The Evolving Travel ‘Experience’: Virtual, Actual and In Between

By Elaine Glusac for The New York Times | Nov. 12 2020


Socially distanced craft classes, virtual tango lessons, a city tour accompanied by an avatar guide: how experience companies — which now include Amazon — are adapting to the pandemic.


Guided excursions have long been at the heart of travel, but like everything else, the pandemic disrupted such experiences, and many went virtual. But as travel begins to tick up, existing tour companies are adapting to social distancing in other ways.


Some are complementing virtual experiences — for instance, guided chocolate tastings with chocolate shipped before the tour — and tailoring closer-to-home actual adventures, like kayaking and hiking. Others are making groups smaller or private and moving outdoors.


This fall, a new player, Amazon, took a deep dive into the strictly virtual model with the start of its Amazon Explore platform, which offers everything from online shopping tours in Peru to tango lessons from Argentina.


Even in destinations that are reopening to international tourism, some operators are waiting for travel to rebound before switching entirely from virtual to actual. Since Panama reopened to international travel last month, Jerin Tate, the owner of Panama Day Trips, has guided just a few in-person tours and plans to continue offering free virtual birding tours in Soberanía National Park near Panama City into December.


“We’re crossing our fingers and hoping, hoping, hoping there’s some semblance of normalcy then,” he said.

In the meantime, the trend reflects a continuum from virtual to actual, as seen below.


Virtual shopping, dancing and salsa making


The online retailer Amazon applies its shopping prowess to the sourcing of souvenirs with the new platform Amazon Explore. In one-on-one sessions, armchair travelers can visit a leather maker in Seattle ($20), vintage shops in Tokyo ($49) and a Norwegian department store ($90), accompanied by local guides. In many cases, relevant items are available to purchase during the experience — via Amazon, of course.

Not every experience is shopping related. Amazon offers tango lessons with an instructor in Buenos Aires ($90) and a voodoo and cemetery tour in New Orleans ($90). A category devoted to creativity, including a class in Mexican salsa making ($39) and in the Japanese tie-dye style known as shibori ($40), often includes a list of items to have on hand to work alongside an instructor.


“Amazon Explore is designed to complement, rather than replace, traditional travel,” the company stated in an email.


Though Amazon has long threatened small retailers, the new platform uses its size and distribution power to link customers to small businesses around the world. Currently, Amazon Explore is offering 175 experiences, ranging from $10 to $168.


“Shop owners, guides, teachers, chefs, stylists, artists, and artisans can get access to millions of customers on Amazon while setting their own prices and hours,” the company stated.


To test the system, I signed up for a shopping tour of Kappabashi Street ($25), the “kitchen town” of Tokyo filled with shops selling kitchenware. In a quick 45 minutes, Giulia Maglio, a guide with Ninja Food Tours, used a hand-held camera to take me to three shops in the neighborhood where we discussed the different styles of chopsticks (fat and flat for tofu, ribbed for ramen), how to hold a rice bowl by the pedestal and the preponderance of lifelike plastic food restaurants use to signal what’s on the menu.


“The purpose is also to make you hungry,” she said.


Beware the temptation of browsing abroad. I ordered two rice bowls for $20, which cost an additional $20 to ship. But Amazon made it seamless — it charged the credit card I used for the tour in a matter of seconds at the end of the session — and I doubt I’ll forget how I acquired them.


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