It would be easy to dismiss screen-based travel experiences as a fad that won’t outlast the pandemic . . . until you factor in shopping.

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. That’s a maxim that certainly holds for diners who recently paid up to £360 to eat an ‘in-flight’ meal on two stationary Singapore Airlines A380 superjumbos. For those who missed out – and tickets sold out in half an hour according to the organizers – people could order in the experience at home for about £500. A gimmick, sure, but also perhaps an indication that for some the idea of travel can be unbundled into a set of experiences that don’t necessarily require you to cross a border, or even the threshold of your home.

Various forms of virtual tourism pre-date the pandemic. Virgin built the concept into its most recent retail stores in a very analogue way, while those intent on staying at high-end hotels like Dubai’s Atlantis, The Palm, are able to tour the premises in VR before booking. But lockdown encouraged travel brands to lean into the concept to a much greater extent. Perhaps the most significant was Airbnb’s quick digitization of its local guided experiences, allowing users to join live walk-arounds with New Zealand sheep farmers or compose songs with a Nashville-based guitarist from the comfort of their computer screen. Prices mostly run to just a few dollars, with a handful reaching triple figures. ‘Human connection is at the core of what we do,’ said head of Airbnb Experiences Catherine Powell at the time of launch. ‘We want to provide an opportunity for our hosts to connect with our global community of guests in the only way possible right now – online.’ The pertinent question is whether online will continue to play a role once the world reopens.

One signal that it might is the fact that the most valuable retail company has just entered the market, though very much on its own terms. At first glance Amazon’s Explore service looks, feels and sounds a lot like a copy and paste of Airbnb’s; you can take a virtual tour of the Berlin wall, for instance, or Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay. The cost is notably higher, however, with most options existing in the $50+ range. In most cases they’re at a similar price point to what you’d expect to pay in person, showing that, if there’s enough uptake, there’s serious enough money to be made.

There’s another telling addition, however, and one that hints at Amazon’s real interest: shopping. Rather than cultural excursions, Amazon’s travellers can alternatively opt for virtual tours of retail destinations like Quebec’s Little Champlain Street or Kyoto's Higashiyama neighbourhood. Viewers are able to ask their guide to purchase any products that they see, paying for them through the e-commerce giant’s own platform. The current selection of locations is limited, but it’s easy to see why people would be attracted to being able to accompany a local retail expert around many of the world’s main shopping destinations in order to score unique items – or even waiting in line at product drop they’re unable to attend themselves.

Indeed this feels like it could very much build on the growing interest in livestreamed store visits that we’ve already seen many luxury brands invest in over lockdown. What Amazon’s cut is for its service is unknown (it’s still in beta and currently only available in the US), but if it could tap into even a fraction of the currently curtailed travel retail market it could prove highly lucrative. After all, retail opportunities are one of the key destination drivers for tourists, with 47% of Chinese travellers considering shopping an essential part of their outbound trip according to McKinsey. It’s not the destination, it’s the souvenir.

Hero image: Snapshot of Amazon's Explore service.