Some have suggested that surfing the Web can have many of the same benefits as international travel or studying abroad. They say it can act as a replacement for expensive business trips, and even vacations. I’ve always thought it’s a nice idea, but I haven’t been convinced of its reality.
Times being what they are, however, I’m not getting a lot of chances to satisfy my wanderlust right now. So I’m looking to the Web for help. And I’m willing to reconsider: Is “virtual travel” really possible? Can it be anything like the real thing?
The problems with virtual travel are many. Let’s start with the obvious: You’re not actually going anywhere. No matter what you do, you’re going to be pretty safe surfing the Web. It’s just as likely that you’ll be bitten by a tsetse fly while traveling virtually as it is while you’re waiting for your coffee to finish brewing on Monday morning at the office. Can there possibly be any excitement in that?
There are benefits to virtual travel, though. It’s far cheaper, you don’t need to go to the airport or get on a plane, and you don’t need to worry about tsetse flies. Also, virtual travel fulfills my ultimate dream: to be able to visit as many or as few places as I want in a day.
In a perfect world, without annoying things like travel time and limited budgets, I might spend the morning in London, the afternoon in Berlin, the evening in Tokyo, and the night in Buenos Aires.
Maybe when I make it big as a pop singer and I get my private super-sonic jet, I can do that. But for now, I’m trying to figure out how to simulate this experience.
After a moment of reflection, I decide to mimic a situation that can’t happen even when I do get that jet: I’ll experience all four cities at the same time.
I open up four browser tabs in Firefox and search for a “Virtual Tour [city name]” in each. Next, I start up Google Earth and start clicking in my destinations. Booting up iTunes, I create a playlist of English, German, Japanese, and Argentine music from my library and hit “random.”
Things start to get fun, actually. While listening to British post-punk rock, I hover over the Thames and zoom in on some notable sites, read some short articles, and take a 360-degree tour of Trafalgar Square.
Next, some tango comes on, so I shoot over to Argentina. I have about three minutes to look around town before Japanese pop music signals my departure.
The amount of data and the clarity of the images of Tokyo available on Google Earth is amazing! Having never been to Toyko, I locate what seems to be the center of town and start clicking and looking at pictures. When it is time to go to Berlin, I realize just how lacking my music collection is in German music -- I’ve got a couple Nina Hagen songs and not much else.
Google Earth has a great panoramic photo of the recently opened Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate. I recommend that you visit it.
After a couple hours of this sort of frantic sightseeing and listening to the eclectic playlist I’ve constructed, I start to get hungry. Here’s where the virtual travel experiment fails miserably. In addition to not being able to walk into a restaurant or pub when I feel like it, I am also very confused about what to eat. Bratwurst? Sushi? Bangers and mash? It all sounds good, but there’s no restaurant serving any of these items together in my hometown.
Virtual traveling isn’t at all the same experience as real travel, of course, but it can be a fun way to spend a Sunday.
Next time, I think I’ll prepare food in advance, perhaps invite a friend to join me, and find ways to interact with the locals and make some new friends in the places I’m visiting (maybe through Facebook and Skype).
— Chris Minnick, e-publishing consultant and CEO of Minnick Web Services