While my life revolves around travel, it didn’t cross my mind to try an online travel experience until three months into my pandemic quarantine.
On a lonely May afternoon in my studio apartment, I logged on to a virtual cooking class by Graciela Montaño, a chef who quickly learned how to turn her family’s tourist-driven Mexico City cooking school into an Airbnb Experiences success.
Nearly a year later, as the end of the pandemic draws nearer, I wondered how other tour guides had felt about their professions pivoting online and how it felt to travel from home myself.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2020′s collapse of international travel cost the world an estimated $1.3 trillion in export revenue, and it put 100 to 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk. Tour guides are among those most affected. They have spent the pandemic finding ways to adjust their business, and for most, that has meant taking their tours online.
Last March, Google searches for virtual tours skyrocketed when the world shut down, and they stayed strong into 2021. People searched for arts and culture experiences, such as the British Museum in London, and scoped out wildlife tours, like the Bronx Zoo and Baltimore Aquarium.
But how much have they mattered to the tour guides themselves? I took four virtual tours and spoke with the guides about how they have adapted during the pandemic.
Costa Rica: The Table Less Traveled
Annie Cheng founded her culinary-centric travel company, The Table Less Traveled, in 2014, with a mission to take small groups (no more than 12 people) on intimate vacations with local guides sharing their knowledge of food and culture.
When the world started shutting down, Cheng knew she had to redesign her business fast, and she debuted an online experience on March 18, 2020. Instead of taking travelers out to eat in places such as Italy, Peru and Malaysia, she connected them with chef tour guides from those countries for virtual cooking classes.
One of The Table Less Traveled’s newest additions is Wendy Rodriguez, a tour guide from Costa Rica, who has always believed the best way to show love is through food.
Rodriguez began dreaming of becoming a tour guide (or “dream maker” as she describes it) when she was 10 years old, and she gave her first tour at 16. Now 44, she says her heart froze when she saw commercial flights to Costa Rica were canceled because of the coronavirus.
“Oh my god, this is the end of the world,” Rodriguez remembers thinking.
Before the pandemic, Rodriguez spent just three months of the year at home in between trips throughout North, Central and South America. With tourism gone, Wendy found herself home and unemployed.
Rodriguez applied for work rampantly. Companies told her she was too old for the jobs she was pursuing. Her car was too old to drive for Uber. Rodriguez was overwhelmed by her mortgage and the responsibility of raising her two teenage daughters as a single mother. Eventually, Rodriguez found a job at a call center far from home; she would wake up at 3 a.m. and get back at 6 p.m.
A friend in Peru got in touch with her about The Table Less Traveled, and introduced her to Cheng. Since then, she has continued to work at the call center while also increasing her virtual tour work. She has even had repeat customers, and I could see why shortly after logging on to my Costa Rican breakfast class.
Over Zoom, my classmates and I followed Rodriguez’s instructions from her home kitchen to cook gallo pinto (a beans and rice dish), eggs and bacon. While our garlic and onions simmered, she explained the popularity of Lizano sauce (a Worcestershire-adjacent condiment) in Costa Rica and showed us photos of her house.
“That’s my home, your home,” she told us, welcoming us into her life.
After spending an hour cooking and laughing together, we ate our Costa Rican breakfasts and took a group photo from our individual corners of the world.
How to experience
Cost: $65 per class; $55 for members
Length: 1.5 hours
Group size: 3-15 people (private experiences can be booked)
Kenya: Airbnb Experiences
Airbnb Experiences launched in 2016, and the online offshoot started Apr. 9, 2020. Throughout the pandemic, the company has offered unique virtual escapes, including taking workout classes with Olympians abroad. I loved the Mexico City cooking class I tried last May.
But I felt buried under work when logging in to my “Sneak Peek to Kenyan Culture & Tradition” private tour. That is until my guide, Samson Maundu, popped up on my screen. In about a minute, we were laughing, and the hang-ups of my day dissipated. It was after midnight in Nairobi, but Maundu has adjusted his sleep schedule to accommodate his international clientele. On any given day, he may host virtual travelers from 10 to 15 different countries.
“After doing this for eight months, I’m used to this,” he says.
Maundu has been adapting since Kenya went under lockdown last March. The pandemic was shocking, “especially in the first few months, because you can’t leave your house, you can’t do your job, loss of your source of income,” he says.
After starting his own tour company while he was still at university, Maundu began hosting in-person Airbnb Experiences in 2018. He jumped at the chance to do virtual tours as soon as he heard about them. He knows all of Kenya’s magic can’t be captured online, but Maundu finds he can still connect with travelers while earning a living and is grateful for the platform.
