At left, Hongying Tang of HQ Tourism Services points to the Saint Lawrence River during a virtual tour of Quebec City as part of the Amazon Explore beta. At right, Daniela Elias of Signature Tours shows the empanadas she made during a one-on-one virtual cooking class from Buenos Aires.

One morning last week, I went on a walking tour of Quebec City with an experienced local tour guide, from the majestic Parliament of Quebec to the picturesque Saint Lawrence River. I asked questions, took pictures, learned about the multinational history of the Canadian neighborhood, and even visited a local shop to pick out a maple leaf ornament as a souvenir.

Later that afternoon, I visited a kitchen in Buenos Aires for a one-on-one lesson in making traditional Argentinian empanadas from an expert tour guide and cook. I soaked up the culinary and cultural history of the country, quizzed my host about the recipe, and left confident in my ability to make the savory pastries on my own.

All of this happened without leaving my desk in blustery Seattle. No, the experience wasn’t the same as actually traveling to a faraway destination, but it was close, or as close as many of us can get right now.

This is the evolution of tourism, at least in Amazon’s world.

After months of secretive testing, the company is unveiling “Amazon Explore,” a new tech platform and marketplace that offers access to live virtual experiences with tour guides, store owners and other local experts in countries around the world.

A public beta of the service is launching Tuesday for Amazon’s US customers, who can request an invite for access to buy the virtual experiences.

While it might seem like the perfect tourism play for the pandemic, Amazon Explore has actually been in the works since long before global travel restrictions took effect. Of course, the big difference now is the increase in demand from would-be tourists, and the interest from tour guides and others who have seen their business plummet this year. A new report from Comscore says 2020 “will likely go down as the worst year in the history of online travel due to the pandemic.”

My tour guide in Quebec City, Hongying Tang, owner of HQ Tourism Services, said she was originally approached by Amazon in November of last year. She was intrigued, but didn’t see as much need for the service back then, with a busy schedule of in-person tours at the time.

But she got serious about participating in the Amazon Explore private beta earlier this year, when the impact of the pandemic on her business became clear.

“I’m like, OK, let’s get started, because this is the future,” she recalled. She has been able to keep her team working while other tour operators have gone dormant.

Purchasing a scarf, remotely, at a local shop via Amazon Explore. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon isn’t the first to try virtual experiences. Most notably, Amazon Explore pits the company against Airbnb, which launched its own marketplace for live virtual experiences in April as a distraction for quarantined would-be travelers and a lifeline for its business in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Airbnb Online Experiences are available to small groups of people from different locations, Amazon is following its own path by focusing on one-on-one experiences for purchase, primarily by individuals and families. Amazon’s platform also lets its customers visit shops and purchase items of local interest to be shipped to their homes.

Other key details of Amazon Explore:

  • Hosts set the price of the experiences, and current prices range from US$10 to US$200, although the price range could expand as more experiences are added. Sessions generally range from 35 minutes to an hour.
  • Most of the experiences are international, but some are in the US, such as shopping in a Mississippi boutique, and smartphone photo lessons from a photographer in New York.
  • Amazon uses its own tech platform, with features such as the ability for customers to click on the screen to show the host which building they want to see on a walking tour, or which item they want to purchase when visiting a shop. Customers can also click on a camera icon to snap a picture virtually, with images available for download afterward.
  • On their end, hosts can overlay images such as historic photographs of the street they’re walking down, or the ingredients for a recipe.
  • For cooking experiences, the recipe is also shared in advance so that customers can cook at the same time. My host in Argentina, Daniela Elias of Signature Tours, said about 80% of customers in the private beta have cooked along with her.
  • The video is two-dimensional, streamed through the host’s phone or other device, not available in virtual reality, although Amazon included VR among a long list of features that it asked participants in the private beta if they’d be interested in seeing added.
  • The video is one-way, and the audio is two-way. Customers and hosts can hear each other, but hosts can’t see customers. In both of my experiences, the connection was reliable and consistent, even during the walking tour.
  • Booking, payment and other logistics are handled directly through, showing up in a customer’s order history and launching from the interface just like any other product or service purchased through the e-commerce giant.
  • While payment processing for local goods is also handled through, purchased items are shipped directly to customers from the host or merchant, not through Amazon’s traditional third-party fulfillment system.
  • Amazon declined to say how much of each booking fee goes to tour guides and other hosts, and how much it keeps. There isn’t an option to tip, but that, too, was among the list of potential additions about which Amazon polled private beta participants. In general, hosts say individual bookings aren’t as lucrative as in-person tours would be, but they are able to operate at increased volume, due to the shorter time frame and efficiency of the online experiences.

Although the company isn’t talking about its long-term plans, it’s not hard to imagine where this could be headed. Through the Amazon Explore program, the company is establishing relationships with tour guides around the world, potentially positioning it to do the reverse of what Airbnb did, expanding into in-person tours and experiences when the global pandemic finally ends.

Amazon has long been seen as a potential competitive threat to online travel giants Expedia Group and Booking Holdings, but its forays into travel have brought mixed results. For example, the Amazon Destinations travel site, which focused largely on local getaways, was discontinued in 2015, six months after it launched.

In this meantime, these virtual tours might just have legs. Tang, my Quebec City guide, said she has been surprised by the strength of the personal connection that can be established virtually between host and customer, because it’s a one-on-one experience.

“Like right now, you and me, Todd. I’m just talking to you. I’m not talking to anyone else,” she said, flipping between the front-facing camera and selfie view on her phone before showing me the famous cannonball in a tree. “I’m talking about the things that you’re interested in, keeping you entertained. This is the connection.”