Virtual Reality: Can Nigeria's Tourism Sector Grab This Opportunity?

Even within Africa, Nigeria's tourism sector is not even among the top ten. Within the West African sub-region, Ghana, Senegal and even tiny Gambia receive more tourist annually than Nigeria. While we have a full-fledged tourism ministry "mouthing" our tourism potential year after year, more proactive economies, even with fewer tourist sites have galloped ahead to greater profitability and impact.

All these happened before COVID 19. Now, tourism globally is in a near standstill. Coronavirus has been a great leveller that provides every country and city with a rare opportunity to go back to the starting point.

The tourism industry in various countries has been compelled to re-evaluate destination marketing strategies and move towards innovative ways to keep their consumer-base engaged despite their inability to travel. Tourism boards, travel brands, and agencies have all realized the importance of the virtual world in keeping up with their consumers and their needs. As the world outside has been shut out, the virtual world has become a rich space for brands to embrace unique methods of destination marketing that have become very effective and impactful.

It is time for every brand with the hope of excelling in tourism to adapt to survive as the virtual world today presents the best opportunity for this. Naturally, one would have expected disadvantaged locations like Nigeria and other "aspiring" countries in tourism to dig in aggressively in the new trend of taking tourism to the rest of the world since the rest of the world is now compelled to stay home.

Most tourism boards and travel brands have launched successful campaigns online to reassure their consumers that even though they may not be able to travel, there are still several ways to experience a destination from the comfort of their homes. All of these experiences allow customers to be a part of exciting activities that serve as important distractions from prolonged periods of self-isolation.

Many serious African countries are offering tourists from all over the world the chance to travel the continent and even go on safari by virtual means: Safaris in Kenya, strolls through the Namib desert in Namibia, paragliding in South Africa or standing on the edge of the Victoria Falls at the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe: All of these experiences can now be enjoyed at home by virtual tourists.

Many western tourists take delight in travelling to watch the migration of wildebeest in the Serengeti, a phenomenon that has often been described as one of the Wonders of the World. But this year, things are different. Instead of going to Kenya, wildebeest migration lovers are paying virtual visits to the Nairobi National Park. In the words of one European tourism lover, "If the safari is led well, you have the atmosphere of the Nairobi National Park at home. Everything happens in real-time. Even if my family tours Kenya without me after the coronavirus pandemic, this technology lets me accompany them virtually."

Kenya says it has already lost more than $750 million (€656 million) in revenue from wildlife tourism since the first case of COVID-19 in the country about six months ago. That is why, in June, the tourism authority there initiated a live-stream drive as part of its #TheMagicAwaits campaign. It is meant to give the world a taste of what awaits them in Kenya when the country is open to visitors once more, according to Betty Radier, the managing director of the Kenya Tourism Board.

Figures from the UN's World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), reveal that 74% of African governments were not allowing tourists into their countries at the start of June. Before the pandemic broke out, Africa was the fastest-growing tourism region. In 2018, some 67 million tourists visited the continent, bringing $38 billion in revenue. In 2019, the number of tourists increased by 4.2%, according to preliminary figures. And Africa could have reckoned with an increase of 3-4% in 2020.

But then, COVID-19 arrived on the scene. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) puts the number of jobs lost in Africa's tourism sector alone at almost 8 million. This has made seeking alternatives imperative. Virtual reality seems to have come to the rescue. For a few savvy laggards, this should be a unique opportunity to dig in for a possible share from the huge tourism cake. Regrettably, a country like Nigeria that is pushing from the base of the ladder seems to be less enthusiastic in utilising virtual reality in the development of her tourism potentials.

Studies hint that even those who like to travel in person also believes in the future of virtual tourism. One area that will gain remarkably is nature conservation because nature fans can follow, adopt and even donate for the upkeep of those giraffes, rhinoceroses or elephants they visit once or twice a year.

Virtual reality has the capacity to generate destination appeal, especially in new markets. As trips become safer, people may need extra encouragement to travel again, and one promising way to do this is through novel immersive technology experiences. With this, tourism marketers view this technology as still useful in the future once some barriers have been overcome, which is promising, as developers and designers are working tirelessly to bring advanced virtual reality systems to the forefront for consumer adoption.

Streamlined, user-friendly virtual reality headsets with sophisticated software capabilities such as superior graphics, head-tracking and eye-tracking are already under development and could lead to increasing adoption for usage in homes globally.

In line with this, the deployment of 5G could accelerate the uptake of virtual reality content as it increases bandwidth availability and therefore the ability for VR headset owners to stream high-quality, smooth-running VR games and videos. Fortunately, you don’t need a very huge budget to invest in virtual travel solutions. Constraints breed creativity.

As with other sectors, the tourism industry will take on a "new normal," where virtual reality will likely play two pivotal roles: a powerful destination marketing tool to entice people to travel again, and a temporary escape for those who are not yet willing to travel. Researchers are continuously investigating how this technology can provide real value and purpose to the tourism industry with an aim to promote strategic investment and management.

Even at this early stage, virtual travel experiences are seeing a surge in popularity. Valeriy Kondruk, CEO of VR travel company, Ascape has revealed that app downloads grew by 60 per cent in this pandemic. The company said that increasing interests have come from educators and those working in nursing homes, airlines and travel agencies. One can only hope that a country like Nigeria wakes up on time to benefit from this if there are sincere efforts to graduate from a land of just tourism potentials to that of an industry leader, at least in Africa.