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Academy Travel, Australia’s leading provider of small group cultural tours, launched Live on Site to make international travel possible by hosting virtual visits at popular tourist locations. With hundreds of people looking for a dose of vicarious travel, enrolments are booming. Cultural travellers who are home-bound during the COVID-19 pandemic are now visiting Florence, Rome, Venice, Tallinn and Santiago de Compostela from the comfort of their lounge room with more locations in the pipeline.

Live on Site virtual visits last 90 minutes and combine the talents of an expert lecturer and a top local guide. In each visit, the lecturer provides background historical context, route maps and in-depth information about specific aspects of the tour. Upcoming destinations include Herculaneum, the Egyptian temples of Luxor and Karnak and Dresden, plus return visits to ever-popular Italian destinations.

“We are uniquely placed among travel companies to offer these Live on Site visits, as well as short courses and one-off lectures,” says Academy Travel Director Robert Veel. “We are the only niche cultural tour operator that employs its academic talent on a permanent basis, and we’ve been able to quickly pivot to online learning and virtual travel experiences to keep our talented experts employed during the pandemic.”

Doing what they do best, local guides take their group of virtual travellers on a walking route that highlights the most significant cultural features of a city or site. The sessions, which take place on the Zoom platform, are moderated and participants can ask questions of either the lecturer or the local guide using the Zoom chat function.

The program has blossomed under the curatorship of Dr Kathleen Olive, who was already a popular tour leader and lecturer before COVID-19, and the virtual visits have continued to highlight her talents. “It’s no exaggeration to say they provide a unique experience,” says Dr Olive, “drawing on genuine academic expertise and utilizing the talents of some of the best local guides in the business, people we have been working with for more than a decade.”

The local guides have just as impressive of a background as the expert lecturers, providing virtual tourists with an academically enriching tourist experience. Amongst the team of guides is Florence guide Freya Middleton, who has a Masters in Renaissance Studies from prestigious Warwick University, while others have Master degrees from institutions like Stanford University.

In an era when companies like Academy seek to implement environmentally sustainable strategies, online visits and courses have delivered an unexpected bonus. “You get a lot of the value from one of our virtual tours – expert leadership, local flavour and fabulous vistas – without stepping out of your lounge room,” says Mr Veel. “There’s no need for carbon credits or to worry about questionable claims of ‘low impact’ tourism. Clearly your online carbon footprint is miniscule compared to hopping on a plane and flying halfway around the world.”

Global reach is another benefit. “We’ve got expert tour leaders stretching from Copenhagen to Florida and clients not just all over Australia, but in the US, South Africa and the UK,” says Veel. “As long as we schedule sessions at the right time, we’re uniting a community of experts and learners from across the globe. You wonder why we didn’t think of it sooner. Sometimes it takes a crisis.”

Virtual travellers are able to pre-book sessions from the Live on Site series and choose from a variety of real-time journeys to some of the world’s most beautiful and historic destinations. Academy Travel is excited to be providing those who are travel-deprived the opportunity to make the most of their time spent at home and leave them with unique memories to look back on fondly during such a difficult year.