Digital travel is an emerging trend reshaping the way we explore the world. Could it be the future of tourism?
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Is there a market for digital travel?

Digital travel is an emerging trend reshaping the way we explore the world. Could it be the future of tourism?

Would you like to travel digitally rather than jumping on a bus, a train, or a plane? And would you be willing to pay for travel and/or associated services? Find out about travellers’ views on digital travel, and if (and how much) they would pay for it.

Digital travel surveyed

A recent survey conducted in Norway sheds light on travellers’ views on digital travel and their willingness to invest in such services compared to traditional physical travel. A total of 632 participants were randomly selected based on demographic criteria to ensure a representative sample of Norwegian travellers.

Physical travel, while popular, raises concerns due to its environmental impact, including carbon emissions and resource depletion at tourist destinations. Additionally, it poses health risks as pathogens can easily spread among passengers, a concern highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, digital travel offers a safer and more eco-friendly alternative, often at a lower cost. The pandemic underscored the demand for travel while prompting the exploration of digital alternatives.

Figure 1: Virtual Teatro Juarez (Forza Horizon 5)
Credit. Author

The survey introduced participants to various forms of digital travel, including virtual tourism applications designed to simulate real travel experiences. This included showcasing travel applications designed to evoke a sense of being there, serving as alternatives to physical travel. To demonstrate the potential of digital travel, participants were shown a short video from the Forza Horizon 5 video game, set in Mexico.

The findings suggest that digital travel has the potential to reshape travel preferences, with implications for the tourism industry.

Visiting Mexico in a virtual environment

A recent video showcased various locations in Mexico, juxtaposing real-life images from a popular video game with their digital counterparts. Critics have praised the game for its meticulous attention to detail in replicating the environment, including buildings.

Figure 2. Heroica Mulegé – the real vs. the virtual (Forza Horizon 5)
Credit. Author

Many travel and tourism firms focus on enticing people to journey and purchase related services. Advertising and marketing play pivotal roles in these industries, as studies have indicated that virtual representations of destinations, whether immersive or not, can heighten interest in visiting them.

Figure 3. Virtual Parque Municipal de Beisbol Jose Acguilar y Maya (Forza Horizon 5)
Credit. Author

The travellers’ point of view

According to responses from travellers surveyed, only a small proportion perceive digital travel as a complete replacement for physically visiting a destination. However, a larger number consider it acceptable for marketing purposes and as a means to provide a preview of what a place offers. When questioned about specific activities during a digital visit, a significant minority reported feeling that the experience was on par with or close to that of an actual visit.

The majority of travellers do not regard digital travel as a direct substitute or alternative to the physical experience. Around 20% of respondents, whom we categorize as “future digital travellers,” expressed views indicating that their digital experiences resembled those of traditional in-person visits.

Figure 4. The use of digital applications, % of travellers answering
Credit. Author

Willingness to pay

Expressing a willingness to pay doesn’t necessarily guarantee actual spending, but it serves as a valuable gauge of potential market interest for services that travel companies could offer profitably to customers. Questions regarding travellers’ willingness to pay encompassed visits to digital museums and tourist attractions, purchases of concert or theatre tickets, and adoption of digital alternatives to avoid queues. 40% of all travellers expressed readiness to pay for certain digital travel products.

Figure 5. % of travellers answering: Yes, I am willing to pay for a digital alternative
Credit. Author

Following that, only 40% of participants who expressed a willingness to pay were questioned about their price thresholds. A physical museum ticket typically carries a set price. Participants were then prompted to indicate their readiness to pay in relation to the cost of visiting a specific destination. Among all participants willing to pay, only 15% stated they would be willing to pay 50% or more, contrasting with 24% of future digital travellers.

Figure 6. Willingness to pay-how much compared to actual ticket prices
Credit. Author

Conclusion

The majority of travellers do not perceive digital experiences as adequate substitutes for on-site experiences. However, 40% of travellers expressed a willingness to invest in digital travel products. “Future Digital Travellers,” who regard digital travel as a viable alternative to physical journeys, were twice as inclined to pay 50% or more of the equivalent cost compared to those who do not.

These future digital travellers tended to be younger (aged 18-29) and possessed only primary education. Further analysis of their personal characteristics revealed a predisposition towards optimism coupled with diminished resistance to peer influence. They did not exhibit higher levels of creativity or reflection, nor were they more inclined to take risks compared to other groups.

The findings of the study suggest the presence of an emerging market for digital travel, which businesses within the travel sector could potentially leverage. As immersive technology continues to advance and become more affordable, the prevalence of convincing digital travel experiences is expected to rise. These digital offerings may serve as enticing add-ons or previews for future travel destinations. Additionally, for a subset of holidaymakers, digital travel is increasingly viewed as an appealing substitute for physical journeys to various destinations and events.  

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Journal reference

Tjostheim, I., & Waterworth, J. A. (2022, December). Is There a Market for Digital Travel? Travellers’ Views on Digital Travel and Willingness to Pay. In International Conference on Marketing and Technologies (pp. 635-645). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-99-0333-7_46

Ingvar Tjostheim holds a PhD in Informatics from Umeå University. He is an associate professor at Hauge School of Management, NLA, and a senior researcher at the Norwegian Computing Center. Tjostheim's research areas include telepresence and digital travel, risk and digital vulnerabilities, and e-learning with serious games. His work is both theoretical and applied and is often conducted in cooperation with industry partners.

John Waterworth is a consultant, writer, and reviewer, focusing on the psychological aspects of ICT application design and use in a wide variety of applications and settings. A central concern is the actual and potential impact of information technology on quality of life. John holds a PhD in Experimental Psychology and is a Chartered Psychologist of the British Psychological Society. He is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Informatics, Umeå University.