One morning last week, I went on a walking tour of Quebec City with an experienced local tour guide, from the majestic Parliament of Quebec to the picturesque Saint Lawrence River. I asked questions, took pictures, learned about the multinational history of the Canadian neighborhood, and even visited a local shop to pick out a maple leaf ornament as a souvenir.

Later that afternoon, I visited a kitchen in Buenos Aires for a one-on-one lesson in making traditional Argentinian empanadas from an expert tour guide and cook. I soaked up the culinary and cultural history of the country, quizzed my host about the recipe, and left confident in my ability to make the savory pastries on my own.

All of this happened without leaving my desk in blustery Seattle. No, the experience wasn’t the same as actually traveling to a faraway destination, but it was close, or as close as many of us can get right now.

After months of secretive testing, the company is unveiling “Amazon Explore,” a new tech platform and marketplace that offers access to live virtual experiences with tour guides, store owners and other local experts in countries around the world.

A public beta of the service is launching Tuesday for Amazon’s US customers, who can request an invite for access to buy the virtual experiences.

While it might seem like the perfect tourism play for the pandemic, Amazon Explore has actually been in the works since long before global travel restrictions took effect. Of course, the big difference now is the increase in demand from would-be tourists, and the interest from tour guides and others who have seen their business plummet this year. A new report from Comscore says 2020 “will likely go down as the worst year in the history of online travel due to the pandemic.”

My tour guide in Quebec City, Hongying Tang, owner of HQ Tourism Services, said she was originally approached by Amazon in November of last year. She was intrigued, but didn’t see as much need for the service back then, with a busy schedule of in-person tours at the time.

But she got serious about participating in the Amazon Explore private beta earlier this year, when the impact of the pandemic on her business became clear.

“I’m like, OK, let’s get started, because this is the future,” she recalled. She has been able to keep her team working while other tour operators have gone dormant.

Amazon isn’t the first to try virtual experiences. Most notably, Amazon Explore pits the company against Airbnb, which launched its own marketplace for live virtual experiences in April as a distraction for quarantined would-be travelers and a lifeline for its business in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Airbnb Online Experiences are available to small groups of people from different locations, Amazon is following its own path by focusing on one-on-one experiences for purchase, primarily by individuals and families. Amazon’s platform also lets its customers visit shops and purchase items of local interest to be shipped to their homes.

Although the company isn’t talking about its long-term plans, it’s not hard to imagine where this could be headed. Through the Amazon Explore program, the company is establishing relationships with tour guides around the world, potentially positioning it to do the reverse of what Airbnb did, expanding into in-person tours and experiences when the global pandemic finally ends.

Amazon has long been seen as a potential competitive threat to online travel giants Expedia Group and Booking Holdings, but its forays into travel have brought mixed results. For example, the Amazon Destinations travel site, which focused largely on local getaways, was discontinued in 2015, six months after it launched.

In this meantime, these virtual tours might just have legs. Tang, my Quebec City guide, said she has been surprised by the strength of the personal connection that can be established virtually between host and customer, because it’s a one-on-one experience.

“Like right now, you and me, Todd. I’m just talking to you. I’m not talking to anyone else,” she said, flipping between the front-facing camera and selfie view on her phone before showing me the famous cannonball in a tree. “I’m talking about the things that you’re interested in, keeping you entertained. This is the connection.”

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Check out the Tagboard Resources Hub for the latest news and best practices in interactive storytelling and cloud-based production

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News – Amazon jumps into virtual tourism, offering live one-on-one experiences around the world