People are paying $12 to go on VR tours of turtle nesting in Costa Rica or India’s Holi festival from their couches. Meet a tour guide who’s cashing in on this travel niche.

People are paying  to go on VR tours of turtle nesting in Costa Rica or India’s Holi festival from their couches. Meet a tour guide who’s cashing in on this travel niche.

Ligia Morera

Ligia Morera.Rodrigo Santamaria

  • Ligia Morera, based in Costa Rica, leads virtual tours on the Japanese platform Dokodemo Door Trip.

  • She started when travel was halted during the COVID-19 pandemic and she needed a new income stream.

  • She works closely with schools to reach new audiences and clients.

Ligia Morera (32) lives in San Ramón de Alajuela in the Central Valley of Costa Rica with her husband, Rodrigo Santamaria (35). She studied tourism at university before working in hotels and travel agencies. Six years ago, she and her husband founded their own travel planning business.

When COVID-19 put international travel on hold—thus drying up their main source of income—they looked around for other work, including browsing the freelance marketplace Upwork. That’s where they got the chance to become pioneers in the travel space: virtual-reality tour guides.

Since November last year, the couple have been working as virtual guides via the platform provided by Dokodemo Door Trip, a subsidiary of the Japanese company Metareal Corporation. Santamaria serves as videographer and editor, while Morera focuses on accompaniment.

Their first tour, all shot on Santamaria’s GoPro Max 360, features a rare natural phenomenon: turtles nesting on Ostional Beach in the Nicoya Peninsula. Hundreds, often thousands, of turtles emerge from the ocean by moonlight along a 1-mile beach and then proceed to burrow into the black sand and carefully lay a clutch of eggs.

“We pre-recorded the turtle nesting together. The biggest one is in October, so we did it in 2021,” Morera told Insider. “I play the video, with all the natural sounds as we walk along the beach, and I start telling them how the turtles lay their eggs.” Her guests pay $12 each for a 30-minute tour of this immersive video.

Morera sees potential in the niche for many reasons besides attracting people wary of leaving their homes in the wake of COVID-19. Many travelers are rethinking travel amid a growing awareness of travel’s environmental impact and are looking for more sustainable options. And for businesses, virtual tour guiding can provide an easy new revenue stream that can also add stability in the event of another pandemic or wave of lockdowns.

A VR tour guide needs AI software to reach a global audience

A woman with a Go Pro

A woman with a Go Pro

Morera filming a VR tour.Rodrigo Santamaria

Although Dokodemo’s platform is available worldwide, Japan has so far been Morera’s main source of customers, she said, mainly thanks to the company’s location. Morera is fluent in English and Spanish, but doesn’t speak a word of Japanese – and that’s where Dokodemo can help.

Dokodemo’s parent company is a barely two-year-old artificial-intelligence-based translation firm. “It’s designed to break down the so-called language barrier between Japanese businesses and the rest of the world with real-time AI translation,” said Stephen Black, the company’s guide support manager — who helps creators get their videos ready for used – said Insider. “That AI translation and interaction like that between guides and guests is a big point of what sells the idea.” In other words, these VR tours are as much a marketing program for its core business as a standalone revenue stream.

Black said the firm spent six months or so developing the VR tourism platform and then opened it up to contributors like Morera for nine months. At consumer launch, he said, it had about 500 individual tours, and it’s now close to 1,000. “We paid the guides to create the content, so we own it and can use it outside of the platform,” he said. he added – think the Singapore Tourism Board is paying for the right to deploy it in marketing efforts.

A virtual tour in Greece

A Dokodemo Door Tour in Santorini, Greece.Dokodemo By

Popular tours, he said, are often the most colorful, such as a visit to the Holi festival in India, or offer the chance to see famous places – Santorini, for example, has sold well. He added that engagement tended to drop off in tours longer than 30 minutes.

Any aspiring metaverse travelers who don’t own a headset can register and receive a Meta Quest for free for a week before deciding whether to buy one from Black’s firm. On average, he said, one in five customers opts for this, with Japanese users paying 37,000 yen, or about $271, to rent the hardware. Half of the company’s active monthly users live in the country, while most of the rest are elsewhere in Asia. “We are one of the biggest sellers of Meta Quest in Japan,” he said.

A new way to tour guide

A shot of a VR tour around turtles

A shot of a VR tour around turtles

A shot from Morera’s turtle nesting tour on Ostional Beach.Rodrigo Santamaria

Morera embraced the new medium with gusto. She and her husband shot and uploaded eight videos from Costa Rica — one is a hummingbird tour, as requested by previous participants — as well as eight in neighboring Panama, where she has family. She is especially proud of the shoot they planned with the Guna Yala indigenous people, who were celebrating a festival in Panama. “It’s important for your culture to show that,” she said, “and now something that happens once a year is available practically all year round.”

She’s also aggressively marketing to audiences outside of Japan via social media and other avenues, such as local universities in her country—she just led 30 students around the turtle hatching event thanks to an assignment from their biology professor at the University of Costa Rica. Another source of referrals is other VR tour guides. “There is now a community,” she said, “and we support each other and show how to promote – we can connect as individuals from different countries and backgrounds and give each other tips, like a Japanese girl living in Belize has helped me.”

Turtles on a beach overhead shot

A drone shot of turtle nesting on Ostional beach.Rodrigo Santamaria

It was up to Morera to choose how much to ask. She dropped her prices from $15 per person when she started to $12 per person now – of that, Dokodemo Door Trip takes a 20% handling fee, so her profit is $9.60 per person, or about $300 per month. “It’s trial and error,” she said. “We just had to see how it went, and it took about six months to decide to charge $12 instead.”

Morera caps her group sizes at two to 10 people — any larger, she said, makes it harder for participants to engage and ask questions effectively.

The biggest problem, she added, is the reliability of broadband locally. “In Costa Rica we sometimes have few problems with that,” she said. Scheduling also presented its challenges. She usually plans for tours to take place on Friday or Saturday nights, Japan time, once every two weeks, as these were the most popular periods for bookings.

“A lot of my guests sign in and say they enjoy their beer in the evening, and they’re in the mood for relaxation,” she said. “It’s better to learn something than just scroll through social media. That way they not only relax, but learn from other people around the world.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

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