ASEAN-Korea Digital Cooperation in Virtual Tourism During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prospects and Implications

Hyun Jin Nam¹ and Youngheon Kim²

¹Yonsei University

²Seoul National University

 

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven countries into a global lockdown, closing international borders to foreigners and thus paralyzing international exchanges in general. As a result, the tourism industry in the Asia Pacific region saw a 72% decrease in international tourist arrivals in the first half of 2020. This paper proposes that Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) co-develop a virtual tourism program based on Virtual Reality (VR) technology, which would allow nationals of ASEAN member countries and the ROK to virtually visit their desired destinations within the eleven countries. Meanwhile, this paper also analyzes the expected economic, social, and cultural benefits of virtual tourism for the two parties during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic era, virtual tourism has the potential to revive the devastated tourism industry of ASEAN member countries and Korea and alleviate society-wide stress and depression rooted in self-isolation measures. In the post-COVID-19 era, virtual tourism is expected to boost tourism rates by functioning as a promotional marketing device, facilitate cultural exchange between the youths of ASEAN and Korea, and serve as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional physical travel that produces harmful carbon emissions. This paper further speculates that joint research and development of virtual tourism programs will positively affect ASEAN-ROK relations through mutual sharing of knowledge and human resources. This paper concludes that digital cooperation in the field of virtual tourism directly corresponds with the objectives of the ROK’s New Southern Policy and will ultimately strengthen the strategic relationship between the ASEAN and Korea.

 

ASEAN-Korea Digital Cooperation in Virtual Tourism During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prospects and Implications

Tourism in the 21st century has expanded beyond the traditional mode of tourism, referring to the physical travel to a particular destination. E-Tourism refers to online platforms through which browsers can acquire information about their desired destinations. E-Tourism was created by a society of travelers who aimed to gather second-hand information about their tour plans. These online platforms exist in various forms such as websites that are run by a web editor or communal forums, in which users interact to share their knowledge. Information in the form of images, catalogs, maps, and other materials are shared and disseminated through such websites (Castro et al., 2018).

The development of 360° virtual tour technology opened up a new possibility for tourism through digital media beyond the limits of E-Tourism. Osman (2009) defines 360-virtual-tour as a “simulation of an existing location that is composed of a sequence of video images” (p. 173). A 360° virtual tour, in other words, provides individuals with access to a two-dimensional 360° visual panorama of their desired destinations.

The most technologically advanced mode of tourism in the present is Virtual Reality (VR) travel, which has recently gained attention as supporting technologies have been steadily developed in the past decade. According to the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University (2020), VR travel is a technology currently under development that uses “advanced mathematical techniques, combining livestream video with existing photos and videos of travel hotspots.” VR travel allows nationals of one country to virtually visit and experience locales of another country through three-dimensional audio-visual media. Virtual Reality technology differs from 360° image technology in that the former allows individuals in the virtual setting to actually engage with the surrounding environment, offering a more immersive and interactive experience for users. A study on the difference between VR travel and 360° web-based tour reported that VR travel “enhances mental imagery…[and] induce[s] a higher sense of presence” than 360° tours do (Bogicevic et al., 2019, p. 61). Once VR technology is fully developed, it is speculated that VR travel may become a more affordable and accessible alternative to traditional modes of physical travel.

This paper proposes that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) promote the usage of virtual travel, which includes both 360° virtual tours and VR for tourism, that would allow nationals of ASEAN and the ROK to virtually tour member nations of ASEAN and South Korea. A virtual travel program targeted at the youths of ASEAN may include an immersive walk around Gangnam District or a live visual panorama of the streets of Myeong-dong in Seoul. Virtual travel for different age groups will entail different programs. In addition, virtual travel also opens up the possibility for individuals to travel to destinations that are difficult to visit, such as off limit areas for security or unsafe areas from site deterioration. A virtual tour of the Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone or the Khakaborazi National Park in Myanmar, both of which are destinations difficult to access, will enable tourists to visit and gain knowledge of sites that would have been unavailable to physically tour. Another possibility for the future expansion of virtual tourism may include the recreation of historical monuments during certain periods that have been destroyed. In this sense, virtual travel will not only serve as an alternative to physical travel, but also make groundbreaking use of virtual technology to learn about and experience past historical events or sites. 

