Digitalization and the value of various tourist locales

Miles, a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

I’ve spent a fair amount of time today at my desk in California looking at this, and it got me thinking about an interesting interplay between the tourism industry and the “digital revolution”:

(use the +/- buttons to zoom and drag to shift the view)

After finding people and understanding the scale of those mountains, I am in awe of Everest and the Himalayas, but feel absolutely no need to travel there. A digital representation has given me an amazing experience of a place on the other side of the world, and at least for this particular occasion, has convinced me never to go there (try to find the people climbing the upper portion of the glacier and you’ll understand why). So maybe some amazing (non deadly) location would convince me that I need to visit in person, but at some point, the digital experience gets so good that it’s a better, cheaper alternative to travelling. If in a few hundred years we can create digital experiences far more immersive than physical visits to locations, what experiences/amenities/etc will induce people to travel? Where will tourism die off (Himalayas), where will it increase (Paris)? As you say, solve for the equilibrium.

Thought it might make for an interesting discussion.

I predict that bustling, interactive locations — such as Guatemala — will do fine, and it is the static nature settings which will face a bit more competition.  That said, while I have never visited the Himalayas, I suspect the trip there involves a lot of bustling interaction with local cultures and that the final destination is in part an excuse for the process.  Keep also in mind that most of us do not in fact enjoy travel but enjoy only the memories of travel, with our minds playing a fairly active role as editor.  I doubt if the memory of visiting the digital image will ever compare, even if the image itself is more beautiful and more convenient than the reality of an actual physical site.  Finally, there is marketing to consider.  The digital image may market the original, just as the rather vivid LOTR movies have boosted tourism to New Zealand rather than replacing it.  So overall I still see tourism as a continuing growth industry.


Myself, I find that the money that could be spent travelling is better spent having sex with call girls.

I will have less trouble believing digital experience is a substitute for in-person experience when people stop paying large amounts of money to attend concerts, sporting events and lectures by famous people. I think TED charges attendees over $7,000 as a "contribution" to watch lectures in person that everyone else can watch for free on the internet.

In any case, the Himalayas are an especially poor example of the power of looking at pictures on the internet as most people who are motivated to visit the Himalayas do so not to be passive observers of nature scenery but rather do so because they enjoy the activities of hiking and mountain climbing and they probably appreciate the cultural experience as well.

I am struck by how many people at sporting events are watching them through the lens on their phone as they record them, though. Especially during key moments when there is lots of cheering. I don't understand that.

"I'm here, and you're not."

coz I am in bed with your wife and you're not.


"WHAT! Oh wait, I don't have a wife...."

One might as well ask why will we need friends, when computers will be able to create much handier 3D simulations of friends -- you could even program them to always laugh at your jokes and never ask to borrow $20. Wouldn't that be a superior experience?

There are some people who experience nature statically, namely those who simply look at it from the tour bus, or who get out of the car to walk 20 feet to a Grand Canyon overlook, gaze for 5 minutes, and then get back in the car to drive back to Las Vegas. Those people may find that the digital experience is just as good as the real one, because their real experience is so impoverished. But someone who actually hikes into the Grand Canyon, and pauses to press a finger against a cactus spine to see just how sharp it is, tosses some pebbles into the Colorado river, experiences the dehydrating heat near the bottom and the ice at the top on the same day, and just in general wants to explore for themselves rather than experiencing what some designer or programmer set up for them to experience, will find the 3D simulation not anywhere close to the reality. Not for decades at any rate.

E.M. Forster wrote an amazingly prescient short story which foretold this, in 1909: "The Machine Stops."
Or there's Ray Bradbury, who got at a portion of it with his short story "The Pedestrian".

Next you'll be telling me reading books about places means I won't have the need to go see them!

Already when I view a fireworks display or a cathedral I think "This would be so much cooler if I could be flying a plane through the bursts or climbing around on the gargoyles like you do in Tomb Raider!" Physical travel is lame.

Bah, you just have to brave it. Pack a grappling hook.

Tourism will cease when, well, never. People don't go there for the experience of being there. People go there for the experience of telling other people that they have been there. This applies to all "there".

My thoughts exactly. Bragging about "having seen a picture of the Himalayas" is pretty lame.

I have a hard time believing that seeing a picture of a place is equivalent to visiting it. The size and scope of things like Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon or the pyramids can't really be experienced on a small computer screen. Besides, it's not just visuals that matter, it's the feeling of being there. The wind on your face or dry heat of the desert or the humidity of the rain forest. The sounds of the rain forest or a busting city center can't be accurately captured and experienced via computer. Hell, eating local cuisine and experiencing culture can't be replicated via computer either.

