May 16, 2022

Church Street Espresso

Experienced In Leisure

Locked down overseas, travel-hungry tourists pay for virtual tours to Australia

6 min read

When Australia’s borders were shut to all international visitors in March last year, the outlook was grim for the local tourism industry — and the view wasn’t that great either for the millions of people overseas facing months of lockdown inside their homes.

But with a bit of ingenuity, a dash of desperation and a video camera, a new virtual tourism industry has emerged, with local tour guides taking locked-down international guests on virtual trips to some of Australia’s most spectacular sites.  

These “virtual tourists” are willing to pay for the experience of having an interactive, personalised tour of Australia despite being thousands of kilometres away.

Most of the clients desperate for a glimpse of the land down under hail from the US, Britain and Europe — where millions are infected with COVID-19 and many are pining for freedom, travel and to see family and friends.

This new market has enabled a handful of operators, in one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic,  to stay afloat — but only just.

John O’Sullivan, founder and director of Melbourne’s largest walking-tour business, Depot Adventures, said that when Australia’s borders closed in March last year, his business shrunk from a thriving, multi-state operation that employed 13 staff, to a three-person team. 

John O’Sullivan takes overseas tourists stuck in COVID-19 lockdown on virtual tours in Australia.(

Supplied: John O’Sullivan


During Melbourne’s months-long pandemic lockdown, Mr O’Sullivan managed to keep his business afloat by delivering private online walking tours of Melbourne and Sydney.

“When COVID-19 first hit, I started off just live-streaming free tours of Melbourne and doing live quizzes,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

He then began offering online virtual tours to overseas customers.

The tours are conducted live, via one-way video streaming — the virtual tourist can see their guide and surrounds, and can ask them questions via audio.

“It’s completely interactive and personal,” he said.

“I had one man recently who wanted to show his girlfriend the hotel he’d stayed at on a previous holiday to Melbourne, so I took them past that building and swivelled the camera,” he said.

“I can even buy souvenirs for them that they see and like,” he said.

A man holding a camera in front of graffiti
Hugo Mylecharane takes a client on a virtual tour of Melbourne’s CBD. The tours are interactive and for just one virtual tourist at a time.(

Supplied: Depot Adventures


On the road again

Lizzie Fenwick is the founder-operator of Green Guide Explorer, a freelance tour-guide business that has been built up over a decade.

The huge number of international tourists flocking to regional Victoria’s most stunning sites meant she could pick and choose which tour operators to work for, and had no need for supplementary work.

Each week, Ms Fenwick would accompany overseas visitors on several day trips to the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians in south-west Victoria.

“They were 12-hour days, picking guests up from all the major hotels in Melbourne and commentating while I drove the bus,” Ms Fenwick said.

tourists gather along a clifftop looking at rock formations in the sea
This photo of tourists at Victoria’s 12 Apostles, along the Great Ocean Road, was taken prior to the pandemic.(

Supplied: Green Guide Explorer


But when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Ms Fenwick faced losing all of her regular clients, and had to rely on JobSeeker to survive.

“It was so quick, within about a week, we literally saw it stop. It stopped so fast for us because we were so reliant on international travelers,” she said.

“Australians don’t tend to go on bus tours, they prefer to drive themselves.

A woman takes a selfie along great ocean road with tourists in huddle behind her
Lizzie Fenwick has been a tour guide in three different countries.(

Supplied: Lizzie Fenwick


Ms Fenwick admits to having “a few low moments”  because she had spent so long developing her knowledge of the Victorian tourist hotspots.

“I had a point where I thought, we’ve got to adapt, we’ll be waiting a long time for international borders to re-open. So that’s when I started developing the online tours — the virtual experiences,” she said.

Now, Ms Fenwick delivers the Great Ocean Road tour from her lounge room, using a combination of pre-recorded media and her own live commentary.

In this virtual tour scenario, both guide and virtual tourist are in their homes, and can see each other and converse.

“I utilise time-lapse and things like that to get a feel for travelling and I’m using elements of my Ocean Road commentary from my real, physical tours.”

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Virtual tours in south-west Victoria(Supplied: Lizzie Fenwick)

Ms Fenwick said that the people who took part in her tours were motivated by a variety of things, but mostly it was their itchy feet and inability to travel.

“I get a lot of people from the US — I think it’s been quite scary over there,” she said.

“And a lot of people who have previously been to Australia, or they were meant to be coming here.

Some people go on Ms Fenwick’s tour as a way of connecting with dispersed family members who can’t see each other due to border closures and COVID-19 laws. 

“My extended family has not been together in a year, but last night we traveled to Australia together! ” reviewed Leslie, a New Yorker who has recently been on Ms Fenwick’s virtual tour.

A woman talks to a group of zoom tourists
Lizzie Fenwick uses pre-recorded videos and photos to guide her virtual tourists.(

Supplied: Lizzie Fenwick


Grim times ahead

Despite her creativity and hard work, including rising in the dark to accommodate international time differences, Ms Fenwick’s online tours haven’t been enough to cover basic living costs.

“So I have picked up a job in retail as well, to help pay the bills.” 

This new way of operating has also been a huge change for Mr O’Sullivan, who has responded to mammoth challenges faced by his industry with creative ingenuity and agility.

But with JobKeeper now ended, he is worried about what is to come for him, his employees, and the entire adventure tourism industry.

“Pre-COVID, at our busiest we’d have about 100-150 people on tour, twice a day, seven days a week and five paid staff”, Mr O’Sullivan said.

“That was in Melbourne alone. These days, having 30 customers for the entire week is a good week.”

Mr O’Sullivan — who is secretary of support and lobby group Adventure Tourism Victoria — managed to retain just three of his employees during COVID-19 via JobKeeper, but is now deeply concerned about what is coming.

“At the end of JobKeeper, now it is just me,” he said.

“I had to stand down my remaining staff after the recent JobKeeper announcement.

“They’ll have to end their part-time and full-time arrangements and move to a more casual basis unfortunately.

People gathered in a Melbourne CBD park with a tour guide
Before COVID-19, John O’Sullivan would often have 100 people on tour.(

Supplied: John O’Sullivan


Adventure Tourism Victoria has been pushing to reinstate a wage subsidy until international tourists are allowed back into Australia.

A recent nation-wide survey of more than 200 youth tourism operators was conducted by BYTAP, Australia’s peak body representing the inbound youth tourism industry.

The survey showed that only 51 per cent of operators had been able to shift to domestic markets while 89 per cent had relied on JobKeeper.

Without further financial assistance from the government, Mr O’Sullivan predicts a grim future for Australian tour operators.

“We’re all hoping to get a little bit more clarity about what it might look like when international tourism resumes — until we get that, it would just be downright irresponsible to take a business loan out without knowing when we might see a return.”

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