Are Carbon-Free Holidays a (Virtual) Reality?

Is it possible to enjoy the feel-good factor of a far-flung getaway without getting eco-guilt for the plane ride there? In a post-pandemic world, virtual holidays may not be so novel. Considering their environmental impact and economic practicalities, we ask: will an online experience ever match up to travelling IRL?

We started the summer in the midst of a global pandemic, with international jaunts on ice. During our holiday hiatus, the environment had a chance to inhale some much-needed fresh air. Air pollution dropped. Mountains emerged from man-made smog. Waters became clear.

Now, as the travel corks are popping and bubbles beginning to flow across reopened borders, we can't help but wonder: how can we enjoy that feel-good factor of a trip without harming the Earth?

Enter: virtual holidays. This new realm promises to give us the joy of warm waves breaking over toes and sundowners on a far-off terrace, minus the carbon footprint. But can a virtual experience really bridge the gap between the joy of travel and the need to be more sustainable?

The digital travel sphere has blossomed during the pandemic, allowing us to embrace that feeling of being on the move and exploring far-off lands without leaving four walls. You can tune into virtual tours of the Taj Mahal or peruse your favourite gallery without wandering into the background of someone's selfie. It follows that harnessing this technology may help us explore the world in a more sustainable, eco-friendly way.

Air miles are a thing of the past with a virtual holiday. Zero emissions, a negligible carbon footprint, zero stress. Holiday in your front room and you'll harbour no eco-guilt about how you got to your (albeit virtual) destination.

Virtually Visiting, a travel agency with a vision to "empower people to experience the excitement of travel" through technology, are among the pioneers of the virtual holiday. At the time of writing, it's offering a free virtual trip to Swedish Lapland - complete with an itinerary. It's a remarkably immersive and educational experience, with guides "interacting" with you in such a natural way that you'd be forgiven for trying to converse back or perhaps find yourself cheering on your team of huskies as you journey through the Narnia-esque landscapes.

Virtually Visiting isn't a lone ranger in this field; other companies have also followed suit, with walking-tour companies offering virtual routes through major cities and the world's most scenic train journeys making their way to our screens. Catering to our growing desire for immediacy, the virtual world lets you plug in and enjoy.

To maximise the experience of virtual holidays, your smartphone alone probably isn't going to cut it. Transporting yourself to another destination really relies on a VR headset, although these needn't be expensive; the Google Cardboard sets you back less than a fiver - simply insert your phone and away you go. Stressful day on Zoom? Sign out at six and transport yourself to Paris for a sunset glass of wine within a few minutes. Aside from satisfying our hunger for holidays and new experiences, VR also provides travel possibilities and opportunities to those who have other barriers to travel, be they physical or political.

Tech-savvy? Time to go one step further. A blueprint for a more sophisticated, realistic virtual holiday could incorporate existing 5D cinematic experiences to interact with the senses, replicating a different atmosphere by simulating scent and touch. Think water droplets from the Amazon brushing your hand and bullet trains whizzing past in Tokyo. Travelling the world through taste has already been explored virtually through cooking classes and cocktail masterclasses, yet adding the smell of a freshly shaken mojito or the garlic notes exuding from an arrabbiata may just be the added edge a virtual escapade needs.

This year is testimony to the fact that technology can help us overcome obstacles, but the biggest obstacle facing the virtual holiday is whether or not it can really capture that feeling of escapism. We want to hear the roar of crowds jostling for space in spice markets, crush sand between our fingers, step off a plane and into sun-baked air. Can adrenaline-inducing adventures or cultural connections be truly replicated in the virtual sphere? If the holidays are premised on "getting away from it all", it's hard not to feel that we lose something from being able to plug in and out at will. Most of all, we want to help the industry get back on its feet and support the communities that rely on tourism. With virtual holidays that connection is lost and so are our much-needed travel dollars.

Virtual holidays allow us to do a small part in protecting Earth while still satisfying our hunger for adventure. Instead of taking several trips a year in a bid to race your way around the world, virtual holidays provide an element of escapism with little expense to the planet and your pocket. There may still leap between virtual experiences and those that happen IRL, but it'd be a mistake to overlook their potentially positive effect on the environment. All you need to do is plug in and unplug.

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