You're a member of a small and dwindling minority. In general, people dislike being inconvenienced, uncomfortable and bored, all things that are likely to occur in the course of travel. Tourists have no interest in eating whatever bugs and weird plants the locals ingest, they want the familiar, hamburgers and pizza. They also want air conditioning and free wi-fi. That's why cruise ships are so popular.

Some people do, some people don't. Cruise ships are popular. On the other hand, tourism to India seems to have increased over the years which pretty much provides the polar opposite to the cruise ship experience. I don't see any evidence that independent tourists are a "dwindling minority" and, indeed, I see plenty of anecdotal and numerical evidence to the contrary. At the same time that digital technology provides higher resolution images of various places, it also makes it possible to book flights, hotels and train tickets remotely and makes available various travel blogs so that trip planning has become easier and cheaper than ever. Economic growth in India, China, and Southeast Asia is creating a whole new middle class with the disposable income to afford international travel on all the budget airlines that are sprouting up to cater to them. The rise of English as a global language is also making travel easier.

In terms of 'exotic' places like the Himalayas, a gigapixel images does not begin to capture the feel of the place -- the sounds and smells, the changeable weather, the pleasure of physical exertion -- let alone the people and culture. I do use online imagery a lot, though, to figure out where I'd like to go. The community images in Google Earth are handy for that.

But for sporting events, I very rarely go anymore and when I do, I feel like the 'studio audience' -- sitting through long TV timeouts and unable to see the game as well as at home. Sometimes I catch myself watching the action on the jumbotron--because I can see better--which is *really* stupid. Being part of the roaring crowd is fun, but it's not enough.

This seems sort of the same as reading a summary of a book or a play versus actually reading or watching the whole thing. Someone can tell you in 30 seconds that Romeo and Juliet were from competing families, fell in love despite of that and ultimately committed suicide, but still people read or watch the whole thing instead of moving on to another story.

I do this all the time for movies that I know I'm never goingto see.

Sure, we all do, but the option certainly doesn't stop people from watching movies altogether.

In Total Recall (1990), virtual vacations are predicted to happen in 2084. "Despite warnings from his co-workers, Quaid visits "Rekall", a company that uses memory implants to give its clients experiences of fabulous vacations."

As someone who's been to the top of Kala Pattar (very small mountain in the Everest vicinity), trekked to the Base Camp, and spent several weeks with the Sherpas there on the way up and down, this online tour doesn't do a damn of a representation of how pristine and serene the world up there is.

I suspect in years from now, high-end virtual reality might be able to – I don't think it's impossible. However, the only people who can afford the machine at first will be the ones who like their nice vacations (with excellent guides and five star hotels and wines etc. that cannot be replaced, ever).

Google Art Project hasn't replaced tourism to Paris or Italy.

Actually getting to, hiking across and camping in Isle Royale in no way compares to "interacting" with it digitally.

Even if you could have a virtual surprise meeting with a moose on a trail, you will not forget it when that happens in real life. Amazing how big they are. And hearing wolves howling at night under a very dark and starry sky....

I like the idea of, say, Venice with fewer people - but I find it unlikely that virtual experiences will make a noticeable difference. Digital will be advertising.

As a child, my parents took my family all over Europe in a VW bus. I did not like it. My main complaint is the insects. Europe is full of them. As an adult, I don't mind insects (I raise Drosophila), but I'm very averse to travel. Three years in European campgrounds is more than enough travel for a lifetime.

And the scary roads. I don't remember seeing guard rails anywhere in Europe. (This was the 1960's.) In many places, the roads were like a scratch along the very sheer face of a mountain range, with only inches between the edge of the road and a steep drop all the way to Hell. Southern Europe is full of scary roads. Insects, scary roads, food poisoning, Gypsies -- you can keep them.

I suspect personality features have a large impact on this effect.

I'd be intrigued by a travel agency that takes you somewhere you had no idea you'd be going.

Online social media increases the popularity of tourism. Being able to show off pictures increases the returns to traveling.

If you are a young adult and have a decent amount of friends on Facebook, your newsfeed is bombarded with girls posting bikini shots from Punta Cana or Koh Samoi and guys posing at Macchu Pichu and the like.

If you are a frequent traveler you may like increased tourism as it increases safety. However, it comes at the cost of spoiling the locales in question. Net net, I'd say it roughly cancels out.

