- Ligia Morera, based in Costa Rica, leads virtual tours on the Japanese platform Dokodemo Door Trip.
- She started when travel was interrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic and she needed a new source of income.
- She now works in partnership with schools to reach new audiences and customers.
Ligia Morera, 32, lives in San Ramón de Alajuela in Costa Rica’s Central Valley with her husband, Rodrigo Santamaria, 35. She studied tourism at university before working in hotels and travel agencies. Six years ago, she and her husband founded their own travel planning business.
When COVID-19 put international travel on hold – and thus dried up their main source of income – they sought other employment, including browsing freelance marketplace Upwork. This is where they had the chance to become pioneers in the field of travel: tourist guides in virtual reality.
Since November last year, the couple have been operating as virtual guides through the platform provided by Dokodemo door trigger, a subsidiary of the Japanese company Metareal Corporation. Santamaria serves as videographer and editor, while Morera focuses on guiding.
Their first tour, shot entirely with Santamaria’s GoPro Max 360, features a rare natural phenomenon: the nesting of turtles on Ostional Beach in the Nicoya Peninsula. Hundreds, often thousands, of turtles emerge in the moonlight from the ocean along a mile-long beach, then burrow into the black sand and carefully lay a load of eggs.
“We pre-recorded turtle nesting together. The biggest one is in October, so we did it in 2021,” Morera told Insider. “I played the video, with all the natural sounds as we walked along the beach, and started telling them how the turtles lay their eggs.” Its guests pay $12 each for a 30-minute tour through this immersive video.
Morera sees potential in the niche for many reasons beyond attracting cautious people to leave their homes in the wake of COVID-19. Many travelers are reassessing their trips amid growing travel awareness environmental impact and are looking for more sustainable options. And for businesses, virtual tours can provide an easy new revenue stream that could also add stability in the event of a new pandemic or wave of lockdowns.
VR Tour Guide Needs AI Software to Reach Global Audience
Although Dokodemo’s platform is available worldwide, Japan has so far been Morera’s main source of customers, she said, mainly due to the company’s location. Morera is fluent in English and Spanish but doesn’t speak a word of Japanese – and that’s where Dokodemo can help.
Dokodemo’s parent company is an AI-powered translation company that’s only been around for two years. “It’s designed to break down the so-called language barrier between Japanese businesses and the rest of the world through real-time AI translation,” said Stephen Black, the company’s guide support manager, who helps creators prepare their videos. Initiated. “That AI translation and interaction between guides and guests is a big part of what sells the idea.” In other words, these VR tours are as much a marketing program for its core business as it is a standalone source of income.
Black said the company spent about six months developing the VR tourism platform and then opened it up for nine months to contributors like Morera. At the mainstream launch, he said, there were around 500 individual visits, and it’s now close to 1,000. ‘use outside the platform’, he added – think the Singapore Tourism Board is paying for the right to deploy it in marketing efforts.
Popular tours, he said, are often the most colorful, such as a visit to the Holi festival in India, or offer the chance to see well-known places – Santorini, for example, has sold well. He added that engagement tended to decrease on tours longer than 30 minutes.
All aspiring metaverse travelers who don’t own a helmet can sign up and receive a free Meta Quest for a week before choosing to purchase one from Black’s firm. On average, he said, one in five customers opt for it, with Japanese users paying 37,000 yen, or about $271, to rent the hardware. Half of the company’s active monthly users reside in the country, while most of the rest are located elsewhere in Asia. “We are among the biggest sellers of Meta Quest in Japan,” he said.
A new way to guide
Morera has embraced the new medium with flying colors. She and her husband have shot and uploaded eight videos from Costa Rica – one is a hummingbird tour, as requested by previous participants – as well as eight from neighboring Panama, where she has family. She is particularly proud of the shoot they planned with the indigenous Guna Yala people, which marked a festival in Panama. “It’s important that your culture shows it,” she said, “and now something that happens once a year is available virtually year-round.”
She’s also aggressively marketing to audiences beyond Japan via social media and other avenues, like local universities in her country — she just led 30 students around the turtle hatching event. thanks to a directive from their biology professor at the University of Costa Rica. Another source of referrals are other VR tour guides. “There is a community now,” she said, “and we support each other, showing how to promote – we can connect as individuals from different countries and backgrounds and give each other advice, like a Japanese girl who lived in Belize who helped me.”
It was up to Morera to decide how much to charge. It has lowered its prices from $15 per person in the beginning to $12 per person now – from there Dokodemo Door Trip takes a 20% processing fee, so its profit is $9.60 per person, or approx. $300 per month. “It’s trial and error,” she said. “We just had to see how it went, and it took about six months to decide to charge $12 instead.”
Morera sets the size of her groups at two to 10 people — larger, she says, makes it harder for participants to engage and ask questions effectively.
The biggest problem, she added, is the reliability of local broadband. “In Costa Rica we sometimes have little problems with that,” she said. Planning also presented its challenges. She usually schedules tours to take place on Friday or Saturday night Japan time once every two weeks, as these times have proven to be the most popular for bookings.
“A lot of my guests sign up saying they’re enjoying their beer in the evening and are in the mood to relax,” she said. “It’s better to learn something than just browsing social media. That way they not only relax, but they learn from other humans around the world.”