Nidhi Varma might have got that breathtaking view of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower had she taken a virtual tour earlier. But then, she hadn’t started her company yet.

Her visit to the iconic monument a year ago hadn’t been pleasant. “Apart from waiting for three long hours, the top floor closed down when we reached, and we did not even know that the first floor existed," said Varma, a former airline employee who toured Paris with her husband Vineet Varma.

The disappointing experience prompted them to develop a virtual tour mobile application called Guiddoo that provides panoramic or 360 degree views of a place or destination, giving tourists a virtual experience of locations and monuments they wish to visit.

Guiddoo, launched in November, works offline once downloaded. It provides an audio visual guide to global monuments and attractions such as the Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower and more modern monuments like the Burj Khalifa.

Guiddoo Travels Pvt. Ltd has invested 30 lakh till date and uses Google Maps among other things. “At present, we cover 39 heritage sites around the world, of which 10 sites are in India. We plan to cover 100 sites in next six months and 300 in a year," said Vineet Varma, chief operating officer of Guiddoo.

A number of companies have spawned providing audio and virtual tours of historical monuments and heritage sites—among the top reasons for people to travel—on websites, mobile phones and other devices.

India’s tourism ministry, too, started providing virtual tours of tourist attractions in 12 cities on its website Incredible India (www.incredibleindia.org) in October, in partnership with technology company Genesys International Corp. Ltd.

The Incredible India website offers the service in association with WoNoBo.com, built by Genesys and claiming to be India’s first location-based service to offer “walkthroughs" of streets across 54 Indian cities.

These virtual tours, the tourism ministry said during the launch, map images of thousands of square kilometres and close to 10 million places of interest across the country.

The project is a part of India’s plan to attract 1% of almost 1.2 billion global tourists by 2016.

According to a tourism ministry official, after the first month of launching the virtual tours, traffic on the Incredible India website “jumped up to half-a-million from tens of thousands".

The ministry has been upgrading the website’s technology since January last year and has incorporated Google Maps as well. “We have become one of the top five sites getting international traffic in the country," the ministry official said, declining to be identified.

“This is a 200 crore project based on an advertisement-driven model, wherein we are not putting in any money, but our partner will be investing," the official said.

India’s ministry of culture has tied up with Google Inc. to offer virtual tours of 100 monuments; so far 30 heritage sites have been covered using Google’s Street View technology.

“It is a wearable backpack that has cameras mounted on it. The equipment at the back will take pictures every few seconds and store it," said Suren Ruhela, director, programme management and product manager, India Maps at Google. “We get pictures from different angles to get a 360 degree panoramic view."

Ramesh Misra, a 27-year-old officer at Union Bank of India, based in Lucknow, says he has benefited from the virtual tours.

Misra made plans to visit Mumbai after stumbling across a virtual tour of the Elephanta Caves. “I found the place more attractive than I had originally imagined after taking the tour," he said, adding that it seemed like a perfect place for someone loving nature, photography and heritage.

“The one aspect of virtual tours is that they can be a driver of inspiration," said Chetan Kapoor, research associate, Asia Pacific, at PhocusWright Inc., a travel research firm that focuses on emerging technologies.

“Everybody has a bit of wanderlust. Things like photos or 360 degree panoramic views are experiential things that can bring out more desire to travel. While these cannot satiate your desire to travel, they do give travellers leverage while they are making a decision by giving them a sense of what they would like to experience," he said.

Virtual tours are becoming more popular with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets.

“Increasingly, smart devices as well as some of the wearables are trying to include locational information as well," said Kapoor, citing the example of one of the features of Google Glass, called Field Trip, that can provide the wearer a description of a place as well as the significance of that particular location.

Getting the right information and content, however, present one of the biggest hurdles for content-oriented travel apps like Guiddoo. Varma used to get information for the content from friends and acquaintances who visited those places and would “then verify it ourselves", but is “now working through partners".

The main challenge, agreed Kapoor, remains the quality of content as well as the software hosting such tours. “The content has to be rich and detailed to capture the attention of travellers," he said.

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