The sun rises slowly above the horizon of the African savanna. Against its glowing light can be seen the silhouettes of an elephant family rambling through the grassland on their quest for the nearest waterhole. Impalas and zebras make their way through the wilderness, the birds chirp and it can be sensed that the day is going to be a hot one.
This scene in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in Mpumalanga, one of the best-known safari regions of South Africa, seems very real. But, in fact, the tourists who are enjoying it are not sitting in jeeps, but at home watching it on their smartphones and tablets. The safari itself is really taking place, however, and, as in real life, every trip is different, adding to the pleasure of such virtual experiences.
Since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the tourism industry has collapsed across all the countries in Africa. National parks and hotels are empty and there is no trace of tourists, as they are all stuck at home.
But several African tourism associations have come up with the idea of supplying avid travelers with digital impressions of the continent during the pandemic. Virtual tourism is on the rise.
Safaris at home
Safaris in Kenya, strolls through the Namib desert in Namibia, paragliding in South Africa or standing on the edge of the Victoria Falls at the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe: All of these experiences can now be enjoyed at home by virtual tourists like Juan Santiago.
Santiago, who hails from the Spanish capital, Madrid, has already visited Kenya a couple of times at this time of year to watch the migration of wildebeest in the Maasai Mara game reserve, a phenomenon that has often been called one of the Wonders of the World.
But this year, things are different. Instead of going to Kenya, Santiago is paying a virtual visit to the Nairobi National Park. "If the safari is led well, you have the atmosphere of the Nairobi National Park at home. Everything happens in real time," he says. "Even if my family tours Kenya without me after the coronavirus pandemic, this technology lets me accompany them virtually."
A chance to survive
Kenya has already lost more than $750 million (€656 million) in revenue from tourism since the first case of COVID-19 in the country. That is why, in June, the tourism authority there initiated a live-stream drive as part of its #TheMagicAwaits campaign. It is meant to give the world a taste of what awaits in Kenya when the country is open to visitors once more, says Betty Radier, the managing director of the Kenya Tourism Board.
"People are online and looking for places they could travel to. That is a great opportunity for us to present ourselves live as a destination," she told DW. Sixteen different destinations in Kenya are being live-streamed.
A taste of things to come
This concept is also working in South Africa. The tourism authority in Cape Town, for example, has launched the campaign We Are Worth Waiting For. It is offering ways to enjoy the city virtually, including tours on Robben Island, with its former prison, and Table Mountain.
The managing director of Cape Town Tourism, Enver Duminy, describes it as a long-distance love affair.
"What we have done using technology during COVID-19 is to use social media and campaigns to remind tourists of why they fell in love with the destination in the first place," Duminy told DW. "We give images of what you are longing for, of what you experienced the last time you were here. And hopefully we can connect and continue that love affair when you visit us. Technology is more of an enabler that allows us to transit in space and time."
"Virtual tourism is a great opportunity for seeing whether you want to visit a particular destination for real," says Gerald Ferreira, the founder of the Virtual Reality Company in South Africa. "People can also try out what adventure tourism is like before they try something like bungee jumping, for example."
According to figures from the UN's World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 74% of African governments were not allowing tourists into their countries at the start of June. Before the pandemic broke out, Africa was the fastest-growing tourism region. In 2018, some 67 million tourists visited the continent, bringing $38 billion in revenue. In 2019, the number of tourists increased by 4.2%, according to preliminary figures. And Africa could have reckoned with an increase of 3-4% in 2020.
But then, COVID-19 arrived on the scene. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) puts the number of jobs lost in Africa's tourism sector alone at almost 8 million. This has made seeking alternatives imperative.
But can virtual tourism replace real travel? Or could it even cause long-term damage to the tourism industry, with potential travelers staying away, content with visiting Africa virtually?
Itchy feet syndrome
Patrick Karangwa, a computer scientist from Rwanda, does not think it will. He offers virtual tours through the capital, Kigali.
"I don't see myself as competing with traditional tourism, but as a partner," he told DW. "I create an additional layer of information that encourages people to travel to places. It is really an advantage for travel businesses, hotels, restaurants and the industry in general."
Enver Duminy in Cape Town is also banking on people's continued wanderlust. "Virtual reality allows more immersive experiences, even though at this stage it does not allow you to touch and taste and smell. It only allows you to see. I think it is in our DNA; we need to connect, to see, to touch, to hug."
In a few weeks' time, the first package tourists from Europe are due in Rwanda again. Tanzania, known for its lax approach to the coronavirus crisis, is already welcoming tourists, and Namibia has reopened its national parks. Kenya will allow tourists in from August 1 and South Africa's tourism industry hopes to be able to open for business from September 2020 — whether that will really be the case, however, remains uncertain, as cases of coronavirus infection are currently rising. Countries like Uganda will probably have to wait a bit longer.
Animal welfare benefits
Juan Santiago in Madrid is not worried by this. Since the pandemic started, he has already taken a virtual look at the famous archaeological finds and collections in the Nairobi National Museum.
Even if he likes to travel in these countries in person, he believes in the future of virtual tourism. "One day, we will all be able to see the giraffes in Nairobi from all over the world; you'll go to work at 8 o'clock and watch the giraffes on live screens in the office," he says. "That will be good for nature conservation because nature fans like me would then donate for these giraffes, rhinoceroses or elephants."
Anyone who already has itchy feet can only hope that trips to Africa will soon be possible again. But for those who are content with virtual travel as well — the world is already open.