Over a slide show presentation, Maundu taught me key Swahili words and phrases, introduced me to a few of Kenya’s 44 tribes, and went over food and drink culture (the Maasai tribe has a tradition of drinking cow blood; Maundu prefers to mix it with milk when he drinks it during in-person tours). I felt more informed and inspired to travel to Africa once the pandemic is finally behind us. At the end of the tour, my cheeks hurt from smiling so much, something that wouldn’t have happened if I spent an hour and a half reading about Kenya on Wikipedia.
How to experience
Cost: $13 for a group tour; $130 for a private session
Length: 1.5 hours
Group size: Up to 10 people. Private groups available for up to 30.
Norway: Amazon Explore
Amazon joined the virtual experiences world in September 2020 with Amazon Explore. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Its 200 live-streamed experiences from 20 locations, included taking a cooking class in Taiwan and meeting sloths in Costa Rica, begin at $10 (mine was $74.78 including tax). The experience has a unique consumer touch: Customers can shop on their tour. If something in a local shop catches your eye, your guide will buy and ship it to you on the spot.
It was late morning in Washington and dusk in Oslo when I logged on for my virtual tour with Diana Chamba, a local guide with 15 years of experience. Chamba, who is originally from Ecuador, found Amazon Explore through her work with Nordiva Tours after the pandemic brought an end to her in-person guiding
“I had nothing to lose,” she says. “This has saved me in a way.”
On “Doorway to Norway: A virtual walking tour of Oslo’s highlights,” Chamba pointed out historic buildings and walked into bakeries to show me Norwegian treats. Occasionally she would pull up photos, videos or audio clips to explain historic facts, show me the insides of buildings closed because of coronavirus or play the country’s national anthem.
We ended the tour at a gift shop, where Chamba helped me peruse ski sweaters, coffee mugs and wood-carved egg cups shaped like cartoon people — which I obviously had to buy, along with a couple of postcards. Ten days later, my Norwegian gifts arrived at my D.C. home.
How to experience
Length: 1 hour
Group size: One-on-one
ToursByLocals, a private tour marketplace, was founded in 2008 and offers customizable tours in more than 186 countries. The company was able to continue operating in person during the pandemic with walking, driving and caravan tours with mask-wearing and social distancing, but they also launched virtual experiences using the platform Highfive to reach travelers at home.
I logged on to my Lisbon Old Districts & Tram Ride tour to find the city looking like a ghost town compared to my memory of visiting it years ago. My guide, Marta Côrte-Real, explained that the city was under lockdown after another coronavirus surge. A year ago, tourism had been booming after years of substantial growth. Then the pandemic cancellations began.
Summer came and went without tourists, then fall fell through. Côrte-Real tried to stay positive, but as a freelance guide, she did not have access to unemployment benefits. She considered becoming a real estate agent.
“I thought it was the only way out,” she says. “But then again, it was not what I wanted to do.”
Côrte-Real pursued tourism in college after her father suggested the career field, even though she worried she was too shy to be a guide. Then she gave her first tour and transformed into a different person. It was a perfect fit, and she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Five years ago, she began working with ToursByLocals. Last March, she started hosting online tours, first with PowerPoint presentations from her home, and later outside doing walking virtual experiences.
By my session, she had the technique down pat. We stopped by the murals at Escadinhas de São Cristóvão, took a tram ride, saw Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookstore still in operation. I realized halfway through that I was getting the same extrovert’s rush from our online hangout that I would be if we were together in Lisbon.
That personal connection was my favorite part of every tour. Even though I could get the same information by Googling Lisbon history, Costa Rican cooking, Kenyan culture or Norwegian shopping, I wouldn’t get the same emotional engagement as I did spending time with a real human.
Perhaps that’s why every guide told me that even once the pandemic is over, they would still like to keep hosting virtual tours. The experience has shown them that these online adventures bring people joy whether they’re doing it in lieu of canceled trips, or because they couldn’t have visited in the first place.
“Some people tell me because of health conditions that they are not able to travel,” Mandu says. “So still being able to offer that opportunity to everyone … I find it as a blessing.”
How to experience
Length: 75 minutes
Group size: Private group for up to 10 people.
Read more on travel during the pandemic:
Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Vaccinations | Spring Break | Vaccine passports | Sanitizing your hotel | Updating documents | Summer trips |Travel vouchers | Ask us your travel questions
Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport risks | Staying healthy on planes | Fly or drive? | Layovers
Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive
Destinations: Hawaii | Private islands | Australia | Mexico | Alaska | Puerto Rico