“Bonjour, comment ça va? [hello, how are you?]” our tour leader, Idfi Pancani, greeted us in French before we began our art, culinary and shopping tour in France.
After marveling at the interior of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Central Paris as our first destination, we crossed the street and walked for around 10 minutes to La Petite Hostellerie, known for its delicious yet affordable three-course meals. Idfi, who works for trip organizer Jakarta Good Guide, urged us to taste the cheese fondue.
That day, we also traveled to the legendary Galeries Lafayette, which hosts high-end fashion brands; the La Vallée Village shopping center, around 40-minute away from Paris; and the legendary café Les Deux Magots, which is frequented by famous people like feminist Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and artist Pablo Picasso.
In reality, it is impossible to visit the aforementioned places in a two-hour trip. However, in virtual tour, nothing is impossible as it utilizes Google Maps with the addition of videos, images and slides. The tour leader communicates with the participants via a video conference app.
Virtual tours have become popular amid the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as a teaser for travellers who are still saving money for their trip and an informative platform for people to plan travel itineraries.
Ancol Dreamland Park in North Jakarta and Ragunan Zoo in East Jakarta are among the popular destinations in the capital city that are currently offering virtual tours via Instagram Live.
Travalal, a Muslim-friendly tourist marketplace and platform, recently launched virtual reality tourism, which includes Virtual Umroh (minor haj) and allows participants to visit Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia using the internet and 360-degree videos.
The Jakarta Good Guide is among the country's trip organizers that offer tours to different destinations in Indonesia and abroad, such as France and Italy. The founder, Farid Mardhiyanto, said it had been preparing the virtual tours since mid-March as it is now unable to conduct physical tours.
The company's first virtual tour in early April took participants to Menteng district in Central Jakarta.
According to Farid, preparing a virtual tour took around one to two weeks.
“People are highly interested in such tours,” Farid told The Jakarta Post on May 15. “A number of the participants came from different cities, such as Semarang [in Central Java]. Once we also guided participants from France, the United States and Japan.”
In average, the organiser attracts between five to 10 people on weekdays. The number usually doubles during weekends.
“For international virtual tours, we can have more than 100 people,” Farid said.
Following the positive response, the Jakarta Good Guide plans to make virtual tours a permanent program even when the pandemic recedes as such an activity is not restricted by weather or distance.
Plans are in store to hold Jakarta urban legend and coffee tours that can be enjoyed from home.
“We’re not trying to replace the real experience of traveling; [we want to] enhance the experience itself,” Farid said. “It can also be a marketing tool for our physical tours.”
Slow internet connection, minimum interaction between the guide and participants and gadgets are among the challenges faced by the organizer when conducting virtual tours, especially as not all tour leaders know how to operate laptops, let alone use Google Street View and YouTube in their presentations.
For Idfi, who leads virtual tours to France (Paris) and Italy (Rome and Siena) for the Jakarta Good Guide, another challenge is understanding the plot when explaining the information to the participants.
“We have to do well in gesturing and showing our expressions, intonations and articulations. We also have to communicate well verbally and non-verbally,” he said, adding that he planned to hold virtual tours to other cities in Indonesia, as well as the US and Europe.
For Idfi, leading virtual tours requires thorough preparation and practice in order to make them more engaging than just “explaining the slides”. For his Paris virtual tour, aside from his experience, he also sharpened his presentations by explaining to four different groups a week before the tour started what he named a “trial and improve” process.
“We also need to prepare backups,” he said. “If the videos, slides and Google Maps can run smoothly and our voice can be clearly heard, it’s going to be a good package.”
Idfi previously joined training on virtual tours organised by one-stop tourism service Atourin as part of his preparation.
Established in mid-2018, Atourin has held two virtual tour training workshops for licensed tour guides in Indonesia since late April. The program aims to inspire participants to adapt to the current situation, so they can conduct virtual tours independently in their respective areas.