In pre-pandemic days, armchair travel was mostly associated with lame computer skills and awful-looking slides of the Egyptian pyramids.

But being stuck at home for the better part of the past year has made online tours much more attractive, in large parts thanks to tour guides who have pivoted to make remote sightseeing the best thing happening on a Zoom call near you.

With Covid-19 putting a stop to traditional vacations and tours, tour guides have had to reinvent themselves and their profession to stay relevant and to make a living.

In Israel, 46 guides banded together to establish the Israel Virtual Tourism Association, which espouses virtual tourism as both a way to deal with the current pandemic and as a new guiding technique to serve audiences in the Covid-free future.

“It’s important for us to say, both to ourselves and to others, that virtual tourism is a new field that can hold its own regardless of coronavirus. Even if the skies open up again tomorrow – it has its place,” explains tour guide and association member Itamar Ben David.

“There’ll always be millions upon millions of people who won’t be able to make it to Israel, whether because of their financial situation, diplomatic relations and so forth,” he says. “With this, anyone with an Internet connection who can speak the language can enjoy a tour.”

A virtual tour of Christmas Eve at the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo by Itamar Ben-David

In a far cry from the age of dreary slides, the guides giving the virtual tours use technologies and techniques to entertain their groups and offer a live experience.

Tour guide Gadi Ben-Dov. Photo by Gadi Ben-Dov

“It can be all sorts of things from a PowerPoint presentation with photos to video clips that we show, or someone who’s live in the field and presenting from where they’re at,” explains tour guide Gadi Ben-Dov. “We’ve also discovered all sorts of software that we’ve been using.”

Each tour guide uses the technology that suits him or her best. Ben-Dov, for example, uses Google Earth, to simulate landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport to the sound of passengers singing and clapping as well as walk-throughs of sites such as Masada.

Israel Virtual Tourism Association course participants view an online tour of Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market. Photo by Itamar Ben-David

Ben David prefers video clips that he shoots on-site and plays to his audience alongside real-time explanations, giving participants the feeling that they’re walking through the site with their guide at hand.

Tour guide Itamar Ben-David, left, with actor Chris Noth. Photo by Itamar-Ben-David

No time constraints

The two admit that there are downsides to virtual tourism, mainly the fact that it’s not the same as the all-sensory experience of actually being in the place. Another issue that they’ve come across is technical glitches, whether due to poor connection or the tour guides’ command of technology.

“Overall, most of us are pretty technophobic. There’s a reason we’re tour guides and not working out of an office,” Ben David jokes.

But still, they are adamant that virtual tourism has huge upsides. These include reaching thousands more people worldwide – Ben-Dov and his wife, who’s also a tour guide, estimate that they’ve given virtual tours to more than 25,000 people between them this year – and exposing them to Israel.

Tour guides participate in the Israel Virtual Tourism Association’s online tours course. Photo by Itamar Ben-David

Another advantage is that logistics don’t get in the way. Tours can jump back and forth between different locations and reach places off the beaten track that in regular tours would have been neglected due to time constraints.

“The ability to move within space is amazing in the virtual tour, and it gives a completely different experience to what we’ve dealt with until now,” says Ben David.

“This concept breaks away the partitions of the tourist product. It’s no longer bound by geography. It’s no longer about spending half a day in Jerusalem and then a day at the Dead Sea.”

How to tell a story

In the spirit of the times, Ben David and Ben-Dov have never met in real life, but they have partnered together to offer courses to tour guides wishing to improve their technical skills and learn the ways of virtual tourism.

So far, they’ve completed two courses with a total of some 150 tour guides.

“Most of the tour guides really know how to tell a story, how to speak to an audience. To speak in front of a computer, without a crowd, is a very different experience,” says Ben David. “These are excellent tour guides, but it’s a different format that requires experience.”

So far, the two say, popular virtual tours in Israel include Jerusalem and the three monotheistic religions; Masada; and graffiti tours in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Ahead of Easter, there’ll be tours of Christian site in Jerusalem.

“Nothing can compete with the amazing sensory experience of a tour,” Ben David concludes. “It’s hard to believe that and we’re not pretending to replace it. But we are saying that this is not only a temporary solution, but that it will stay with us for a long time forward and give people the motivation to travel. It’s a product that’s creating new tourist experiences.”

You can also click here to access the Tourism Ministry’s Virtual Tourism Bureau.