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Immersive technologies as a driver for growth in nature tourism services – a desk study and future directions


Elina Moreira Kares

projektiasiantuntija, palveluliiketoiminnan kehittäminen ja muotoilu
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Jouko Loijas

lehtori, palveluliiketoiminnan kehittäminen ja muotoilu
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Janina Rannikko


Published : 25.01.2024

The advancing digitalisation of tourism creates many novel opportunities for businesses and destinations to grow. However, nature tourism operators have been slower in adapting new technologies, which manifests a lot of unused potential. To discover the current state of technological adaptation in the tourism sector, and to pinpoint future directions for the digitalisation of nature tourism, we did a desk study to recognise the next steps to be taken to support nature tourism operators in this development process. In this article, we present the findings and give food for thought about practical implications for the companies.

Rationale for the study

The increasing use of technology has been shaping the tourism industry for the past decades. This development has not only changed the means of communication between consumers and tourism stakeholders, but also how information is searched and shared, services bought, reservations managed, and products experienced. Technology as a trend in tourism is expected to stay (Verma et al. 2022; Bowen & Whalen 2017), and this can be used as an avenue for growth e.g. through new service innovations, marketing initiatives, and for reaching new target audiences.

Technology as a trend in tourism is visible in the field’s research. The amount of publications has exponentially grown from only ten published journal articles on the topic in 2000, to 399 pieces in 2021, five past years marking the fastest growth (Verma et al. 2022). This all indicates that the topic of digitalisation is gaining more and more relevance in tourism, which accelerates also the need for research to support the successful adaptation of new technologies.

Nature tourism, which relies heavily on tangible experiences, has perhaps been on the slower end of the tourism spectrum to react to the advancing digitalisation. However, digitalisation is one of the key factors in the future of sustainable nature tourism, so by not being able to meet the new demands that new technologies create, traditional nature tourism operators risk being left behind on the many opportunities this opens.

Immersive technologies such as augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR), enable completely new ways to experience and enhance the positive aspects of nature tourism. At the same time, they open up new business opportunities for companies and help responding to the seasonality of the market. In this desk study, we looked into technology as a trend in tourism from the aspect of immersive technologies, especially emphasising its potential for developing virtual nature tourism services, and for finding future directions, on how the nature tourism operators can better adapt and benefit from the use of them.

Immersive technologies in tourism

Immersive technologies, such as VR and AR, blend the boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds, allowing users to interact with the virtual environments and objects. They use artificial multisensory stimulation, including visual, auditory, and tactile feedback, to generate immersive experiences. The immersive nature of these technologies creates a sense of physical presence by enabling the users to engage and feel part of the simulated or technologically enhanced environments.

Immersive technologies have the ability to influence consumer behaviour and experiences, and these technologies have been increasingly integrated into various domains, such as travel, education, healthcare, and entertainment. Virtual tourism can e.g. enable users to virtually travel to destinations and experience places in a new way, while providing an alternative for physical travel, that is particularly important during times of travel restrictions such as the COVID-19 pandemic (Sarkady et al. 2021). Furthermore, these technologies have been found to significantly impact the tourism experience and influence consumer behaviour, such as attitudinal change and visit intentions to destinations (Kim et al. 2020; Verma et al. 2022; Pasanen et al. 2019; Bigné & Maturana 2023).

Virtual reality (VR)

VR has the ability to simulate real-life environments and experiences. So far, in the tourism context, VR has been found to be most prominent for marketing, planning and management, accessibility, entertainment, education, and heritage preservation (Guttentag 2010; Peštek & Sarvan 2020). It has already been successfully put into use e.g. in offering previews to hotels or having sneak peeks of the offerings in destinations. Using VR to promote a destination, has been found to result in a stronger destination image, intention to visit, seeking more information about, and sharing it with others, instead of traditional 2D videos or other visual content on websites (Griffin et al. 2017).

