The coronavirus pandemic has given rise to a new form of international travel that allows tourists to skip the lines and the jet lag.
Armed with computers rather than fanny packs, intrepid souls hire local guides and journey to faraway places from the comfort of their living rooms.
This is virtual tourism — and it may be here to stay.
Participants pay experts to educate them through videos and slideshows of destinations that are temporarily out of reach. They are not intended to replace travel, but to provide entertainment and social connection while people are stuck in their home countries.
For those who miss visiting Israel, Jewish National Fund-USA launched JNF Virtual Travel & Tours, which are virtual missions complete with Zoom buses and cocktail hours.
“A few weeks ago, my wife Lauren mentioned to me the JNF partners love to get together for missions to Israel, and with COVID-19 we miss that,” Jewish National Fund-USA President Sol Lizerbram said. “She said, ‘What if we have a virtual mission to Israel? We’ll all get on a virtual bus, we’ll hire a professional tour guide and for a week we’ll go on a tour of Israel.’”
The missions are led by a guide in Israel and at least one JNF-USA staff member who is local to the “departing” region. Each Zoom bus can hold 22 households sharing a computer screen.
Tours begin at 4 p.m. in participants’ local time zone and run for an hour, during which they visit three sites. The guide presents images, videos, stories and cultural insight while answering questions from the audience. At 5 p.m., people take a break to get ready for dinner or cocktails with their fellow travelers. At 6 p.m., everyone reconvenes to schmooze on Zoom.
A $50 registration fee covers five days of tours, beginning on Monday and culminating in a Shabbat gathering on Friday.
“It’s not the same as being there, obviously, but it is fun to go on the tour and to have dinner or appetizers together,” Lizerbram said.
JNF-USA is also assisting Israeli artisans and small businesses hurting from the lack of tourism. Participants looking for a souvenir from their virtual travels can buy wine, cheese, jewelry and art from JNF-USA’s online Mitzvah Marketplace and have it shipped to their homes.
According to Lizerbram, the trips are a hit and attracted a variety of audiences. Some have been to Israel as many as 30 times. Others have never visited. Many had trips scheduled this year that were canceled or now seem uncertain.
“Now synagogues are requesting buses, Jewish day schools are requesting buses, Jewish camps are requesting buses; it’s sort of become quite a phenomenon,” he said.
Samantha van Adelsberg, JNF-USA’s Eastern Pennsylvania director, said the organization has already hosted 14 virtual trips to Israel and signed up more than 800 participants across the country.
“The good problem on our end is we have so many tours and so many regions interested in sending Zoom buses to Israel we almost don’t have enough responses,” she said.
JNF-USA does not take any of the money raised by the virtual missions.
“Funds go directly to the guides who have been out for work for almost three months,” van Adelsberg said.
For tour guide Yocheved Kolchin, the program has been a way to earn steady part-time income. She got her tour guide license at the end of January, just weeks before Israel’s tourism industry shut down.
“A lot of people are out of work right now, and we don’t get compensated,” she said. “For example, I had Birthright trips I was supposed to guide this summer, and I don’t get compensation from the government for those. If you’re an independent freelancer you can get a grant from the government based on your income from 2018, but I wasn’t an independent freelancer in 2018. This just sounded like a great opportunity.”
Her virtual tours start on an El Al plane, sans crying babies and airsickness. She takes her visitors to classic sites like the Old City in Jerusalem, even a boat ride on the Dead Sea. She has also introduced viewers to lesser-known places.
“One of the benefits of doing virtual tours is we get to visit places people wouldn’t put on an itinerary,” she said. She has shown audiences Timnah, an ancient site four hours from Jerusalem that is usually too hot for visitors during the summer, and Rosh HaNikra, a seafront with white cliffs and hidden grottoes on Israel’s border with Lebanon.
She said the tours have been a success.
“The world is changing so much lately, and it’s really inspiring to see how people are meeting the challenges. People are still committed to visiting Israel,” she said.
Israel is not the only destination available for virtual tourism. Guides, travel companies and cultural sites are offering similar experiences in European and Asian countries.
Philadelphia-based tour agency The Tour Guy started planning virtual tours after Italy, one of its main destinations, sent international travelers home due to the coronavirus in early March.
“We saw this as an opportunity to innovate,” Director of Finance and Administration Josh Raab said.
The tours are held on the online webinar platform BigMarker and are accessible through the company’s website. Tourists can learn about gladiators in ancient Rome, Carnival in Venice and Napoleon’s reign in Paris from local guides, with prices ranging from $14 to $22. Cooking classes with local chefs are also available. Participants can interact with guides and instructors by typing questions in a chat box.
“The difference between us and a 15-minute video is (our tours) are interactive. Our presenters can stop what they’re doing to answer questions from the audience,” Raab said.