This paper also proposes that ASEAN and the ROK conduct a joint program to develop technology for Virtual Reality for tourism, which would enhance the virtual travel experience for tourists. It will be particularly advantageous for the two parties to cooperate in research to solve the limitations of today’s VR technology. Morel’s research (2015) on the limitations of VR technology demonstrates there is much room to improve in the field. Morel identifies contemporary VR technology’s greatest limitation as its inability to provide a perfectly realistic environment. The research points out that there is a time discrepancy between the time point when an individual in the virtual setting performs a certain action and the time point when the virtual environment responds to the input, which disrupts the individual’s sense of reality during the experience (Morel et al., 2015). The study also identifies the “underestimation of perceived distance” (Morel et al., 2015, p. 324) in virtual environments as another factor that inhibits the full immersion of the individual. Solving such limitations of contemporary VR technology will prove to be useful not only for the enhancement of the quality of virtual tourism, but also for other sectors of society, including medical, science, entertainment, and education sectors that may utilize the technology for independent purposes. This paper speculates that in the process of joint research to improve VR technology, which entails the exchange of knowledge and talents, the ASEAN and ROK will be able to deepen their economic ties, as well as lay the foundations for deeper ASEAN-Korea relations.

This paper analyzes the cultural and economic benefits of virtual tourism for both parties and speculates that virtual travel will be the most suitable method of travel during a global pandemic situation like the present moment, when all modes of physical international travel have become difficult. During the COVID-19 era, virtual travel is expected to revive the devastated travel industry, as well as help ease social issues such as depression from isolation and confinement. Target users of virtual travel include quarantined individuals such as parents with children, the elderly population, and those suffering from psychological issues due to confinement. Virtual travel will continue to be utilized in the post-COVID-19 era, due to its relative affordability and accessibility compared to regular travel. The expected advantages of virtual travel beyond COVID-19 include economic benefits, decrease in tourism travel-related ecological footprint, and using VR as a marketing strategy to increase tourism and cultural exchange between ASEAN and the ROK.

 

Virtual Tourism in the COVID-19 Era

Economic Implications

Tourism is one of the most rapidly growing economic sectors in the world. In 2017, tourism represented 10.4% of the GDP and supported 313 million jobs globally (World Bank, 2018). Furthermore, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2020a), international tourist arrivals worldwide reached 1.5 billion in 2019, a 4% increase from the previous year, and the tourism sector has seen continuous growth for the past eight years.

In the COVID-19 era, this rapidly growing economic sector has been significantly damaged. The tourism industry greatly suffered as countries around the world closed their borders to foreigners and introduced travel restrictions, such as ROK’s special travel advisory imposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that discourages overseas travel. According to the UNWTO (2020b), from January to May 2020 there has been 56% less international travelers, resulting in a US $320 billion loss in exports from tourism in five months, which is three times the loss in exports revenues from international tourism during the 2009 global economic and financial crisis. More specifically, Asia and the Pacific, which were the first regions to feel the impact of COVID-19, displayed the largest wreckage of a 72% decrease in international tourist arrivals in the six-month period (World Tourism Organization, 2020, September). Due to the imposition of a two-week self-isolation period after overseas travel and the impact of COVID-19 on traveler confidence, it is difficult to determine when citizens will be able to confidently and freely travel overseas. When considering all such factors, ASEAN and the ROK’s cooperative development of virtual tourism can contribute to the long road of economic recovery for the tourism industry. Not only does it provide an opportunity to expand and technologically develop the tourism sector amidst the 4th industrial revolution, but it can also serve to diminish the significant negative impact on export revenues from the tourism industry.

 

Social Implications

Amidst the self-isolation and quarantine measures that governments have implemented globally, an alarmingly large number of individuals have become susceptible to “Coronavirus blues,” which is defined as depression caused by COVID-19. According to data from the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare published in September 2020, the number of counseling sessions for anxiety disorders at health welfare centers have increased 18,931 in the first half of the year, a 44.8% increase from the 13,067 cases total the previous year (Lee, 2020). In order to combat the increase in mental instability and anxiety, the development of virtual tourism will provide individuals with a recreational activity that can also contribute to cultural exchange between ASEAN member nations. Digital tourism can serve as a creative outlet that people in isolation can enjoy from the comfort and privacy of their separate homes, and be a distraction from their prolonged stress (mental, economic, physical) caused by COVID-19.

