Whether it’s because of a lockdown or the fear of going about due to COVID-19, travelling has become a distant memory to many of us, regardless of where we’re living. While we did have some form of freedom in travelling around our own countries when the cases started stabilising, the reality of the second wave has resulted in many people staying at home all over again.
If you’re one of the many people who long to experience the beautiful sceneries and cultures but aren’t able to travel due to the pandemic or other reasons, virtual tourism may be the long-term answer we’re looking for.
While nothing beats experiencing the place in person, virtual tourism definitely works wonders especially when you’re bored looking at the same four walls of your house. But what exactly is virtual tourism?
Think VR meets your favourite holiday destination and you’ve got the very foundation of what makes virtual tourism. This can then be further enhanced to add videos, interactive features, and even different elements like music, sound effect, and narration to enhance the experience for the ‘tourist’. You can pretty much travel anywhere, at any time, without any travel restrictions through virtual tourism.
Travel restriction isn’t the only issue addressed by virtual tourism. Many of us may just be getting used to the idea of not being able to travel freely and experience different places and cultures due to the pandemic, but there are many others who haven’t been able to travel to different destinations due to illnesses and even old age. So, virtual tourism is a huge asset to the travel industry as it caters to everyone’s different and unique needs.
Recently, Dr. Rokhshad Tavakoli, Senior Lecturer from the School of Hospitality, Tourism, and Events at Taylor’s University, along with a team of researchers, won the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Gold Award 2020 in the ‘Tourism for All’ category through her research on virtual tourism for senior citizens, making us the only Malaysian organisation to win this award this year.
Dr. Rokhshad’s journey started upon completing her undergraduate in Computer Software Engineering with a thesis in application of map guides for tourists. The focus on tourism then led her to join a Cultural and Heritage Organisation in Iran as Head of Informatics.
During her time there, she developed websites for promoting tangible and intangible heritage in Fars and Khuzestan province in three languages — Persian, English, and French. “It gave me the opportunity to understand the existence of a gap between the tourism sector and technology.”
Understanding the gap present, she furthered her Master’s degree, focusing her research on virtual tourism and continued her PhD thesis on rural tourism. Together with her knowledge in IT and her passion for tourism, she ventured into her award-winning research to understand more about how virtual tourism can encourage senior citizens to use VR for tourism after experiencing the new way of travelling firsthand.
“In this age where global trends are widely disseminated, travel operators must pay extra attention to the older population whose demand for future tourism service is potentially abundant,” she explains. “These companies must have the knowledge to cater for their wants and needs in actual and virtual travellers.”
With VR, Dr. Rokhshad believes their needs will be satisfied. “With the use of technology, travels are made possible for all, the senior citizens, the physically challenged as well as for those who cannot really afford. VR can provide immersive interactive experiences for users in virtual environments making tourism more accessible to people with political mobility barriers.”
Through her research, the joy of travelling is no longer exclusive to the young, able, and those who can afford it, but to each and every one of us.
“Seeing the smile on the residents’ faces at the end of each session was priceless. Giving them the joy of traveling is the gift we at The School of Hospitality, Tourism and Events of Taylor’s University are proud as well as humbled to provide to enhance their lives,” she said as she shared how the project was a unique journey to her.
Dr. Rokhshad has come a long way since starting her journey. She has since published various academic journals and is currently working on a paper concerning cyberfeminism in tourism. She also plans to extend her knowledge on Social Network Analysis (SNA) as well as big and smart data for her future research.
“My first concern is understanding the social aspects of the virtual tourist behaviour in 2D and 3D virtual worlds and tourism, including social media and virtual tourism. Secondly, I’m interested in continuing my research on the host experience in community-based tourism and hospitality like homestay programmes and couch surfing. Finally, I want to look at gender studies in tourism and events with a particular focus on the behaviour of Middle East female travellers,” she explained.
With that, she hopes to be able to attend a conference in the United Kingdom on the implications of Augmented Reality in presenting intangible cultural heritage.
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