- From the data of the World Tourism Organisation, which you presented in your speech at the InfoGlob 2022 conference on 'Mass tourism or virtual tourism? Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic', we see that before the pandemic, around 1.5 billion people moved annually. On the one hand, this seems like a lot, with some cities like Venice, Dubrovnik and Barcelona limiting, under the influence of residents, the access of tourists. On the other hand, however, given that there are almost 8 billion people on Earth, tourism, in its various forms, is practised by a fraction of the total number. So what is the cry of protest about?

- This is where simple maths doesn't add much. Firstly, these 1.5 billion people are international movements, which are relatively well documented and we know their extent. Then there is domestic tourism, the importance of which has just increased during the pandemic and is currently increasing. In addition to this, several reasons are important for the severity of tourism development in a particular place and time. The problem is that tourism is unevenly distributed, i.e. it is concentrated in small areas (city centres attractive to tourists, such as those mentioned) or geographically restricted areas (small islands, mountain trails, etc.), and is also concentrated over time. The problem of seasonality in tourism with its many economic implications, particularly for the labour market in tourist areas, has been known since we have been talking about mass tourism, that is, practically after the Second World War. Therefore, to return to your question, it is not the 1.5 billion people and several billion more (taking into account national mobility) moving annually for tourism that is the problem. The problem is over-tourism, i.e. the excessive attendance of tourists at a particular place and time.

- It is widely believed that tourism tends to drive the economy of the countries visited, provide jobs for locals, etc. Yet it is not such a simple economic translation. Who makes most of the real profit from tourism in exotic countries, for example?

- Yes, it is true, one can encounter contesting views from people/communities who protest against the overload of tourism in the places in question. These contesting communities take the protests of local communities who 'live off tourism' with surprise. And here, too, we do not have such a simple translation. In countries with a low level of economic development, which are at the same time attractive to tourists (e.g. small island countries in the Caribbean Sea), very often tourism policy and management are at a very low level, resulting in colossal environmental degradation and negative effects for the local inhabitants, and only favouring foreign investors. We are conducting a study on this topic at the Faculty of Economics in a team that I also represent, with researchers from the University of Central Florida proving that tourism specialisation should go hand in hand with a properly implemented tourism planning and management process in the region so that it favours the improvement of the quality of life of the local people.

- At the conference, you spoke about the opportunities presented by VR tourism. You also showed other possibilities (e.g. assisting in surgical operations) of this technology hitherto rather associated with computer games. Please introduce the audience to the idea of using VR in tourism? Is tourism without movement at all possible? Is it still tourism?

- This is an interesting question. Of course, virtual tourism does not fulfil the definition of tourism, which includes the activities of people who travel and stay for leisure, business or other purposes outside of their daily surroundings. In the case of virtual tourism, we do not have 'movement', an activity necessary for us to talk about tourism. Leaving aside the fact that virtual tourism has even already been defined in a very similar way by replacing displacement with "immersion" in virtual reality to "experience the illusion of a change in one's everyday surroundings", I believe that we cannot put these concepts together. And certainly, even in the distant future, virtual tourism will not replace real tourism (although I say this as a tourist, not a scientist, as such a claim is not supported by any research). Besides, please note what happened during the pandemic, which completely immobilised the tourism sector for the duration of the lockdown, and then various virtual reality (VR) solutions can provide a kind of substitute. However, in principle, of course, we are not talking about substitution, but complementarity. In certain circumstances, VR services can be a great complement to tourism services.

- VR is not a widely available or cheap technology - how would the availability on the market have to change, is it even possible for it to become a low-cost alternative for those social groups who cannot even afford to take their children on holiday?

- The use of VR technology is increasingly accessible. Whether in the form of individual use of VR goggles or the use of specialist VR product companies (kiosks, caves, VR museums). The possible applications are numerous. VR is, after all, about simulating environments in which we are not present, and tourism is about going to these places... So we can talk about satisfying cognitive, educational and, of course, marketing motives. A virtual tour of the world's most important painting exhibits, for example, can be not only fun but also the only way for people who could never afford to make a dozen trips around the world to major museums to see them in three dimensions and up close. VR also allows us to visit historical places that no longer exist today, such as VR-reconstructed buildings destroyed by cataclysmic events or simulations of ancient buildings or places that do not exist and will never be recreated, such as Roman buildings or dinosaur life. VR is also about educational benefits, with apps allowing, for example, the exploration of the evolution of well-known architectural objects in different periods of history (how often today do we have the dilemma when rebuilding historical buildings, on which historical figure do we actually model them?). Finally, VR is also about exploring places that exist but are inaccessible or difficult to access, such as caves, ocean depths, disaster sites or outer space. Interestingly, VR is also a physical activity and by enhancing the instrumentation a bit (additionally, e.g. special controllers in the hands or link trainers of various kinds), we can climb the highest mountain in the world with the Sherpas, visit Machu Picchu, run a marathon in Manhattan, kayak down a rushing river. Apps used in physical education academies are becoming increasingly common. For marketing purposes, owners of tourist attractions commission VR apps to encourage visitors to visit the actual site (e.g. a VR advertisement for diving in the Maldives or riding a roller coaster in an amusement park). These solutions are also becoming more common.

- What, in turn, is AR technology?

- Augmented reality, or augmented reality, is a system that combines the real world with the computer-generated world (the Pokemon Go game was an example of the use of this technology). Typically, in applications used for tourism, it works in such a way that the relevant smartphone or tablet applications allow 3D graphics to be superimposed on the camera image, with this being generated in real-time. In the simplest terms, we point the phone's camera at the object in question and obtain information, for example, about the given object and its history or we can, for example, be guided to a given destination. Such solutions are also used by hotel chains to offer additional attractions for children who are looking for let's say fairy tale characters during their stay in a hotel.

- For me, travelling - no matter whether far or near - is an opportunity to experience time with my family. The memories that will always stay with us, the bond we build with our children, our partners and the friendships we make on the road. And - as I said - you don't have to travel far to make it all work. Meanwhile, we are already complaining that the omnipresence in the lives of children, young people and also adults - smartphones, social media, etc - is distancing us from each other, excluding us from participating in the real world. Shouldn't we be concerned that all these VRs and ARs will ultimately be a building block in putting a wall between us and the real world?

- Well, there is of course that danger. But technological development is inevitable and we won't escape from VR applications, whether we like it or not. Exploring the level of immersion (immersion in virtual reality) and sensible and research-based (especially psychological) management of the development and implementation of these increasingly advanced technologies is another matter.

- At the end of our conversation, please reveal your holiday plans?

- My plans, although not necessarily for the next holiday, are to visit what is currently the largest virtual museum in the world, which is located in Dubai. So it will be a combination of real and virtual tourism! Dubai is, by the way, a very interesting tourist destination that I have already had the pleasure of visiting, where tradition meets ultra-modernity. And speaking of virtual ‘caves', I also recently had the opportunity to see, courtesy of the managers of the Gdańsk University of Technology facility, the fantastic PG Immersive Spatial Visualisation Laboratory, where tourism applications are also available. These types of labs also represent great research potential in many scientific disciplines.


Dubrownik. pixabay
Magdalena Nieczuja - Goniszewska / Press Secretary UG