A study on the effects of virtual travel on palliative and end-of-life patients examined the effectiveness of “LIFEView,” a video-based virtual travel program with over 1600 videos of travel destinations worldwide, on the mental welfare of patients (Kabir et al., 2020). The study reported that the participants’ use of “LIFEView” program yielded meaningful improvements in the “spiritual well-being, physical and psychological symptoms and blood pressure measurements” (Kabir et al., 2020, p. 963). The results of the study indicate that virtual travel may ameliorate the stress, anxiety, and other symptoms of depression among quarantined individuals during the COVID-19 era.

Moreover, the development of virtual tourism technology may alleviate the negative social impact on gender equality as a result of reduced international travel. According to the UNWTO’s 2019 Global Report on Women in Tourism, women compose 54 % of the workforce in the tourism industry (UN Women, 2019), making them among the most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. As tourism provides more opportunities for women’s participation in the workforce, entrepreneurship, leadership, and empowerment, virtual tourism can play a part in the rapid recovery of the tourist industry to alleviate the negative economic impact on women, or even create new job opportunities to further promote female empowerment.

 

Virtual Tourism Beyond COVID-19

Marketing Strategy

In comparison to traditional marketing methods such as mass media in which tourists are merely observers or receivers of second-hand information, virtual tourism enables tourists to make more informed decisions by allowing them to act as participants in a first hand “experience” of their destination. Unlike e-Tourism and online platforms that provide one-dimensional information, virtual tourism allows individuals to immerse themself in a virtually created environment of a destination of their choice. In this sense, virtual tourism’s marketing potential, rooted in its ability to provide extensive sensory information, can be utilized as an innovative and revolutionary method of marketing. Rather than simply learning about the geographic location or physical characteristics of a destination, virtual tourism will allow tourists to preview an experience they could only previously acquire through physical travel. Not only can virtual tours be considered an actual tour experience, it can also allow tourists to make better informed decisions and create realistic expectations, which will in turn lead to higher satisfaction and enjoyment.

Many examples of VR technologies for marketing uses can be observed by virtual tours of hotels, destinations, and universities. Although many of these “virtual tours” are often simply panoramic photographs, which do not permit free navigation or auditory stimulation such as real virtual tours, it demonstrates the growing interest in such technologies for marketing strategies. In addition, the use of virtual tours as marketing strategies can be observed by All Nippon Airways (ANA)’s virtual reality tour of their new business class cabins to market “The Room” (mbryonic). During this experience, tourists can virtually enter one of the largest business class seating environments in the world, and experience unique features of the cabin; headset wearers can even open and close cabin doors, order food, change lighting conditions, and watch an inflight movie. In another instance, fashion retailer TopShop created a 360° panoramic video stream of a front-row view of their exclusive fashion show during London Fashion Week (mbryonic). This provides an exclusive experience most people will never be able to experience, while also successfully marketing TopShop’s clothing. The fact that such marketing techniques have accumulated people’s attention and risen in popularity indicates that there lies a definite marketing value in virtual tourism and that there is room for future development in this field.

 

Educational Benefits

The adoption of virtual tourism for educational purposes can facilitate the cultural exchange between the youths of ASEAN and the ROK, subsequently fulfilling the objectives of public diplomacy. The adoption of virtual travel in classrooms as an informative tool to teach students about the cultures of ASEAN and ROK will allow young minds of each country to enhance their understanding of different cultures and accumulate a positive impression of other countries. Jestice and Kahai’s empirical study (2010) on the effectiveness of virtual travel for education revealed that students who engaged in virtual travel to the Forbidden City of China reported higher satisfaction with their learning. The study concluded that the majority of student participants enjoyed the immersive nature of the virtual travel experience and perceived this educational method to be more effective than a traditional classroom setting. The results of the study indicate that the use of virtual travel for educational purposes can inspire youths to have greater interest in learning about and engaging with the cultures of ASEAN member nations and the ROK. Virtual tourism can thus serve as a channel through which the peoples of ASEAN and the ROK share their cultures and improve their perceptions of one another.

 

Ecological Benefits

Virtual tourism also provides a solution to the prolonged and unresolved issue of decreasing nations’ ecological footprint. It is noteworthy that the tourism industry and the climate are highly dependent on one another—the climate is negatively influenced by the CO2 emissions produced by the tourist sector as much as the tourism industry is vulnerable to climate change. As the threat of global climate change heightens, the tourism industry is subject to its adverse direct and indirect impacts, such as extreme weather events, natural disasters, safety concerns, biodiversity loss, and damage to assets and attractions (World Tourism Organization, 2019). The negative impact of climate change on the attractiveness and economic viability of tourist destinations can be clearly drawn as it damages the preservation of natural and cultural resources that serve as the foundation of a tourist sector’s competitiveness.