Overall, rich media content such as VR reduces the likelihood of disappointments while encouraging purchase decisions (Pasanen et al. 2019). The use of VR in cultural heritage destinations has been found to increase value for customers in pre-, during, and post-experience (Jung & Tom Dieck 2017). Moreover, the sense of presence in VR has been connected to a more positive user experience, which in the tourism marketing context has resulted in more positive attitudes towards the destination, and higher intentions to visit (Tussyadiah et al. 2018).

Other 360 environments

Partially equal to VR in some positive aspects considering rich media content, 360 material can work even better from a screen than from VR headset, and that is why, the situational needs that the content is made for, should be carefully analysed (Pasanen et al. 2019). Sometimes quick and easy access to a 360 view from a mobile or tablet might be more suitable for supporting decision-making than having a full VR setup somewhere, especially if targeting travellers on the go.

360 material can also be displayed in CAVE’s (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), which are spaces where multiple walls are projected to create immersive scenes and environments. CAVEs offer a way to experience and immerse oneself in other worlds without the need for other gadgets such as head-mounted displays. One of the benefits of CAVE environments is that they can host multiple visitors simultaneously, thus, enabling shared and group experiences.

Augmented reality (AR)

AR enhances reality by adding virtual elements to it. It has been successfully used e.g. for mobile guides, that help to reduce the cognitive effort that navigating and exploring new places might cause for tourists, by providing an easy access to visualised and location-based information (Karadimitriou 2019). AR applications can also provide an innovative way to showcase for tourists e.g. historical sites in their days of glory, fauna in their natural environment, or changing conditions such as seasonal changes with migrating animal populations.

By adding gamified AR solutions, the value for customers can be boosted through active involvement and interactivity. Furthermore, by adapting co-creation models, visitors’ social experience can be enhanced by peer involvement and communication, while the intention to re-visit would be encouraged as new content would be added by others. (Jung & tom Dieck 2017.)

Mixed reality (MR)

MR, as AR, offer the opportunity to create environments that combine the physical and virtual spheres. MR environments have been utilised e.g. in museums to enhance the visitor experience, by projecting and animating art pieces to the surroundings, sometimes even with a possibility for interaction. Besides visitor experience enhancement, MR has been found useful e.g. for reconstructing, exploring, and educating visitors in cultural heritage sites, while the use of MR in these sites has been connected to improved learning outcomes and increased interest towards the site and content (Bekele et al. 2018).

The benefit of a MR approach is that it can be used to enhance the physical surroundings without completely replacing it as in VR applications. This offers more flexibility in the sense of having the best of both (virtual and physical) worlds.

Recognised possibilities and potential for virtual tourism


With advancing digitalisation, new technologies are becoming more and more available for larger consumer groups due to availability and competitive pricing. This enhances the ease of access. Virtual products have also the power to increase accessibility for those, whose mobility for some reason (e.g. age, health, financial situation) is limited. Additionally, immersive technologies could be used to enhance accessibility to locations that are dangerous, inaccessible, or with strict visiting policies (Verma et al. 2022), while using this as a selling point for a product by offering a sense of exclusivity. A great example of this type of product is Everest VR, which enables anyone to summit the famous mountain.

New services

The positive impacts, such as enhanced cognitive performance and improved psychological and physiological well-being that result from interaction with nature, are well-researched and established phenomena (see e.g. Berman et al. 2008; Keniger et al. 2013). Some of these positive impacts, like e.g. improved mental state and restorative effects, have been found to emerge also in virtual reality settings (Browning et al. 2020). Utilising this aspect of nature experiences, the benefits could be used as a selling point e.g. for virtual wellness services. Different approaches in the creation of digital twins of nature tourism products could also be reached e.g. through adding playfulness or pedagogical elements. In short, new services don’t have to be completely new, but rather adding different layers and building on top of the existing tangible experiences.

New target audiences

The market potential of virtual nature tourism products reaches beyond the usual consumer groups of in-situ services. Relating to the wellness aspect of nature, even as short as 3-minute immersions in virtual nature experiences have been found to boost efficacy and well-being at workplaces (Walters et al. 2022). By transforming nature experiences into well-thought digital products, virtual tourism could be e.g. used to advocate health and wellbeing at workplaces and elderly care homes, or used to provide learning experiences in schools. The target group of the digital experiences might not, or perhaps even should not be, the same as for the physical experiences.

