Virtual tours become reality: Travel Weekly

Virtual tours become reality: Travel Weekly

A lifeline for tour operators

Amazon began rolling out its program at the end of September with an invitation-only beta launch. While it has yet to make any big public launch announcements, it opened that platform to all U.S. customers at the end of 2020 and now offers more than 200 experiences from tour operators and other partners around the world.

The company said Amazon Explore was created to “virtually transport people to other parts of the world through exciting, vibrant and customized livestreaming experiences with local experts” while offering individuals and small businesses access “to millions of customers on Amazon while setting their own prices and hours.”

Tour operators that have been among the early partners say it has enabled them to keep guides employed and tourism-dependent businesses open, even if only part-time, during a year in which international tourism was largely shuttered.

Travel partners include well-known names like Intrepid as well as smaller, regionally focused companies like Ken’s Tours Kyoto and Asuaire, which specializes in travel to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Guatemala.

Ken Sakata, founder of Ken’s Tours Kyoto, said he first got involved with Amazon Explore in 2019 and that learning the technology enabled him to stay in business during the pandemic while Japan remains closed to Americans, who had previously formed his primary market.

Ken Sakata, founder of Ken’s Tours Kyoto, leads a virtual tour.

Ken Sakata, founder of Ken’s Tours Kyoto, leads a virtual tour.

To date, he has sold about 100 experiences, including tours of Kyoto’s historical district, geisha experiences, shopping tours and meditation sessions at a Zen Buddhist temple, although not all through the Amazon platform.

Intrepid Travel said its day tour brand, Intrepid Urban Adventures, has been able to keep about 70 guides working by offering the one-on-one experiences through Amazon.

Additionally, Cristina Calvo, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Asuaire, said the platform has also allowed her company to keep some local tourism-dependent businesses operating, at least part time.

“There are very good stories about products that we are currently selling, like a woodworking experience,” she said. “It’s a very small factory, and they were going to close down because 95% of their sales were done through hotels or craft shops that depend 100% on tourism. It was a great opportunity for us to actually showcase, through Amazon, how the factory works. They were able to keep the workers and also keep the store open to at least sell online. That was very powerful.”

Through Amazon Explore, Asuaire was able to help tourism-dependent businesses, like this small woodworking shop in Costa Rica, stay open for virtual tours and online shopping during the pandemic.

Through Amazon Explore, Asuaire was able to help tourism-dependent businesses, like this small woodworking shop in Costa Rica, stay open for virtual tours and online shopping during the pandemic.

Asuaire also features meditation sessions and has recently added tours of a wildlife refuge center, which also relies heavily on visits and donations from tourists to fund operations. 

Calvo sees the income from the Amazon Explore platform as a complement, not a replacement, for travel.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to show what Costa Rica has to offer,” both to people who are considering a trip to the country and to people who can’t travel, she added. “It’s a more powerful way to connect than to put on videos and say, ‘Look at Costa Rica.’ That doesn’t have the same reach.”

Asuaire offers private virtual tours of the Natuwa wildlife rescue center in Costa Rica.

Asuaire offers private virtual tours of the Natuwa wildlife rescue center in Costa Rica.

She also sees it as an affordable tool that travel advisors can use in the travel-planning process. Her prices on the platform generally range from about $30 to $80.

“So it’s not that expensive, but it’s also a one-on-one experience, so you are able to connect privately,” she said. 

“It’s a way to help [advisors] sell at the top of the funnel,” she said. “I think it helps engage future clients. For example, if they have people interested in Peru, it’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to experience a cooking class?’”

Or, she said, if agents have a client interested in wellness, they give them a related experience as a gift. “They can say, ‘use this code, and you can get a free meditation,’” she said. “So the potential is huge.”

Amazon Explore also enables travelers to make personal connections in a country before they arrive, Calvo said.

For instance, Calvo said she was planning a trip to Tokyo last year. She still plans to go, but now she can do a virtual Tokyo tour to start meeting people before she travels.

“I will go there. I will make it,” she said. “And then, all these friends that I might be connecting with, talking to, I would definitely love to meet outside the virtual space. So I think that just has great potential.”

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