Meanwhile, according to research by the UNWTO Sustainable Development of Tourism Department in collaboration with the International Transport Forum (ITF) entitled the “Transport-related CO2 Emissions of the Tourism Sector” (2019), transport-related emissions from international tourism are expected to grow 45% from 2016 (485 million tonnes of CO2) to 2030 (665 million tonnes of CO2). The growth per region is expected to be as follows: Africa 62%, the Americas 42%, Asia and the Pacific 47%, Europe 46% and the Middle East 36%. These projections are based on the measurement of rapid growth of international tourism due to the increased affordability of air travel, technological advancement, increased connectivity, and expansion of the sharing economy. International tourist arrivals have increased from 770 million in 2005 to 1.2 billion arrivals in 2016 (65% increase), and is forecasted to reach 1.8 billion arrivals in 2030. According to the previous UNWTO and UN Environment study on climate change and tourism in 2005, the transport-related CO2 emissions from tourism (domestic and international) represented 18% of total transport emissions, and 3.7 percent of all man-made CO2 emissions (World Tourism Organization, 2019). However, the total transport-related tourism emissions of CO2 increased to 22% of total transport emissions and 5% of total man-made emissions in 2016 (World Tourism Organization, 2019).

Although the projections for the growth of the tourism sector and increase in correlated transport-related CO2 emissions may be skewed by the damage to the tourism industry from COVID-19, with the future recovery and growth of the tourism industry, it is necessary to address the inevitable issue of tourism’s carbon footprint and negative impact on climate change. Virtual tourism can serve as a method of sustainable tourism that not only contributes to the reduction of CO2 emissions, but also as a mechanism to preserve the natural resources and cultural heritage indispensable to the survival of tourist sites.

 

Expected Effects on ASEAN-Korea Relationship

New Southern Policy

Under the current Korean administration, President Moon Jae-in proposed the New Southern Policy during the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit as a part of his broader foreign policy of promoting a “Northeast Asia Plus Community for Responsibility-sharing” (NEAPC) (Lee, 2019). The NSP aims to strengthen Korea’s strategic ties with ASEAN member nations and India, and focuses on three pillars: people, prosperity, and peace. In order to achieve the NSP’s vision of a Korea-ASEAN “people-centered community of peace and prosperity,” the Presidential Committee on NSP was established by the Korean government in August 2018, under which a total of 57 projects have been implemented (Kwak, 2020). More specifically, the first goal of a “people community” was set to reach “15 million mutual visitors by 2020 annually” (Kwak, 2020) and increase mutual understanding with ASEAN nations through expansion of cultural exchanges. This includes policies such as increasing the number of mutual visitors, promoting the rights of Indian and ASEAN people staying in Korea, and expanding 2-way cultural exchanges (Presidential Committee on New Southern Policy).

In addition, unlike the traditional concept of “prosperity” in which countries seek economic gain, President Moon’s definition of a community of “prosperity” is “establishing a foundation of economic cooperation to support a mutually beneficial and future-oriented community” (Lee, 2019). The goal set for a prosperous community was to reach $200 billion in trade between Korea and ASEAN by 2020 (Kwak, 2020). In order to achieve this, policies such as actively participating in the development of infrastructure aimed at greater connectivity and improving innovative growth competencies through new industries and smart cooperation have been outlined (Presidential Committee on New Southern Policy). Moreover, the Presidential Committee on NSP announced that key areas for a prosperous community would be expanded from tourism and trade to artificial intelligence, digital commerce, and data economy.

