Goodbye to travel — for now. Due to COVID-19, planes are grounded around the world and any plans to visit anywhere, here or abroad, are on pause.

During these strange days the idea of online anything is proving more attractive — and vital. Families experience first-time conference calls, while musicians around the world put on internet gigs for locked-down audiences. Travel, too, is just a tap away, thanks to virtual reality.

VR is not new. Dating back further than Nintendo’s 1995 Virtual Boy (a commercial failure), VR has mostly remained a clunky novelty until the past decade. From 2010, with the advent of Oculus and even Google’s interactive 360-degree Street View, exploring the world virtually has become more viable.

Today there are plenty of 360 videos to escape into, partly thanks to better technology allowing regular folk to film and upload their own interactive videos to YouTube. Press play and drag to move the scenery — no headset required — or utilize the affordable Google Cardboard (a viewer into which you slot your smartphone), moving your actual head to immerse yourself. Quest and Rift S by Oculus, as well as HTC Vive, are some of the high-end options with their own standalone software.

Although we are all stuck indoors, many governments recommend outdoor exercise. The San Francisco County health department, for example, says outdoor activities such as “walking, hiking or running” are fine “provided the individuals comply with social distancing requirements.” The U.K. government also condones venturing outside for your health, but recently warned citizens to “stay local” and refrain from driving to green spaces.

However, if your slice of urban life is more concrete than leafy, a city walk may not be fulfilling. Besides, if you crave adventures further afield, then all you can do is dream. With VR, at least, you can dream in high-definition.

Sea Stacks on a foggy day, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. | GETTY IMAGES

Armchair adventures

“You are standing in the largest single cave chamber in North America,” says the voice of a ranger, the echo resonating. “It’s bigger than six football fields.”

She leads us from Carlsbad Caverns’ aptly named Big Room on an off-trail tour of its Lower Cave — where no natural light has ever shined, she tells us in the eerie glow of tottering headlamps.

This is “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks,” an informative venture by Google Arts & Culture. Created in 2016, this foray into VR allows users to explore not only Carlsbad Caverns, but four other American national parks: Bryce Canyon in Utah, Dry Tortugas (Florida), Hawaii Volcanoes and Alaska’s remote Kenai Fjords.

A more high-end option, Google Earth VR gives you the chance to fly around, well, Earth in virtual reality — from the streets of Tokyo to the Grand Canyon (available on VR headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive).

Also igniting dreams of travel in this time of little transit, YouTube channel VR World Travel has been providing 360-degree windows into global wanderings since 2016. And in lieu of visiting their countries, some governments and tourism boards around the world have been inviting virtual tourists to travel vicariously through VR.

Responding to the crisis, the Austrian government’s tourism site suggests we “explore the world with our minds.” The site’s VR service allows unadulterated tours inside stately abodes such as the home of Amadeus Mozart in Salzburg (courtesy of virtual tour platform Matterport) and Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace, as well as natural wonders including Austria’s highest mountain, Grossglockner (3,798 meters).

In 2015, Oculus worked with the tourism board of British Columbia to create “The Wild Within,” featuring the pristine coastlines and rainforests of the Canadian province. In 2019, the company added a Machu Picchu upgrade to “National Geographic Explore VR,” available on their Oculus Quest platform.

And if you feel like a tour of Buckingham Palace, that is possible, too; join Master of the Household Tony Johnstone-Burt on a 360-degree tour of the palace via the Royal Family YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, in Japan

Many destinations in Japan, some wonderfully offbeat, become visitable courtesy of 360 Panorama’s Japan VR Tour. Offering surprisingly high-resolution imagery of various slices of Japan, this option features background music and clickable arrows to move between areas, feeling more like an adventure game than a VR experience.

Hanami's not over: Didn't get the chance to see the cherry blossom this year? Check it out now in virtual reality. | OSCAR BOYD
Hanami’s not over: Didn’t get the chance to see the cherry blossom this year? Check it out now in virtual reality. | OSCAR BOYD

Japan VR Tour features unique spots to explore. You can see the former JNR Shibetsu Line Okuyukiusu Station in Betsukai, Hokkaido; the white sands of Nagannu Island, Okinawa; or embrace your inner urban explorer to discover one of Japan’s many coveted haikyo (ruins). Tread virtually through the graffiti-clad corridors of Okinawa’s Nakagusuku Highland Hotel, or wander the halls of Maya Tourist Hotel, an abandoned Art Deco wonder built in 1929.

Other VR experiences, such as Kushiro VR, give viewers the chance to experience Kushiro, Hokkaido, by canoeing along its rivers, horse riding and visiting Kiritappu Wetlands, among other virtual activities.

Elsewhere, if like many people you missed hanami (blossom-viewing) trips and parties this year, fear not: website Weather News boasts a list of popular cherry blossom spots in VR glory from Ueno Park to Hirosaki Park.

So even if you are at stuck home, the adventures don’t have to stop.

To use “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” by Google Arts & Culture, head here. Available only in Japanese, VR Tour Japan can be accessed here. VR experiences can be had with Google Cardboard for as little as ¥621 from the Google Cardboard store; they even supply online instructions to build your own viewer. For a more expensive but immersive adventure, the Oculus Rift S VR headset is available from the company’s website for ¥49,800.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.