Is virtual travel virtuous?

Is virtual travel virtuous? The short answer is “yes”, but before getting to “why” I want to first introduce the concept.

By ”virtual travel” I mean the kind of travel you can do at home, seated before the screen of a TV, computer or tablet. As internet access has increased, the travel media being uploaded by professionals and amateurs alike have increased in both quantity and quality. The YouTube Travel Channel’s 71,261 subscribers have viewed 62 million videos. It’s not a particularly good time, I suppose, to be in the travel book publishing business.

Here I’ll consider as just one example of the many homegrown travel videos now available on YouTube. Contributors to this popular site have not yet succeeded in filming the entire world but it’s just a matter of time. If in the meantime you want to see something not yet immortalized on YouTube, consider visiting it ”virtually” using Google’s “street view”. (If you don’t yet know how, click here.)

The first reason that virtual travel is virtuous is that widespread access to YouTube has resolved a knotty social problem, the formerly widespread practice of “sharing” vacation photos. No longer must we fear being held captive for hours in the den of a close friend or family member. Now we need only graciously accept a link which, if included in an email, can be deleted.

A second claim to virtue is that some travel videos are entertaining and informative. Amateur videographers are producing ever more palatable films as the result of technical improvement in consumer grade camcorders and the availability of inexpensive and user-friendly video editing software. The only real limits on a travel vidoegrapher are speed of connection to the internet, patience, and creativity.

Hoosier Tim, dedicated travel videographer

Hoosier Tim, a dedicated travel videographer, uploads videos of his many trips to YouTube

Among the most popular YouTube travel videos are those posted by a contributor who calls himself “Hoosier Tim”. At last count, HT had uploaded 962 videos, the most recent in high-definition. On his personal website HT says that he’s visited all 50 U.S. states and all seven continents, and pledges to keep traveling and posting.

HT’s videos are well crafted: his hand is steady, the transitions between segments smooth. The audio background is either soothing computer-generated music or the ambient sounds captured while filming. Sometimes the soundtrack of HT videos includes the voice of the tour guide, which provides useful clues about what is being viewed.

HT videos include a few captions to help orient the viewer. Mercifully, however, HT lets his lovely footage speak for itself without adding his own commentary or opinions. This may, in part, account for the popularity of HT’s posts. A useful feature for those seeking specific information is the inclusion of an accurate timeline that allows viewers to move ahead to particular points of interest in the video without watching everything

Never having been to Russia, the first video I watched was that of HT’s two-day visit to St. Petersburg during a cruise in August 2011. The video is long (1 hr 45 min) because HT included just about everything, even bus rides to and from the cruise ship. While this approach may sound tedious to you, it has certain advantages. It’s no doubt faster, and it succeeds in creating a “been there-done that” sensation one could never experience viewing a professionally edited travel video.  Example: I’ve never taken a cruise, and most likely never will, and so for this reason enjoyed seeing and hearing the preparations aboard the cruise ship for the offshore visit into St. Petersburg. It all sounded very calm and orderly, not the sort of thing that makes you think about running aground off the coast of Tuscany.  Thanks, HT, now I longer need to wonder.

Because HT’s coverage is thorough, leading to long videos, he has sensibly taken to breaking down his trips into more manageable portions. His recent trip to Italy yielded 11 segments, including ones for Sorrento (5 min), Venice ( 36 min) Florence (39 min) and Rome (42 min). I presume that the lengths are roughly proportional to the amount of time spent in each place. That being the case, the durations of HT’s videos may provide a rough estimate of perceived touristic importance. (Which is not necessarily to say “value” or “Worth”.)

Why do HT and others like him spend so much time filming and uploading their trips?


These brothers from London have created one of the most popular channels on YouTube.

One potential motive is to meet a lot of girls, which is exactly what happened to 19-year-old twins from North London who both look like Justin Bieber. Jack and Finn Harries took to filming friends and family members in their “gap” year between secondary school and university and posting their videos to YouTube. No one watched anything for the first four months, but when Jack started including his twin Finn, viewership began  to increase. Of their 190,000 current subscribers, 88% are 14 to 17 year-old  girls who tend to be “really avid” according to Jack. The most avid “JacksGap” fans have camped outside the family home, mobbed the twins when they landed in Bangkok, sent huge amounts of unsolicited mail, and set up hundreds of unofficial fan sites. (And probably other things the lads haven’t spoken publically about.)

HT looks like a well-settled family man, and so I doubt that he posts to YouTube to meet girls.  The hard-core travel videographer, I suspect, marches to the beat of a different drummer. Some may seek a dab of immortality given that the internet seems so unlimited in time or space.  Also appealing aspect may be the idea of doing something “artistic” and “creative,”  especially for those with ordinary jobs and ordinary lives. Then, too, there is likely a desire for praise. HT’s videos are well crafted, as attested by the abundant positive feedback he’s received.

It’s likely, however, that the primary incentive for serial YouTube up-loaders is the allure of possible celebrity. The number of HT’s ”views” is getting impressive: 325,000+ for his St. Petersburg video, and now his Dubai video has gone ballistic (650,000+ and counting, probably because it features the world’s tallest building). I’m sure that even HT is getting some fan mail, although probably not from teenage girls.

No doubt HT has his eyes on the prize: one million views. But even if HT hits a million he’ll still have a long way to go before reaching the summit of  Mt. Celebrity. YouTube’s #1 and #2 travel videos have registered 7 million+ and 5 million+ views apiece.  I’m not sure why these two videos are so popular. I like neither, but must admit being partial to the #3 entry which is entitled “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video”. If you choose to waste 51 sec on this spoof you’ll see that my appreciation stems more from a sophomoric sense of humor than to artistic merit.


Let’s return now to the topic of this post, namely virtue.

Although few will actually admit it, I’m  convinced that not everyone likes to travel. For some, a La-Z-Boy recliner before a large-screen TV is more appealing they going on a long trip. The omnipresence of virtual travel has surely convinced the unconvinced to become armchair travellers instead. It’s no longer necessary to spend thousands of dollars flying inter-continentally to see the word. Not now that the world is visible from home.

And consider this: The fuel consumption attributed to a single seat on a round-trip flight from JFK to Romes FCO on a Boeing 747-400 is 184.7 gallons, roughly what you’d consume driving from LAX to Bangor, Maine. By giving reluctant travellers an excuse to stay home, virtual travel reduces fossil fuel emissions. And yes, dear Winifred, you can do something big and important by doing nothing.

This photo is taken from an HP video. What a zoo! I'll never go there in August.

The Spanish Steps in Rome, taken from an HT video. What a zoo! I’ll never go there in August.

And there’s more. Travel videos may also help resolve the overcrowding of popular tourist destinations. Here is a photo of the Spanish Steps drawn from one of HT’s Italy videos. I’ve been to this part of Rome many times over the years, but not recently and never in August when the HT video was made. What madness! This is worse than Venice! Now that I’ve been forwarned, I’ll never venture anywhere near the Spanish Steps at the height of the tourism season.

In his own way, and without really trying, HT is helping to decongest Rome and make the Eternal City more enjoyable destination for those who can’t resist visiting in person.


About Jim Flege

Jim Flege carried out research on phonetic aspects of second-language acquisition and bilingualism at an American university. He moved to Italy after retiring and lives with his Italian wife and their Jack Russell terrier in a small town in central Italy. Jim currently serves as the European Director of the Travel Learning Network, an organization provides educational and cultural immersion programs in Europe. You can reach Jim directly by writing to: director (at) www.travlearning (dot) net
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