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Helsinki: opening new frontiers in digital tourism

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Author | Patricia Liceras

Helsinki is making the most of its title of European Capital of Smart Tourism, which it was awarded in 2019 together with Lyon for its innovative approach to tourism, among others. The Finish capital is now focusing all its attention on attracting one million new visitors -in 2017 it reached 4.5 million, a record figure. However, visitors will not have to defy the intense cold to enjoy the city’s tourist attractions. Helsinki wants these one million new tourists to visit the city without leaving home, that is, through virtual reality.

Virtual Helsinki is a digital experience that enables users to visit the city’s digital twin created in high quality 3D. They will be able to visit the famous Senate Square, explore inside the studio and home of architect Alvar Aalto, or wallow in nature on the small island of Lonna, very close to the capital and part of the archipelago of more than 40,000 islands of Helsinki. And all this can be done at any time of the year, simply by using virtual reality glasses and an app.

Virtual HelsinkiThe studio and home of architect Alvar Aalto in virtual reality.

This pioneering idea of tourism emerged long before the EU first launched the European smart tourism competition last year. Back in 2015, Miikka Rosendahl, founder and CEO of the ZOAN studio, started “dreaming of an entire virtual city”. Subsequently, he found a great ally in the municipal company Helsinki Marketing, which joined the studio to make this wish come true.

A virtual reality experience that goes one step further

An international team of more than 35 people worked over three years to create the most realistic, high-quality sound and visual landscape, which is essential in order to attract the public to these types of initiatives. Although many tourism destinations use virtual reality to attract visitors, Virtual Helsinki goes one step further.

The app allows tourists to move freely in the simulation, generating additional experiences. Therefore, “visitors can tour Helsinki as it was in the early 20th century or enter a virtual store and purchase Finish design products, which will be delivered to their homes by post”, explained the CEO of ZOAN. The possibilities also include other virtual experiences such as concerts and sporting events. The aim is to create a digital platform via which, various businesses and providers can offer their goods and services.

But this is not all. According to the system’s creators, virtual reality will soon become even more social and we will be able to see friends from different parts of the world plan a simulated trip to Helsinki and virtually get together in the destination.

Virtual HelsinkiThe creators of Virtual Helsinki have tried to provide the maximum reality possible for the simulated tour of the city.

Helsinki, epicentre of digital tourism

Apart from being an alternative to mass tourism and offering people that are unable to travel for economic or health reasons the opportunity to discover other places, Helsinki seeks to be “the city of the world that best capitalises on digitalisation” according to its mayor, Jan Vapaavuori. It aspires to reach a position of leadership in the new type of virtual reality tourism, and it seems to be on the right track.

For now, coach surfers can enjoy this innovative proposal, presented for the first time at the Slush tech event.

Virtual tourism in the age of COVID-19

Far from being a trivial if flashy taxpayer-funded curiosity, Virtual Helsinki is making a continued effort to put the Finish capital at the vanguard of the so-called metaverse, immersive and multisensory experiences that can involve large amounts of people in real-life locations and events.

As such, May Day festivities (Vappu) attracted 1.5 million people during lockdown, aiding the government to keep citizens at home and avoid unnecessary social contact. A significant part of this success had to do with the virtual concert offered by the Finish rap duo JVG at the Senate Square. Filmed on a green screen, the performance was superimposed over the virtual scenery, surrounded by a crowd of people with unique avatars.

And Virtual Helsinki keeps growing. The city has been recently updated with two new attractions, the majestic Finlandia Hall and the University of Helsinki Great Hall. Two important venues that are already being used to hold formal events such as the World Summit On Digital Built Environment 2020, a two-day congress which attracted around 500 virtual visitors.

Owing to the success of these initiatives, the city council and the management of Virtual Helsinki are already working on bringing new trade shows and events, something that could be helped by the current restrictions on international travel.

Images | ZOAN

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