This also seems relevant when it comes to manned versus un-manned space exploration. It's not like you can travel to mars and then step outside to breathe in the fresh martian air. I imagine that the digital experience provided by Curiosity especially considering that it is likely less than 1% of the cost of a manned expedition.

The virtual experience will continue to get better and cheaper and more immersive each year. Do I take a tourist trip to Honolulu for a month's salary, or do I download the free immersive app which allows me to surf 20 foot pipe? Do I spend two months salary to tour France. Or do I try the virtual Louvre app? Will I spend two years salary on a larger house, or do I download the $10 a month virtual mansion house projection system?

The answer of course is that we will choose both. Virtual reality will change everything. It already has, but we ain't seen nothin yet.

Wow, did I just read that? How can someone be so disconnected to the world that they think seeing a picture of a place comes anywhere close to experiencing it? I studied economics in undergrad, and this is exactly why I decided no to do my graduate studies in that field. It's a field that tries to rationalize everything and seems to blunt the intuition of many. The world is a beautiful place, full of beauty, dangers, adventures and discoveries. Experience it my friend.

I think Miles could marry a RealDoll and think he's in love...

Could the effect of digitization be just the opposite of the prediction of this post?

Ask yourself this question: did George Eastman's film camera, and pictures of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, etc. spur tourism or replace it.

Digital experiences may be complements and not substitutes.

I suspect that the high quality of travel voyeurism will reinforce the predisposition of those who prefer the arm chair to stay in the arm chair, while it will equally reinforce the pull to be there, to experience that for those who have always prefered to be on the move. The most pronounced impact may be on those on the chair arm-- who might be happy to stay put but can be motivated by the quality and avalability of the digital experience. This would be consistent with research on cause and effect in other venues.

I share the idea of "what we really enjoy is the memories of travel". It's a fact that with internet we are able to "give a glance" to some areas before planning a trip, but even the worst trip in life would have a nice memory.

I read recently how, when film was first invented, some people thought it would be the end of grief. How could you grieve for a dead person when, whenever you wanted, you could put on a filmstrip and see them walking around the room & talking? But as we quickly realized, it's far from an adequate substitute. And even switching out grainy 8mm for HD digital video doesn't change that.

A lot of people may like only the visual experience, some just want to show off, but many just like to travel, the feeling of being in motion, or to be somewhere you've never been, and all that comes from that.

Taking a deep breath when getting on the bus/train/car/plane/bike to leave home will always be the best sensation of any trip I take, and that's not possible to simulate.

But if those simulations could stop grumpy annoying people who can't enjoy the act of traveling, that'd be great and make tourist locations much better places to enjoy.

I agree with all the comments above. But I can see two uses for this technology, both of which supplement actual physical travel.

The first is in cases where you can't do the actual physical travel, due to being able to afford the cost, time, or other physical limitations. The Himalayas are not easy to get too, especially the higher parts. Understanding its not the same as going there, digitally experiencing the Himalayas is better than nothing. And of course you will have instances where you can't go and see the physical object because it is no longer there. Venice, which was an example raised above, is probably not going to be around for much longer. The Last Supper is disintegrating. Digital Venice is not the same thing, but its better than nothing and would be of inestimable value for historians.

Disney World does a good job of creating facsimiles of various places, and is popular because it is cheaper and easier to go to Florida and experience a mock-up of the African plains than to go on a safari in Africa. Before Disney the various World Fairs did the same thing.

The second use I can see for this is to help people research a destination, to see if they really want to visit it in real life, and if so which parts they should concentrate on.

Where are the climbers? Are they in the bowl at the top?

Take a look at the bottom. You will see tents along the left-side of the broken-up glacier.

I don't see anyone actually climbing but there may be some.

Check out the Microsoft Xbox/Illumiroom/holodeck, not going to help the travel industry:

Not many people go to see the Himalayas, anyway. There is not that much opportunity for substitution compared to lower-cost destinations.

Tourism is primarily about getting away from one's normal life, anyway.

I've a batch of old Playboys and a free hand. Who needs women?

Hiking the Grand Canyon (to say nothing of the Himalayas) involves a real element of risk that even immersive, highest-possible-fidelity virtual reality will not. Swallowing down one's innate reaction to vertical exposure becomes an entirely different memory when the fall would have posed no danger whatsoever.

I looked out the window once on a flight from Chicago to San Francisco. Does that mean I've been to Nebraska?

It's about the journey. Not the destination.

Comments for this post are closed