Although the purpose of President Moon’s NSP was to strengthen the relationship with ASEAN nations by emphasizing welfare and prosperity of the people, similar to the ASEAN community’s slogan of a “caring society” or a “people-centered community” (Lee, 2019), the COVID-19 pandemic has largely influenced the priorities of governments worldwide. Currently, the primary focus of the NSP for its immediate future will consist of sharing technological equipment, medical know-how, and regulatory practices to control the spread of COVID-19. One method to continue developing the relationship between Korea and ASEAN is the adoption of a new virtual tourism program, which can provide an innovative solution to promoting the “people” pillar of the NSP when direct people-to-people exchanges are restricted amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, ASEAN-Korea knowledge sharing regarding the development of virtual tourism technology may contribute to the creation of a prosperous Southeast Asian community by contributing to the economic recovery of the tourism industry and smart expansion of a burgeoning industry.  Such cooperation in developing and implementing virtual tourism programs will solidify the relationship between ASEAN and the ROK to a partnership that can withstand potential changes induced by new administrations or policies. 

President Moon’s adoption of a foreign policy that seeks to strengthen ties with ASEAN is just one indicator to the immense economic and socio-cultural importance of the organization to Korea. ASEAN is ranked Korea’s second largest trading partner, accounting for 14% of Korea’s total trade in 2018, while Korea is ranked 6th for exports and 5th for imports from ASEAN countries. Moreover, ASEAN countries are the most popular destination for Korean tourists, as more than 7.9 million Koreans (29% of all Korean overseas tourists) visited Southeast Asia in 2018, displaying a substantial people-to-people exchange (Lee, 2019). President Moon’s recognition of the current and potential socioeconomic value of ASEAN-Korea relations is a reliable indicator of the future benefits that will accompany the collaborative pioneering of virtual tourism.

 

Strategic Advantage

As the strategic and economic rivalry between China and the U.S. intensifies, the Republic of Korea finds itself in a strategically difficult position. While South Korea relies heavily on the U.S. as its strongest ally for security to prevent military provocations from North Korea, China is South Korea’s largest economic partner. South Korea’s diplomatically fragile position can be observed by China’s economic retaliation in 2016-2017 after South Korea deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) as a security measure against North Korea and China viewed the deployment as a security threat. Moreover, the subsequent backlash from the U.S. regarding Korean Ambassador Lee Soo-hyuk’s remarks in October 2020 on the ROK-U.S. alliance that the ROK is not obliged to keep its alliance with the U.S. for another 70 years also highlights the external pressure from major powers.

Similar to the ROK, many ASEAN countries are placed in a strategically difficult position due to their economic reliance on China. The recent trade war between the U.S. and China, for instance, resulted in a decrease in exports of many ASEAN countries as China’s economy was damaged from the inability to export goods to the U.S. market. Furthermore, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) versus the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy increasingly placed pressure on ASEAN countries to choose one side between the U.S. and China (Lee, 2019). A survey published in January 2020 by the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, which reported that 60.4 % of nationals of ASEAN countries harbored distrust towards China and 49.7% towards the U.S., demonstrates that ASEAN, like South Korea, is under the constant pressure of both powers (ASEAN Studies Centre). Respondents who expressed distrust towards China identified the source of their concern as China’s growing political and economic influence, while those who replied negatively about the U.S. claimed Washington’s disregard for the Southeast Asian region was the cause of their distrust. By strengthening economic and socio-cultural ties between Korea and ASEAN countries, both parties will be able to create strategic leverage that will enable the expansion of autonomy and independence from major powers.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, this paper identified virtual travel as a potential field of digital cooperation between ASEAN and South Korea during the pandemic era and afterwards that would further strengthen ASEAN-Korea relations. The expected benefits of the ASEAN and Korea’s adoption of virtual tourism during the COVID-19 era includes the revival of the tourism industry that has been devastated due to the pandemic and the alleviation of stress and depression that have become the common symptoms of quarantine. Virtual travel is expected to be beneficial to both ASEAN and Korea even after COVID-19 has subsided, serving to function as a marketing device that encourages travel among the countries involved, an eco-friendly alternative to traditional modes of travel, and an educational device to inform younger generations of the cultures of ASEAN and Korea. This paper also notes that virtual travel, which promotes cultural exchange and tourism between ASEAN and Korea, fulfills the very objective of the ROK’s New Southern Policy. Through cooperative research and implementation of virtual tourism technology, ASEAN and Korea will be able to strengthen their cultural and economic ties, a significant strategic leverage in today’s international arena.

In this era of the fourth industrial revolution, rapid technological innovation will render virtual tourism inevitable in the future growth of the tourism industry. Through the adoption of a virtual tourism program, ASEAN and Korea will emerge as global leaders during the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The unexplored opportunities and potential application of virtual tourism in cultural, historical, and scientific studies are limitless.

 

 

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