The sun is shining and the waves are lapping at the sand. Just beyond the lounge chairs and palm trees, a gaggle of beautiful people with perfect tans and lush hair gyrate to music wafting from a pair of seaside speakers. It is, in short, a dream holiday. What's more, it's free, 100 percent ecofriendly and available any time to anyone with a broadband connection.
Old-fashioned travelers might bristle at the fact that this is a cyberspace beach resort, and the beauties dancing on the sand are actually the animated avatars of people sitting behind computer screens (and probably wearing sweat pants). But to the more than 5 million players in the absorbing world of the online game Second Life (SL), where the shimmering oasis exists, this is nothing less than a real vacation. Cyber-resorts, they argue, come with all the escapist benefits of any real-world holiday: a new perspective, stunning scenery and plenty of ready romance. But these vacations also promise things that real travel can't: no jet lag, hassles or crowds, bikini-perfect legs and the chance to visit Hollywood, Cairo and Rome all in the same day.
Now a growing number of cutting-edge cyber-entrepreneurs are betting that virtual reality could soon be the hottest holiday destination of all. Last October, Italian travel journalist Mario Gerosa launched Synthravels (synthravels.com), the world's first virtual-reality travel agency, offering hip personalized guides for almost 30 online worlds, including World of Warcraft and Matrix Online. Since then, the phenomenon of online travel guides has generated buzz in cyberspace, with companies like SL Travel and Tours, SL Tourguides and Tour/Fun Guide—which, unlike Synthravels, each specialize in just one world—attracting all kinds of new business. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by because the industry is so new, the fact that some top guides are now charging as much as $50 an hour for their services shows that a serious market already exists. "I try to give my clients a feel for the culture of the world we're in," says Gerosa. "I consider Second Life a continent, not a game."
Virtual guides like Gerosa don't just teach newbies where to buy the coolest threads; they also offer specialized virtual tours of massively popular real-world destinations. Synthravels, which already boasts more than 5,000 members, offers an Art Lover's Tour, visiting places like SL's version of the Louvre; the VIP Catcher, which tracks down cyber-celebrities, and a strictly 18-and-over Red Light Tourist package (yes, there are virtual prostitutes). SL Tourguides (sltourguides.com) offers visitors a jaunt through the virtual headquarters of real-life businesses, from IBM to Guinness.
For those who prefer to travel without a tour guide, the online gurus at Wired magazine recently published their first-ever Travel Guide—for Second Life, of course (wired.com). It features everything virtual tourists need to teleport their avatars to places like the Wengen ski resort and Extasia, "the clothing-optional Club Med of cybersex." It may not be a traditional holiday, but the classic traveler's adage still applies: when in Rome ...