure earlier in the year, the arts centre ran animated presentations about two upcoming exhibitions—Vincent van Gogh and Andy Warhol—alongside 360-degree tours of current exhibitions.

David Robinson, managing director of Vivid Bangkok, the destination marketing company which curates the centre’s exhibitions, said he saw virtual travel as a necessity. “I think virtual tours are a great way to keep top of mind, and what ours didn’t make in revenue, they turned out to be a successful marketing model.”

Photo Credit: The Vietnam Tourism Board offers 360-degree tours of the country's unique attractions, including Thien Hau Temple (pictured) in Ho Chi Minh City.

National tourism boards across the region have also embraced virtual tourism to spark future visits, though some more innovatively than others.

The Vietnam Tourism Board offers “15 ways to visit Vietnam from home,” including 360-degree tours created by Halo Digital Media of UNESCO Heritage Sites, cities, natural wonders and golf courses (with three of the courses featuring a voice-over from champion golfer and course architect Greg Norman), alongside video series, recipes and virtual backgrounds.

“We wanted to create a space for travellers to connect with and explore Vietnam, and find inspiration for future trips,” said Esther de la Cruz, managing editor of Vietnam’s Tourism Advisory Board, which manages the portal. “For those who miss the sights, sounds and tastes of Vietnam, these virtual experiences keep the travel dream alive and in focus.”

Introducing travellers to places they may not have known existed in Vietnam is another goal. “We want to remind the world of all Vietnam has to offer, and creating beautiful stories and online adventures is our favourite way to do that,” de la Cruz concluded.

Despite drastically reducing production and participation costs, travel agents are eager for virtual travel fairs to return to physical formats once restrictions ease. Pauline Suharno, secretary general of the Indonesian Travel Agents Association (ASTINDO), said that after their most recent virtual event, buyers and sellers commented that they just couldn’t feel the chemistry.

“We need complete sensory experiences, and we need to be away from our homes—not only in front of the laptop all day long.”

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