Tours of the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Paris Catacombs and the Louvre museum are usually the most popular, but the low overhead cost of virtual tours has allowed the company to branch out.
“We are able to give tours where we normally would not have a presence,” Raab said. “We give a tour in Egypt and a cooking course with a chef in Bhutan. We’re expanding from our core of Italy, France and Spain, and now we’re in Ireland, India, Egypt, and we’re planning to start in Israel soon.”
Jewish Heritage Europe, a website featuring news and information concerning Jewish monuments and cultural sites in Europe, has curated virtual tours and exhibits from various sources.
The site, a project of the Rothschild Foundation, is run by Ruth Ellen Gruber, author of “Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe.” Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives in Europe and has spent the coronavirus lockdown in Italy.
“Museums and other operations have been creating virtual tours and digital recreations and online exhibits for a long time. Since no one can travel, there’s been an explosion of digital experiences of all sorts,” Gruber said. “JHE is an online operation, so I just wanted to bring more useful and expansive content to people who were stuck at home. People want to be entertained, to see beautiful things.”
She started in early March with a series of virtual tours of 11 European towns that included digital recreations of buildings where people could learn local history. After getting a positive response from visitors, she continued to post more virtual experiences in Italy, Hungary, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries.
In addition to cemeteries and art exhibitions, site visitors can explore “Atlas of Memory Maps.” Mounted by Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre in Lublin, Poland, the online exhibit features maps of pre-war cities, towns and shtetls drawn from former inhabitants’ memories after World War II.
The JHE website also hosts an exhibit of papercut art by the Polish artist Monika Krajewska commemorating Jewish sites that were destroyed during the Holocaust.
“They’re really fabulous, we got a good response,” Gruber said of the artwork.
She said the challenge for tour guides and organizations is monetizing those experiences to help sustain workers in the tourism industry during coronavirus shutdowns.
Micaela Pavoncello, a tour guide based in Rome, used her network of contacts from in-person tours to adapt.
“I have a lot of fans, and I knew something like this can work. When the pandemic started, I started contacting my good contacts at AIPAC, JCCs, synagogues, people who could help me (by) spreading the voice. I started giving these lectures on Zoom and people love it. I did it for a couple of synagogues, they started booking me for Mother’s Day. It’s such a connection for me, and I like it,” she said.
Her in-person tours focused on forming personal connections with her clients and capturing their attention with storytelling. This has helped in making the transition to virtual experiences.
“It’s not just a question of carbonara and fettuccine. People want to learn and put their feet in our shoes and that’s what I provide,” she said.
Many tours of European Jewish heritage sites focus on the tragedy of the Holocaust, but Pavoncello’s tours span the 2,000-year history of Jews in Rome.
“Our history is very different from those who immigrated from Eastern Europe 200 years ago. The Shoah is a horrible part of our history, but it’s not the only part,” she said.
Pavoncello plans to offer a live tour inside the Jewish Museum of Rome once it reopens to the public. She is also offering online kosher cooking classes with chefs from local restaurants.
These classes focus on simpler foods than the classes she is used to hosting. Attempting to fry artichokes in the Roman Jewish style at home without an expert’s in-person help could be a recipe for disaster.
“We are going to make gnocchi, easy things anybody can do — bruschetta, orange and fennel salad, all very easy things,” she said.
The virtual tours have allowed her to continue to do a job she loves during Italy’s coronavirus lockdown. She didn’t realize how much she would miss it until she was stuck at home.
“I really believe in my job almost as a mission. I’m not even such an observant Jew, but the pride, the sense of the belonging, the sense of traditions, they are fundamental,” she said.
Virtual tourism may continue in some form even when people feel safe traveling again.
Raab said the response to The Tour Guy’s programs has been positive, with demand surging during Mother’s Day as family members who couldn’t be together in person sought to share new memories and experiences. The company will likely continue to offer them even if travel can begin again in late 2020 or early 2021.
“We’re getting nothing but great feedback,” he said. “We can turn this into an educational tool. If physical touring kicks back off, virtual touring will be here to stay as a product we’re offering.”
Van Adelsberg sees virtual missions to Israel as another way to keep people connected to the country, particularly those who are older and unable to weather long flights.
“The response that we’ve gotten has been so fantastic, we’re probably going to continue doing these tours. It’s a really unique opportunity to get to experience the country without the jet lag,” she said.
Pavoncello wants to continue her virtual tours to connect with people are unable to travel due to physical or financial limitations, including students and the elderly.
“This is what excites me the most: Every time I meet somebody I get to learn a lot. It’s an exchange, and it’s good for everybody. It’s a new era, an era where we’re far but we’ve got to get closer,” she said.
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