Marketing possibilities

Because consumers often have high expectations but also high uncertainty about the tourism products they are considering to purchase (Pasanen et al. 2019), immersive technologies could be used to provide richer informative content in support of their decision-making process. Using VR e.g. can offer great new “try it before you buy it” types of experiences for destinations to promote themselves (Pasanen et al. 2019). This way, consumers would have a better idea of their return on investment, but also the service providers could perhaps be able to meet, or exceed, the expectations easier. Accessing new markets with digital products also offer simultaneously new marketing opportunities outside the already targeted segment. Collaborations could be built between destination marketing and local service providers to create growth for multiple stakeholders at once.

Developing virtual nature tourism services – a path forwards

Technological advancements offer new opportunities for tourism stakeholders on several fronts. One recognised issue in advancing digitalisation from the tourism point of view, has been in how to consider the needs of consumer groups who are not as tech-savvy. Elderly people e.g. have been recognised as an important and growing tourism segment, but also as a group least ready to adapt to the use of new technologies (Tuomi, Moreira Kares & Zainal Abidin 2023). The key to successful adaptation of new technologies, lies in carefully designed products keeping in mind the specific target group needs. In the nature tourism sector, increasing accessability with the use of immersive technologies holds a lot of potential.

Good and memorable experiences are the key to success in the service industry. The implementation of immersive technologies offer another advantage in this area: in some cases, the level of immersion has been connected positively to enhanced memory performance (Smith 2019). Immersion itself has been found to be impacted by perceived authenticity, and moreover, the viewer’s awareness of the authenticity of a VR tourism product is connected to the openness and approval towards such products (Kim et al. 2020). Being able to transfer the authenticity of the nature experiences into the virtual sphere might still need some work, but with expert co-operation and by adapting customer-centric design processes, there is a lot of new business opportunities to explore to unlock the true potential that immersive technologies bring into the table.

Also, many studies have however stated, that virtual tourism simply cannot replace real physical travel. Some rich sensory experiences such as feeling the sea breeze in your hair while riding on a beach or the sensation of snow melting on your tongue cannot simply be enjoyed in digitalised form. This together with the findings presented in this article, concludes, that digital products should never simply be copies of their in-situ twins. Digital products need to offer a sense of exclusivity or a twist to the experience for the consumers to be ready to pay for them. There is a clear need for mapping out customer expectations, suitable sales channels, and revenue models, for making this investment in digitalisation more compelling for businesses.

There is no simple “one size fits all” solution in digitalising nature tourism products, as the solutions are highly context-dependent of the original service settings and resources. The unused potential and an aim to leverage the nature tourism to a new level, while recognising the barriers there are, lead to creating the project Virtual Nature: Digitalization and Expert Cooperation as a Promoter of Sustainable Nature Tourism.

The project helps tourism companies in their adaptation of new technologies, by bringing together experts from service development, tourism, and technology, and colliding the tourism and technology stakeholders. The idea is to support the chosen nature tourism companies through service innovation and development process, so that they are ready to launch new carefully designed products or additional features to existing ones, that create sustainable growth and value for both customers and the businesses. With the expert cooperation, the project aims to contribute to leveraging the competitiveness of nature tourism operators in the Uusimaa region, while also boosting and creating know-how in a wider context of digitalising the service business sector. At the heart of the project are virtual nature tourism and the related experience economy, that open new dimensions to the world of tourism together with the use of new technologies.

The Virtual Nature project is funded by the European Regional Development Fund, and it is administered in co-operation between Haaga-Helia UAS, Metropolia UAS, and Humak UAS. The aim of the project is to guide and assist tourism operators in producing virtual nature tourism packages for international markets, pilot them with different target groups and find new and potential sales channels for the products.


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Editing: Marianne Wegmüller

Picture: Shutterstock