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We Know You’re Sick of This, but Could It Be the Future of Travel?

Hear us out on virtual travel!

Recently, I toured Singapore’s colorful Joo Chiat neighborhood with Alvin, its houses painted cornflower blue, peach, buttercup yellow, and mustard. Two days before, I was in Montmartre with Florent, Paris’ hilltop artists’ district. Shortly before that, it was snow monkeys and hot springs in Nagano, Japan with Eriko. That’s not all. I’ve also toured Gaudi’s fanciful Parc Guell in Barcelona with Pepus, Slovenia’s serene Lake Bohinj with Mojca, night-time illuminations amid the stone bridges and canals of Bruges with Stephan, and the Budapest Christmas market with Zsuzsi.

But I have a secret. I’m on my couch, blissfully free from the risk of COVID, airline tickets, hotel costs, and hassles about checking the latest restrictions on tests, masks, and quarantines. Yep, just me and a glass of wine, folks. I travel on Heygo, a website where professional tour guides in over 90 countries live stream free tours as they walk and talk. You can chat (type your questions in the column on your right), click to get free “postcards,” and tip ($5 and up) if you wish via Paypal. The startup splits tip revenue with its guides. To have your own “watch party,” share the link with friends.

Agnes Eu

It’s an ingenious and safe way for tour guides to make a living at a time when tourists are often scarce or non-existent due to the pandemic. Plus, Heygo allows tour guides to promote themselves for when travel is easier again and people are keen to book in-person experiences. The range of tours is huge, from a cooking class in Hanoi and walking Machu Picchu to making origami in Japan and studying Germany’s WWII history in Berlin. Pick the countries and cities you want, or categories like art and architecture, taste it, off the beaten path, or history. If you “follow” your favorite guides, you’ll get alerts on their upcoming tours. Heygo will also suggest tours, based on your past trips and preferences.

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The downsides? Too few to mention, but I’ll list them anyway. The tours are real-time, not recorded, which may mean a 6 am Saturday tour of Jaipur, India’s “Pink City,” or a 3:15 am tour of a Crazy Rich Asians film set (a convent in real life) in your time zone. The social media-style platform means a steady stream of questions (relevant and irrelevant), heart and thumbs-up emojis, personal reminiscences of past trips, comments and shout-outs to guests remembered from past tours (“Hi Tom in Toronto!”), which often appear every few minutes or even seconds. As a guest, I find the constant interruptions annoying. As a guide, it would drive me crazy.

In Japan, Eriko Shiratori, who has her own tour company in Tokyo, enjoys doing virtual tours on Heygo. “I plan to continuously offer tours on Heygo even after the travel ban is lifted,” she says. “I joined in April 2021 as a way to connect with the world during the pandemic. Little did I know that I’d be part of a loving community that feels like a big family. Now it’s my lifework.”

Her snow monkeys tour in Jigokudani Monkey Park, in the mountainous region in central Japan where 28 of the country’s highest mountains are located, is charming. Here, monkeys, often associated with munching bananas in tropical climes, happily savor spa day in the hot springs. Some make snowballs, others perch on ledges to stare trepidatiously as steam rises from the water, and others are in family groups.

Agnes Eu

Growing up in her great-grandfather’s kimono studio (she got a license to teach how to wear a kimono at age 20), Shiratori, who spent two years working in Canada and Australia, says, “Japan is far away and somewhat of an exotic country for many viewers. I realized I had never seen Japanese culture as unique or beautiful—it was too normal for me. I try to share different aspects of Japanese culture, the hidden meaning behind them, and their importance in the society in my tours.” Her most recent tour, for cherry blossom season, is a three-city series whose guides showcase the clouds of pink blooms in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

In Singapore, Alvin Yapp strolls past many of the 800 well-preserved shophouses and terrace houses, festooned with European-style decorative trim like egg-and-dart moldings and Ionic and Corinthian columns in Joo Chiat. He discusses how the heritage district is a center for Peranakan culture, descendants of mostly Chinese but also Indian immigrants who married Malay women centuries ago, and have a distinct identity, as well as foods, crafts, and traditions. He also eats. In the first minute, he consumes a vadai, a fried shrimp-topped fritter that’s a south Indian street snack, and next a popiah, as we watch the paper-thin crepes cooked in a pan, then filled with vegetables, rolled and sliced, at iconic eateries for these local specialties.

Live-stream tours differ greatly from real-world tours. “Participants’ expectations are very different, and so is the style of presenting and storytelling. On virtual tours, storytelling is the key focus, while the objects and views complement what’s being narrated,” says Yapp, who once lived and worked in San Francisco. A lot of juggling is required. “Stable control of the camera, creative angling, answering and managing comments and questions, interaction with guests and locals need to be well-coordinated and flawless, as the attention span of guests is short. The personality, enthusiasm, and quick-witted nature of the host are key.”

At first, he found doing virtual tours “nerve-wracking.” But he caught on, creating virtual tours and masterclasses for The Intan, the house museum in Joo Chiat packed with Peranakan antiques he’s collected for the past 30 years, from floral-patterned porcelain, rosewood furnishings, beaded women’s slippers to filigreed silver, where he lived, as well as for Heygo. The youthful-looking Yapp even invented a web-based game about his culture, Peranakanland. “It’s easy to look young when you stand next to Peranakan antiques,” he jokes.

Josep “Pepus” Picazo, a licensed tour guide in Barcelona with 25 years of experience, has met several tourists in his city who first took his free virtual tours on Heygo. “I do this new travel format first because I like to show Barcelona to people across the globe who can’t travel, are not physically fit to travel, or don’t have the means or income.” He doesn’t mind dealing with different issues, like technology, world time zones, and “people who look at you awkwardly when they see you walking and talking to yourself,” since “I like new challenges.”

The founders of Heygo, a London-based firm launched in Summer 2020 by John Tertan, a Canadian, and Liam Garrison, a Briton, say their live-stream tours aren’t intended to replace travel, but to whet the appetite for travel and culture due to the “passion economy.”

tabithagray3771 September 12, 2023

I will answer this question .. im a people person but this virtual tour stuff is one if the gteatest things that was made bc as for people like myself i have lymphoma/ thyroid  cancer snd so i cant be around a lot of people and traveling is what I love to do..but I cant anymore bc of my immune system so yes even though I am a huge people person I would rather do these tours anyday... plus you can do it whenever you want and it's a helluva lot cheaper.. 

CindyLou60 April 14, 2022

Ugh - while the downsides may be "too few to mention," I can think of one very big one: YOU'RE NOT THERE. Another activity that isolates you from other humans, not to mention from THE ACTUAL PLACE. The very antithesis of travel, IMO. Didn't we have enough of enforced isolation during two years of COVID?!