One Tour Guide's Journey to Virtual Tours

- by Yahav Zohar - June 2020
Just as my youth was spent avoiding classrooms and blackboards, so for most of my adult life I have worked deliberately to avoid offices and computer screens, to be out in the air of the world, moving and meeting people. To some, tour guide seemed like a step down from editor and translator. Not to me. I love the movement, the smell and sound of city streets, the unexpected encounters. It took some years to find the clients for the kind of work I wanted to do, small groups, in depth conversation, off the tourist route places, alternative perspectives. I couldn’t have guessed that this too would become a job behind a screen.

Building up Green Olive Tours, we all knew our work hung by a wire, that the entire tourism industry in Israel-Palestine could disappear at any time with the outbreak of another war, another intifada. We never expected a plague, but like everybody in the business we each had backup jobs, what we would do when the crisis hit. In March, as tourism shut down indefinitely, I was not enthusiastic about contacting publishing houses I had worked with for translation work, but there seemed little else to do. Rent and bills could no longer be paid by just walking and talking. When the idea of virtual tours came up, I had no idea what it would entail. Walking through the empty streets of Jerusalem with a phone as a camera, showing people around? Or would one need a camera person along with the guide?

But virtual tours, it turned out, take place with all parties seated at their computer, sharing screens. Could that work? Would it? Delving in, it soon turned out the information gluttons at Google had created quite a collection; satellite photos, street view, immersive technology and through Youtube and others, a huge collection of film. Jerusalem, it turned out, could be pieced together almost in its entirety on the web, one just had to collect the pieces, put them in order, put them in context. Information could certainly be delivered but was this a tour- no smells, no tastes, little in the way of street sound and again, man, screen, keyboard, alone in a room, not what I had bargained for.

A virtual tour will never be a physical tour, but it can become something different, with quite a few advantages of its own. Instead of driving along the separation wall and talking about what was on the other side, a virtual tour can bounce from one side of the wall to another, moving through concrete and barbed wire unimpeded. Places that for years had not allowed tourist could be entered instantly- the Dome of the Rock and the cave below it, the underground Marwani mosques, the tunnels that settler organizations had excavated below the Muslim quarter and locked behind steel doors and armed guards as easily accessible as the streets above.

With a virtual tour even time was not a barrier, we could go to the Western Wall plaza of today and to the Moroccan neighborhood that was bulldozed away to create it, to the year 2000 and to 1929. Zoom up to space to see things from above and bounce from the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem to similar streets in Cairo and Damascus, beyond borders and walls that in many cases just cannot be physically crossed.

Still, some things were missing. Much more media was available of Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem than of the poorer Palestinian neighborhoods. (Not that Palestinian streets are less well documented, Just that the Israeli secret police which controls those cameras and microphones does not post the footage online). This turned out to be a reason to get on the streets again. With a car, some friends, and a new 360 degree camera donated by a generous supporter, we set out to fill in the blanks, to put East Jerusalem on the virtual map.

It’s just started, and it’s already been an interesting ride. Creating virtual tours has taught me new things about Jerusalem (there’s always more to discover) about the internet and about myself. Speaking with diverse groups around the world has shown me that significant encounters do not require a shared physical space. In fact, this way I can invite entire groups into my home, to meet my family and share more than physical tours would allow. The more tours given, the better they become, as we learn the possibilities technology offers.

To be honest, we still don’t know if this will turn out to be a robust business model, that is, if we can keep the company running and salaries paid. It may turn out that I’m a translator again, perhaps a journalist. And though some people are already inquiring about physical tours in a few months time, we have no idea what will and won’t be possible. The world is taking more and more unexpected turns, at once locking us into our homes and connecting us in new ways. Virtual tours may be a soon forgotten fad, or they may be the future of travel in the age of climate change and pandemics. Either way, they are a fascinating medium with much untapped possibility. I hope you’ll join us for one almost as much as I hope to soon be out on the streets again, chatting with you over freshly brewed coffee or a plate of Hummus.
_______________________ Both scheduled and private Virtual tours can be booked here at Green Olive Tours. - Yahav Zohar is based in Jerusalem, is a Partner of the Green Olive Collective, and Senior Tour Guide at Green Olive Tours. Read his profile here > >

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