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• Virtual tourism to traditional holiday settings online
• Travel agencies for the confused virtual tourist
• Tours are available in dozens of online worlds
By Michelle Jana Chan
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Don't bother to pack your bags. Skip the queues at the airport. Forget security and immigration checks. Even leave your passport behind. Sound like a perfect holiday? Just log on to a virtual vacation, whether it be lazing on a beach, a ski trip or climbing archaeological ruins. Or all three -- in the same hour.

Every day, millions of people already travel to virtual fantastical destinations, whether it is the World of Warcraft or Matrix Online, but there are also more traditional holiday settings online.

On Cocoloco Island Resort, within the Internet-based virtual world of Second Life, tourists can take a hot-air balloon above the thatched cabanas or float in the swimming-pool. In Virtual Venice, a gondola carries visitors to a Renaissance church adorned with paintings and ornate carvings. The Visit Mexico tourism board has created Chichén Itzá online, where visitors can fly over the great pyramid El Castillo or visit a traditional Mayan home.

Lost in translation

With all this adventure at your fingertips, it's easy to get lost, a problem than has spawned a whole new industry of travel agencies, tour guides and digital guidebooks to cater to the confused virtual tourist.

In April, STA Travel launched a presence on Second Life, offering up what it calls a 'Home for the Virtual Traveler', with guidance to the must-see places and adventures in this online world.

Matt Nixon, Director of E-commerce for STA Travel North America, says their plan is to offer free tours to alluring places in Second Life. 'Hopefully, that will inspire people to travel in the real world,' Nixon says.

Nixon concedes nobody has yet paid real dollars for a real vacation but that's what STA Travel ultimately wants to achieve on Second Life. He has just hired a manager to work in their virtual retail branch.

'We sell a pretty complex product, from flights to tour packages, insurance to hotel rooms,' Nixon says, 'and you really need to sit down one-on-one with a travel person to have a discussion about your trip. We believe there is potential to have a rich engaging experience with the customer in the virtual environment, where we're selling real travel packages.'

Getting your bearings

Some entrepreneurs are already making travel pay. A year ago, Danielle Jansen founded AmaZingg Travels, which publishes digital travel brochures about what is going on in Second Life. The brochures sell for 50 Linden dollars (the Second Life currency, convertible to real dollars) and cover an array of subject matter, from where to shop, to places of worship and where play a sport.

'There is a search engine on Second Life so you could find all these places by yourself,' Jansen says, 'but we've found people like getting our help. When you first come to Second Life, you don't understand it's not a game but a whole virtual environment.'

The concept of supportive navigation has proven so popular, businesses wanting a Second Life presence also started approaching Jansen for help. 'The avatars of the company come to my travel agency,' Jansen says, 'and I organize in-world tours, guiding them around the virtual world, showing them locations that they are interested in.'

AmaZingg has been so successful, Jansen quit her government job a few months ago to work full-time conducting online tours and advising companies about virtual worlds. The market is big enough to support more than AmaZingg, too. The travel agency Synthtravels offers a similar service but across dozens of online worlds, including the massively popular World of Warcraft.

Back in the real world, with increasing worries about airport security and our carbon footprint, virtual tourism might become part of a modern solution to curb the global travel trend. If that's the case, you'll only need to offset the electricity used to power your PC.

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Take a tour in Second Life wtih avatar Gwendolyn Kronsage.


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